Grand Haven attorney Bregman wins Legal Aid Barnes Award for pro bono

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Group Photo: Former (and 2019) Michael S. Barnes Pro Bono Award winners gathered at the celebration at City Flats Hotel on Oct. 24. At far left is Scott Stuart, who was then part of Jensen & Stuart, the law firm that was the only non-individual to receive the award along with Paul Jensen (far left, back row), who acts as master of ceremonies for the awards each year. Others include, back row: Tom Clifford, Judge Dan Zemaitis, Martin Rogalski; front row: Stan Stek, Steve Williams, Elizabeth Bransdorfer, Judy Bregman (the 2019 winner), Mary Benedict, Dale Ann Iverson, and Larry Mulligan.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Organizers of the reception honoring Judy Bregman as the winner of Legal Aid of West Michigan’s 2019 Michael S. Barnes Award for pro bono work had a surprise in store for Bregman.

“When I walked in, I noticed that [former Barnes award winner] Tom Clinton was passing something back and forth with T.J. Hartman [formerly assistant director at Legal Aid of Western Michigan].
Tom and I go back a long way; we both clerked at the federal court – so did T.J. ­ – and then Tom and I went to Varnum together. So that was around the time that Legal Aid was starting to campaign to get the big law firms to participate in pro bono cases. It turns out that what they had was the card that Tom had given me back in 1983 to sign me up. So I’ve been signed up for 37 continuous years,” Bregman said.

 Since 1990, Bregman has practiced out of Grand Haven, and she was joined in 1992 by her husband, Mark Welch, to form Bregman & Welch, Attorneys and Counselors at Law. The bulk of the firm’s practice is in family law,  primarily in Kent, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties, but they also concentrate on civil rights and employment law.

They have never added any other attorneys to the firm, and it has worked out beautifully for them. “People ask how we do it, but it’s really easy. It was great for our kids. We work together well,” she says.

The flexibility inherent in that arrangement has allowed her not only to agree to take pro bono cases from Legal Aid of Western Michigan, but also to play it by ear occasionally with what she charges her paid clients.

“I’m such a soft heart. I don’t come across that way, so people are often surprised at how milquetoast-y I can be,” she says with an ironic smile.

Originally from Long Island, Bregman moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University for a degree in psychology. She stayed in Pittsburgh and worked for seven years, and also returned briefly to work in the legal field after attending the  Paralegal Institute in New York. She then moved to East Lansing because her first husband was a graduate student at Michigan State.

“It was 1974, and they had no idea what a legal assistant was. I remember my new boss told me that Michigan had recently enacted the first complete set of court rules, and he needed an assistant because he couldn’t keep track of all the details anymore,” she says.

Not too long after that, still working “kind of flex hours” at the same firm all three years, Bregman received her J.D. from Thomas M. Cooley Law School (now Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School). While there, she took several classes from Benjamin Gibson, and upon his appointment to the federal bench as the Western District U.S. Court expanded, clerked for him.

While at Varnum in the 1980s, she practiced appellate and other law but did no divorce or custody cases. The case load of Bregman Welch, however, is about 80 to 85% family law.

Virtually all of the pro bono work Bregman has done for Legal Aid of Western Michigan is in that arena. She says her most memorable case involved representing a woman who had never been allowed to shop for herself, even grocery-shopping, or function as an adult during her marriage. An alimony-rich grandmother was encouraging her son to ask for full custody during their divorce, but Bregman was successful in preventing that. She says, “It turns out the son has had almost nothing to do with the kid post-judgement.” But the truly gratifying part of the process was that the woman gained confidence and grew up.

“She spoke on my behalf in the video Legal Aid prepared. She literally said on that video, ‘Judy Bregman saved my life.’ I don’t know, there was an affinity there,” Bregman explains.

Sometimes unpaid cases do not go as well, she notes, talking about  a situation unrelated to Legal Aid where she told the client she would work on a Personal Protection Order (PPO) for free if the woman would allow her to try and collect fees from the “mentally ill” person the PPO was against. Bregman won that judgement, but has been trying to collect ever since. “Now he’s threatening me with everything you can think of, for a year or so,” she says.

And even on the day that Bregman found out she was receiving the Michael S. Barnes Award – which is named after a deceased Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge attorney who gave his all for pro bono clients – she was involved in a prisoner rights case involving travel to the Upper Peninsula. The jury found for the prisoner but then awarded him, as Bregman says, “the princely sum of $650,” reasoning that as a prisoner he had no need of money. This greatly limits the amount of fees she can recover, especially since her co-counsel had high expenses, but she shrugs it off.

Bregman credits her family with her willingness to give of her time. “My parents taught me how to give back,” she says. “They were both very involved; my mom was very involved in the community and my dad with our temple – always giving their time, giving their money.”

In her off hours, Bregman is an accomplished potter. There are many examples of her beautiful work at Bregman Welch’s office near the courthouse in Grand Haven. She is a member of the West Michigan Potter’s Guild, and sales/exhibition of her pottery are mostly limited to that guild’s shows (with the next being April 25, 2020).

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