Jim Brady continues a legacy of law in Grand Rapids
“I try to be as sensitive as I can, but as brutally honest as I can be,” said James S. Brady, member attorney at Miller Johnson. “People come in to me — they’re very vulnerable, usually. Sometimes they’ve done something stupid. They’re not an evil person. They’ve made a mistake. I hate the act, not the person.
“My job is to do the best I can for that person as God gives me the ability to help them. They’re somebody’s son or daughter. It doesn’t excuse anything, but we make sure society and the prosecutors do their job.”
Early on in his practice, Brady faced a case that would shape him for the rest of his career. He was appointed with the task of representing one of two defendants who had sexually assaulted three women, killing two of the three.
“(The defendant) was a classic victim of abusive child syndrome. A psychiatrist could go back and show what causes this person to do these horrible things. We used the defense not guilty by reason of insanity,” said Brady, who lost the case.
“That was a major case. I tried it hard but fair. I think I gained a lot of respect. One of the victims’ mothers — just horrible to have to listen through some of that stuff — her son was a police officer and they were so kind to me. They showed me so much dignity. They were wonderful people. That always sat really well with me and had a lasting impression.”
His next monumental case came when he was appointed to represent a 17-year-old man accused of robbing and murdering a pharmacy owner.
“He was just a young punk who got caught up, who was not the trigger person but involved with the robbery. The facts indicated that it should have been a second-degree murder, but I couldn’t convince the judge, and the judge tried him with first-degree murder. He was convicted,” said Brady, however, the ruling was reversed and the defendant was dropped down to second-degree murder.
Brady, a Grand Rapids native, graduated from law school at Notre Dame in 1969. Directly following his graduation, he took a job with local firm Roach, Smolinski, Twohey and Benson — barely missing the draft for the Vietnam War.
Brady received a commission to join the U.S. Army JAG Core, but was also entered into the draft, which was new. The war, however, ended before his number was called.
“President Nixon initiated the voluntary lottery, so the Department of Defense allowed me to do that,” he said. “I got a number that enabled me to stay out of the service.”
Brady focused on building up his practice under the mentorship of Ed Twohey and Bob Benson.
“Bob Smolinski had just gone to the bench. Tom Roach had some serious illnesses and so Ed Twohey and Bob Benson mentored me. I couldn’t have been mentored by two better lawyers,” he said. “Bob has gone on over the years, was known then and has become known as one of the best and brightest judges we’ve ever had. Ed Twohey, who practiced in a completely different area, was almost like a father to me. He really guided me.”
During his time with the firm, Brady took on a large number of cases. Many more challenging cases came along that proved Brady’s resolve and helped establish him as one of the premier attorneys in the state.
“I did a lot of court appointments. They had a little different system than they do now, and, I think, in terms of quantity, I had more criminal appointments at the time I left than anybody,” he said. “I had developed a great litigation practice, personal injury and criminal primarily and domestic.”
His growing reputation and résumé eventually led to his position as U.S. Attorney in 1977, under the Carter administration.
“Four great years of my life as U.S. Attorney and we did some good things and worked with some good people. I look at that time in my life as very formative,” said Brady, pointing to some of the people he worked with while in Washington. “That was a great experience of my life.”
Brady was sworn in at the age of 33 — considered very young for the position. His role as U.S. Attorney extended into the Reagan years just long enough for him to still be around when John Hinkley Jr. shot President Reagan and also Press Secretary Jim Brady.
“My dad heard that on the news and pulled over to the side of the road in a panic because he thought that was me,” he said.
Brady found himself at a crossroads when the 1980 election was about to take place.
“If you could read the tea leaves, Reagan was probably going to win. The election was 1980, and it was 1981 when he was sworn in. Now I’m approaching 40 and I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. So before the election, I thought I was marketable, thought I could get a job — or worse, hang out my own shingle. A couple firms were gracious enough to talk to me, one being (Miller Johnson),” said Brady.
“I looked around and there wasn’t a firm that had better lawyers and good men and women. I pretty much decided that if they would extend me an offer, I would take it, and they did.”
It was the spring of 1981 when Brady joined the firm, and he immediately started diversifying the firm’s litigation practices, which were mainly in commercial, labor and employment.
“Since that time we’ve branched out in other areas and we’ve been successful,” he said.
“I was able to bring people on like Matt Vicari, who is my partner now and the current president of the bar … young lawyers that I’ve seen have potential and work with them. We have good men and women — just a whole coterie of young lawyers behind me.
“We have not sat still. We’ve grown. Some of the people I’ve mentioned are my partners, but they’re even closer to me than that.”