Changing of the guard at GR Bar Association is a smooth process


 By Cynthia Price

Legal News
There are a number of reasons that  changes in leadership at the Grand Rapids Bar Association go smoothly: there is an excellent staff, including Executive Director Kim Coleman, to assure continuity; and there is a strategic plan to offer guidance across the years.

But perhaps the most telling factor is that the officers have worked together for years and know each other well, instilling confidence and facilitating a high level of communication.

People in GRBA leadership roles also seem to like each other.

Says incoming president Tom Behm, an attorney at Gruel, Mills, Nims and Pylman, “I view this as a great opportunity to continue the long legacy of leadership within our bar association. I stand on the shoulders of many wonderful lawyers who’ve come before me, Kris among them. I can’t believe how much energy she has, it’s amazing.”

And Kris Vanden Berg, who will now fill the role of Immediate Past President, returns the compliment. “I’m extremely proud of the leaders of this bar generally. I feel so good turning it over to Tom and to Pat Geary,” she says, referring to the President-Elect, “both of whom I’ve just really enjoyed working with and getting to know. Maybe that’s the best thing about leadership, you get to watch so many terrific, dedicated people. I love knowing I’ll have good folks following me, and Tom has already done so much for the bar.”

Indeed, Behm’s leadership career with the Bar and organizations associated with the Bar has been impressive. He is on the board of the Legal Assistance Center and is on both the GRBA Pro Bono Committee and the  Kent County ADR Plan Oversight Committee. He has served as host of the Bar program Ask the Lawyer, which takes place at he Grand Rapids Kent District Library and offers legal information to the general public. But perhaps most worthy of remark, Behm has chaired the Justice Foundation of West Michigan, the charitable arm of the Bar, for many years, and acts as the voice of the foundation at fund-raising events such as Just Lips and the dinner-with-entertainment event that takes place every other year.

He comments, “The Grand Rapids Bar Association is blessed to have a wonderful group of lawyers that support all of our philanthropic activities, and who make Grand Rapids a wonderful place to practice law and to call home. When you compare our bar association and our legal community to others in the state, I think it’s easy to see why Grand Rapids is such a sought-after area and why we continue to grow. More and more lawyers are attracted to West Michigan; our bench and bar get along extremely well, and that makes it a wonderful place to be a lawyer.”

Behm himself practices in personal injury and wrongful death, complex commercial litigation, and medical malpractice. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a BBA and received his J.D. from the Michigan State University College of Law.

He is also a member of the Federal Bar Association, the Negligence Section of the State Bar, the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association, and the board of the Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ). He contributes to the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, and the Hillman Advocacy Program. In addition, he acts as a mediator.

Behm says he comes from a family of lawyers: his father was a lawyer, his brother is a lawyer, and his sister-in-law is a judge. In fact, Behm’s brother Mike is a former MAJ president and has just received the MAJ endorsement in his run for University of Michigan regent.

Behm says that the main plan of the GRBA for this coming year is more of the same as in the past. The one exception is a brand new event: The Bar’s Got Talent, an American-Idol-type competition, will take place Oct. 23 at Muskegon Civic Theater. “We’re excited to introduce this,” he says. “It will be for fun and entertainment; bar members seem to enjoy socializing and getting together. It will also raise money for the Bar Association.”

Work will continue on increasing the GRBA membership, to offer its benefits to all local lawyers. “There are 2500 attorneys in Kent County, and I believe we have just under 1500 members. We think it’s an excellent value,” Behm says. “Members can improve on their practice and also take advantage of a number of programs and committees and sections that are more specific. New lawyers, and we know there are many, can meet and network with people, and we also encourage law students and paralegals to join.”

A continuing legal education series started in 2013-2014 will expand, and  there will be increased chances for less experienced lawyers to interact with seasoned attorneys. (The program formerly called “Meet the Titans” and now called “Sidebar” will bring in a few judges or highly successful attorneys for a social event after hours.)

But perhaps most critical is continuing the 3Rs civic education program begun last fall. “That is a very meaningful program,” says Behm, who was one of 30 volunteers who gave of their time at Ottawa Hills High School. “We hope eventually to be able to expand that to other high schools. It dovetails with the Managing Partners Collaborative Plan in providing exposure to the legal field for students who might not have gotten that another way, and the Bar has really embraced it.”

Expanding and enhancing that program is one of the many things that Kris Vanden Berg will work on now that she has the time with the expiration of her presidency. “We learned so much the first year, and it’s going to be my priority to work on the revisions. I also will be able to take the time to volunteer in the schools, which was limited by my schedule as the president.”

That should not be construed as any indication she did not enjoy her time in the top leadership position. “It’s just wonderful to be part of an organization where so many people are putting in so much time and energy,” Vanden Berg says. “The board was great and Kim’s a great executive director. Really it’s been a pleasure.” She notes that her position doing legal research for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan has limited opportunities for contact with people, so as a “very social” person, Vanden Berg appreciates the opportunities GRBA offers her. 

As she discusses her tenure, she uses the word “proud” a lot, but perhaps the single action that affords her the most pride was the GRBA’s taking a “strong stance” that State Bar membership should be mandatory when the question arose earlier this year.

“I was so pleased — we did this with input from members, we did it quickly, and we did it efficiently,” Vanden Berg says. “Even aside from the specific issue, it showed that this bar association has a structure in place to act quickly and reach a broadly-supported position.”
 The remaining officers and trustees are: President-Elect, as already mentioned, Patrick F. Geary of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge; Vice-President, Hon. Christopher P. Yates of the 17th Circuit Court; Secretary Randall L. Velzen, Velzen, Johnsen and Wikander, P.C.; Treasurer: Elizabeth K. Bransdorfer, Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones.