On the bench: Mission-driven leadership by Detroit Mercy Law alums

For more than a century, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law has educated lawyers who lead with a commitment to the pursuit of justice, service to others, and the highest standards of the legal profession. Detroit Mercy Law is the only law school with multiple alumni serving on the bench of the state’s highest court. The seven alumni judges serving on the Michigan Court of Appeals account for a quarter of the state’s appellate bench – currently more than any other law school. Here are a few of their stories, reprinted with permission from the Docket, the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Magazine.

Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Kyra Harris Bolden ’14 made history when she was sworn in as a Michigan Supreme Court Justice on January 1, 2023. As the first Black woman to serve on the highest court in Michigan, she recognizes the importance of her leadership on the bench.

“Representation is beyond important,” she said. “It is an honor to serve and to be an inspiration to others who look like me.”

As a psychology major, she knew she wanted to help people. An advisor recommended law school to her. Bolden enrolled at Detroit Mercy Law.

“Being a part of Detroit Mercy Law afforded me many opportunities that enhanced my experience as an attorney and now as a jurist,” she said.

Bolden explained that the location, comradery, and diversity of Detroit Mercy Law helped shaped her into the well-rounded attorney and jurist she is today.

“I was able to do internships and externships in and around the city of Detroit. It was a great benefit to my career to be able to walk to them and gain experience while a student.”

“The comradery of Detroit Mercy Law is unmatched,” Bolden continued. “I have life-long friends that support me and I do the same for them. The diversity of background, experience, and perspectives that Detroit Mercy Law allowed me to encounter facilitated my direction and how I wanted to move through my legal career.”

After graduating, Bolden served as a criminal defense attorney, judicial clerk, and civil litigator before deciding to run for public office. She was first elected to serve as a Michigan State Representative in 2018 and was re-elected in 2020. While serving in the state legislature, Bolden served on the Judiciary Committee and focused her work on criminal justice reform.

“I knew how the laws would affect people and my community,” she indicated. “That perspective was incredibly important, and I wanted to represent that in the legislature.”

During her time in the legislature, Bolden helped pass the “Medically Frail” prison reform package, the revision to the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, and the “Address Confidentially for Survivors of Domestic Violence” package.

Now as a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, Bolden wants to continue to make a difference. She shared some of her vision with the Detroit Mercy Law community while delivering the fifth annual Dewitt C. Holbrook Lecture on Social Justice. She  spoke of the need for a justice system that provides more than a lawyer for every defendant and emphasized the importance of a justice system that provides a pathway to resolve concerns while treating everyone with dignity and respect. She encouraged a comprehensive approach to justice for all that includes courts engaging with local communities, supporting and nurturing families and children at risk, providing access to treatment for behavioral health disorders, and embracing the problem-solving model that focuses on making participants whole again.

While a student, Bolden was a part of the International Law Students Association, the Black Law Students Association, and the Constitutional Law Association.

“Those experiences helped me become a well-rounded person as well as an attorney,” said Bolden.

As an alumna, she encourages law students to get involved.“Go to everything you can, meet as many people as possible in the legal field,” she said. “You never know where it may take you.”

During law school, Bolden received a mentor through the Wolverine Bar Association who later became the partner she worked for while practicing law.

“Make sure you’re reaching out to people asking them to be your mentor because you never know how one person will enhance your experience as a lawyer or change your perspective of where you want to go in your legal career.”

Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Brian K. Zahra ‘87  holds 29 years of service to the Michigan bench. He joined the state judiciary in 1994 as a judge in the Wayne County Circuit Court. In 1999, he was appointed to serve on the Michigan Court of Appeals, and in 2011, he was nominated to the Michigan Supreme Court, where he has served as a justice since.

Zahra began his law career following his experience as a small business owner;  he opened a number of retail establishments.

“I started off with a small health and personal care store in Detroit,” he explained. “I then joined with a couple of other partners and opened a larger, full-service grocery store.”

Zahra’s experience with the law as a business owner, for example managing personal injury summons and property leases, inspired him to pursue the dream of law school his mother had for him.

“As a child, my mother always told me she wanted her son to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he related. “By the time I was a teenager, I realized I wasn’t going to be a doctor.”

When he began law school, Zahra had dreams of a political career and thought a law degree would be helpful in that pursuit.

“After a semester of law school, I really loved the law. I thought, I’m going to be a lawyer and practice as one. I gave up the idea of Congress at that time.”

Zahra began his career clerking for Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and then joined Dickinson Wright in 1989.

“I became frustrated early in my career at the law firm,” he acknowledged. “I was fortunate enough that there were many files that were given to me to do on my own as a young lawyer. I’d read the court rules, the cases, and the statutes, trying to advise my clients on where I thought we stood. And I thought we’d have a good chance of winning, and then I’d get into court and lose the motion. I wouldn’t understand why we lost.

“I said to myself, if I get the opportunity to serve as a judge, I really am going to try to make it different and go the extra mile to make sure, not just the winner, but the loser in my cases appreciate and understand how I saw the case,” he explained.  

As a Michigan Supreme Court justice, Zahra serves as a commissioner on the Justice for All Commission, something he calls the most rewarding administrative assignment of his judicial career.

