Resourceful: Executive Director of State Bar aims to improve 'legal access'

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Before she was the general counsel, and later, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, Janet Welch worked as a non-attorney in the Michigan House of Representatives and the State Senate. In the Senate, she created, and was director of, a nonpartisan legislative analysis office. That job motivated her to pursue a legal career of her own.

“When I was working in the House, I was randomly assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which I really loved. We were all just a bunch of young folks who could write. None of us were attorneys,” Welch recalled. “One of my jobs was to call all of the interested parties, so I talked to the SBM sections and judges a lot. They would always assume that I was a lawyer and when they discovered that I wasn’t, I would be treated differently. That really annoyed me, so I thought, ‘I could do this.’”

Welch, the first woman to serve as the State Bar of Michigan’s executive director, credits her mother for inspiring her to believe she could tackle whatever she chose to do.

“My mother was widowed when I was two years old and my sister just a few weeks old and she never remarried. As a result, I had the example of a strong woman in charge almost from the very beginning of my life,” said Welch, who has been the SBM’s executive director since 2007.

“It was just something I took for granted, that women can do anything. At some level I find it more surprising to be leading the bar as the first person in my family to go to college than I do as a woman. But I am conscious always of wanting to be a good role model for women leaders.”

In the nearly two decades that Welch has been at the SBM, she has watched a number of her peers become role models for women who aspire to leadership positions.

“Fortunately, I have plenty of company. The SBM has had a succession of extraordinary women presidents. And we now have a strong history in Michigan of pretty amazing women lawyers leading the Supreme Court and in the Governor's office,” Welch said.

More opportunities for women with young families to reach the top positions in their law practices depends, in part, on workplace strategies that are family friendly, Welch said.

“There is a lot of interesting research being done right now on the state of women in the profession by the ABA. Finally, we’re getting good data on that,” Welch said. “My personal take on it is that the problem will not be solved about how to integrate family and a legal career as long as it’s seen only as a woman’s problem.”

Welch’s son, who is also an attorney, adopted his mother’s way of thinking in his own law practice.

“My son is married to a lawyer who he met in the big law world. He went from being a partner in a law firm to in-house counsel in part to accommodate the demands of being a good parent,” Welch said. “What I hope will happen is for the generation he and his wife belongs to and for future generations is to demand changes in the legal profession that are family friendly.”

Future generations of Michigan lawyers could also be affected by an upcoming decision in a case challenging mandatory fees attorneys pay to the State Bar Association of North Dakota. The case, Fleck v. Wetch, recently was remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

“Each mandatory bar state has evolved in a way that it is part of that state’s regulatory structure. So if the court concludes that the mandatory bar model itself is unconstitutional, it would create a different cascade of solutions and responses in every state,” Welch said. “Even without a constitutional challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court, all mandatory bars need to be rethinking how they conduct business, in part because the world of lawyering is changing so dramatically.”

The impact of technology, and by association, social media, are additional factors affecting how the profession delivers legal services to consumers, Welch said.

“I think that the bar needs to be deeply involved in helping lawyers maintain professional standards and how those standards should be constantly modernized to take into account what’s happening in the real world,” Welch said. “The SBM really tries to be a resource for our members in letting them know what the dangers are and ways in which they can protect themselves and their client’s confidentiality in a changing environment.”

A partnership between the SBM and technology company CloudLaw Public Benefit Corporation, to develop online legal directories, will provide easier consumer access to legal services, Welch said.

“We are in the process of growing what was a cutting edge enhanced directory with CloudLaw into a platform for the public to find legal help that I think will set the industry standard,” she added.

Collaboration between the SBM and other legal and administrative groups also has grown on Welch’s watch.

“We have built excellent collaborations with the State Court Administrative Office, Michigan Legal Help, and the Michigan State Bar Foundation,” Welch said. “Innovation and collaboration are not words commonly associated with the bar world. Helping to build both into the mentality and operations of the bar has been not only gratifying, but fun as well.”


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