Bruce Courtade eager to direct state bar association

March 6, 2012
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After an 18-year journey, local attorney Bruce Courtade will reach his destination in September.

The professional trek that began in 1994 when he was elected to a seat on the State Bar of Michigan’s Representative Assembly — sort of the organization’s House of Representatives — will culminate in five months when Courtade is sworn in as president of the 41,000-member association.

“The more and more I got involved with the local, and especially the state, bars, the more I was fascinated by the work that was being done, and I felt like I had an opportunity to give back. This allows me that opportunity that I otherwise would not have,” said Courtade, a shareholder at Rhoades McKee PC.

Courtade ended up chairing the assembly in 2001, seven years after he was elected to it. He then took a few years off from serving with the organization until he was elected to the State Bar Board of Commissioners in 2004. After that, he served as the bar’s treasurer, secretary and vice president, and is the current president-elect. He took that timeout from bar activities just after he moved his litigation work and construction and business law practice to Rhoades McKee in 2001 in an effort to devote all of his attention to his new partners. But when the terrorist attacks came a few months later, he knew he would be getting reacquainted with the bar in the near future.

“Once 9/11 happened, that made it absolutely certain in my mind that I was going to become involved because I believe the bar plays such a vital role in protecting the justice system. In my mind, the justice system is one of the things that sets us apart from those who planned the 9/11 attack,” he said.

The state bar became familiar with Courtade soon after he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1988. It was only three years later when the association honored him with the coveted John W. Cummiskey Award, which recognized his effort for creating a program that had more than 300 attorneys provide pro bono legal work to families of military reservists called into active duty to fight in Operation Desert Storm.

And that award was just the beginning: The U-M gave Courtade its distinguished alumni service award. The Litigation Counsel of America named him a Fellow. He received the Martindale Hubbell Highest AV Preeminent Rating and has been consistently ranked as a Super Lawyer by Michigan’s Law and Politics since 2006. And the Grand Rapids Business Journal named him one of the area’s most promising persons under the age of 40 twice — in 1998 and again in 2002.

Being president means Courtade will be the face of the association and will meet with and speak to various local bars, affinity groups and other organizations in Michigan and across the country. He will testify on behalf of the profession at state legislative hearings, and will get together with state lawmakers and the governor’s office on issues important to lawyers and the justice system.

But Courtade said much of his time as president will be spent pursuing resolutions to issues that are not only important to the bar but also to the future of the state’s entire legal system. Just one issue is state funding of the courts. Courtade said court funding in Michigan historically has lagged behind other states, but in recent years, funding has been cut so much that the courts are struggling to meet their burdens and in some cases aren’t able to, which negatively affects the state’s quality of life.

“Taking a 10,000-foot view, courts are important to families because you have issues that come before the courts that deal with custody, who gets what in a divorce, and matters of domestic abuse and assault. But beyond that, when you’re talking about the economy in Michigan, courts play an absolutely crucial role because having efficient courts that can dispose of legitimate business disputes in an efficient manner keeps, if you will, the engine of commerce from getting bogged down,” he said.

“And when you have courts that are underfunded, that have furlough days, that have the clerk’s office being closed one day a week so that lawsuits can’t be filed, let alone disposed of, things bog down very quickly, and it gets to the point where justice is in jeopardy.”

Courtade pointed out that a bar association committee took the lead on the latter issue a few years ago and created a pilot program to resolve business disputes. Kent County Circuit Court is participating in that program with two other county circuit courts. “We’re very excited about that and personally very thrilled that Kent County was chosen as part of the pilot project. And I know that Judge (Christopher) Yates is going to do a great job on it,” he said.

The same bar committee, the Judicial Crossroads Task Force, has suggested consolidating the court system statewide and even eliminating some judicial positions. “The state bar supports cuts, in principle, but stays out of the specifics. We don’t want to get into who loses what judgeships or have a statistical analysis that goes into all of that,” he said.

Another issue Courtade cited as important to the bar involves a lack of funding for the legal aid offices across the state. Federal funding for legal aid from the Legal Services Corp. was reduced from $420 million in 2010 to $348 million last year, which means that low-income and poor residents, some of whom have less than $10,000 in annual income, have a greater difficulty in getting access to justice on civil matters.

The West Michigan legal aid office had to close its doors in Big Rapids, lay off two attorneys and let a staff person go recently due to the funding reduction. Thirty-four attorneys, three paralegals and 19 staff members lost their jobs at legal aid offices statewide in 2011 for the same reason. Not having legal representation for those in need of help gets them lost in the complex system, and the system, in turn, slows down and makes dockets and courtroom conditions worse for everyone.

“Now we’re getting to the point where we’re reaching crisis stage. We used to talk about the road to poverty; now we’ve got the super highway to poverty and it’s at the same time when you’re closing most of the off ramps,” said Courtade of simultaneous funding problems for the courts and for legal aid.

Michigan lawyers created the Access to Justice program years ago, and since then, Courtade said attorneys have donated more than $10 million to help support legal-aid efforts. But he also noted that the real problem is that the pro bono work that lawyers have done, and still do, can’t meet the needs of those who look to legal aid for assistance.

“The state bar is working on that. We’ve got a self-help task force that was appointed by a former chief justice and we have some recommendations coming from them, which should be very soon and should call for massive overhauls to the way that we make forms available,” he said. “And the legal assistance center here in Grand Rapids is being held up as sort of a role model as to how things ought to be done on a statewide basis.”

Courtade will be sworn in as president of the state bar Thursday, Sept. 20, the second day of the bar’s annual meeting held at DeVos Place. Having the home court advantage for the once-in-a-lifetime event makes it even more special for Courtade.

“The timing couldn’t be better. Sept. 19, when the annual meeting starts, is the first day of ArtPrize. So it’s a great time to show off the city and, personally, it’s a great time for me to celebrate with a lot of my friends, colleagues and people I’ve worked with,” he said. “So it’s great to have the opportunity to be sworn in at home. So, yeah, I’m really excited about that.”

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