“Pro bono work is great, but we just don't have enough lawyers willing and able to put in enough pro bono time to address all the needs of people who have legal problems, but simply can't afford to retain a lawyer,” Zahra said. “I also saw as a trial and circuit judge how many people would come to court without the ability to have assistance.”

Through this commission, Zahra works with judges and lawyers throughout Michigan to develop innovative ways to level the playing field and allow those who would not otherwise have access to representation a fair chance at achieving justice.

“We, I believe, are changing the lives of everyday people who are unable to obtain legal services and we’re thinking outside the box,” he said. “Michigan has always been a great leader in providing assistance for people to understand what their legal rights are. We have self-help centers throughout Michigan. Recently, we issued several grants throughout the state to improve and expand upon these centers to help people in need.”  

The Commission also has worked to expand limited scope practice and regulatory reforms to allow greater access to legal assistance.  

“We’re also re-imagining the courthouses to make them a friendlier and more welcoming place,” he said. “Perhaps one day we’ll even put some kiosks in the courthouses that will help people understand their rights—right there in the court, if they're going to be unrepresented.”  

Zahra credits Detroit Mercy Law and the faculty members he learned from for instilling in him a passion for law.

“The culture is still the same even if the professors I had are no longer there,” Zahra said. “I learned most from watching the professors I had and their passion for teaching us the law.”

Zahra remains connected to Detroit Mercy Law. He serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board, presides over Moot Court competitions, and helps mentor students.

Michigan Court of Appeals, Judge Michael Riordan ‘90 is known for being generous with his time and talent. He serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors and supports students throughout their law school journey.

“My time is really divided into before law school and after law school. And that’s the impact Detroit Mercy Law has had on me as a person. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay all the things it has given me,” stated Riordan.

Riordan leads by example as an engaged alumnus. He supports the admissions team and connects with future students. He attends many Detroit Mercy Law events and speaks with current students. He recruits students for judicial externships and alumni for judicial clerkships. He judges the annual Patrick A. Keenan Appellate Advocacy Competition and teaches U.S. Securities Regulation as an adjunct professor.

Riordan decided to pursue a law degree while working as a United States Immigration Inspector.

“My mother told me to go to the seminary or become a lawyer,” he related. “In my mother’s eyes, going to University of Detroit School of Law was one of the best things her son could do.”

After graduating, Riordan clerked for Judge Robert E. DeMascio of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

He also served as an assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, a senior attorney in the enforcement division of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, and an assistant general counsel for Northwestern Mutual Financial.

“I came into my position as a judge with a broad background that has only been helpful,” he said. “I know the pressures that attorneys are under, and I have an understanding of criminal and civil procedure that only comes from practice.”

As a judge, Riordan serves the law, society, and individuals.

“I must be faithful to the law,” he declared. “That’s the best way I can serve society. And to treat everyone who comes into my courtroom fairly. It doesn’t make a difference whether someone is with a big firm or a small firm. Everyone deserves to be given the time of day.”

Through his experience practicing in and presiding over a courtroom, Riordan recognizes a challenge often associated with resolving disputes through the courts.

“Somebody wins, and unfortunately, somebody loses,” he said. “It’s very rare that both sides go away happy, but if that happens, that’s a great day.”

Michigan Court of Appeals, Judge Michelle Rick ‘91  aspires to be a servant leader.

“For me, this requires leading from the heart and valuing the contributions of all members of the team,” said Judge Rick. “It is critical to see that every person has skills that can benefit the task at hand.”

Rick always knew she wanted to become a lawyer, but it wasn’t until after her second year at Detroit Mercy Law that she learned she wanted to be a litigator.

“I had the opportunity to become an intern through a program managed by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and was placed in the Allegan County Prosecutor’s Office. I was fortunate enough to have my own docket under the supervision of an assistant prosecutor. That summer, I had several jury and bench trials. I was hooked and immediately knew I wanted to be a litigator.”

Prior to joining the bench, Rick briefly worked in private practice before devoting her career to public service. She served as a prosecutor in Livingston County, an assistant attorney general for the State of Michigan, and Deputy Legal Counsel to Michigan’s Governor Jennifer M. Granholm.

“It is a privilege to work as a public servant,” she said. “Prosecutors and those working on behalf of the state wield significant power.  It must only be used to advance justice.”

Rick believes the job of the prosecutor is not to win, but to see that justice is done.

Rick was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2020. Prior to that, she served as a trial judge for the 29th Circuit Court of Michigan. She values oral argument as an opportunity to better understand an advocate’s position.

“I ask hard questions as a judge,” she explained.

She reminds her students that oral arguments are not an opportunity to argue with the judge on their case.

“I tell them to view it as the time and place to test the strength of one’s position. I have respect for lawyers who are willing to concede a losing position rather than going down with the ship. When blatantly obvious, concessions are noble, and not a sign of weakness. You also gain credibility.”

Rick credits Detroit Mercy Law for providing her a firm foundation to be a successful attorney and now judge.

“Detroit Mercy Law taught me to be analytical, empathetic, morally responsible, and just,” Rick said. “I believe the school gave me the tools necessary to become a complete lawyer. It isn’t just a saying – it is true.”

Rick advances the mission of Detroit Mercy Law. She teaches the course, Access to Justice, and helped organize traveling expungement clinics across the state of Michigan staffed by Detroit Mercy Law students.

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