T.J. Ackert, incoming Grand Rapids Bar Association president
PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE, LEGAL NEWS
by Cynthia Price
The succession process followed by the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) ensures there is leadership continuity, and incoming president T.J. Ackert expects his term to dovetail nicely with previous president Mark Smith’s.
“I see my role primarily as shepherding good work and good ideas. I need to stay out of the way and make sure that the Bar’s doing the work that the board has set forth in terms of its strategic planning, implementing what we already have,” says Ackert.
Having served the last two years as, first, vice-president and then president-elect, Ackert feels he is immersed in the GRBA’s vision, rather than supplying his own.
The GRBA sends future officers to the American Bar Association bar leaders conference, schedule permitting, and Ackert says he learned a lot there. “The biggest thing I took from it was, don’t get in the way, don’t come in and feel as if you’re now going to be imprinting your vision and your ideas on the bar, because you’re just one person in the line of leadership.”
And he gives immense credit for that comfort with the overall vision to the GRBA staff, Executive Director Kim Coleman, Executive Assistant Debbie Kurtz, and Administrative Assistant/Communication Specialist Karen Flick. “They’re excellent at keeping everyone on task. Our board meeting agendas are set up after the strategic planning points we need to follow through on; I give the staff a lot of credit.”
Ackert is a Member at Miller Johnson, practicing in the business and corporate world, with a focus on construction, technology and e-commerce, corporate finance, and helping entrepreneurs with new business formation. He works primarily with small and medium-size and family-owned businesses, including facilities management, which involves real estate expertise.
He received his J.D. from the University of Toledo College of Law, after his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. He has been at Miller Johnson since 2007, but has practiced in Grand Rapids his whole career.
Ackert is a current member of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish Social Justice Commission, the Family Business Alliance, and is on the BioTech Connect Program of the West Michigan Science Technology Initiative. He has gone through the eight-week Institute for Healing Racism program, and feels strongly about diversity and inclusion issues. Other community involvements have included the Grand Rapids Ballet, Kent Hospital Finance Authority, and serving as the Secretariat for Social Justice of the Diocese of Grand Rapids.
Given that, it is no surprise that high on Ackert’s agenda is the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative action plan. “If we stay on track, the Collaborative will have a positive effect on the legal community and the business community as a whole,” he observes.
As is generally the case, Ackert and the GRBA leaders will focus on increasing membership through providing value to potential and current members.
GRBA experienced a minimal membership increase in the last year. But, Ackert says, “I see the excellent work that we do as a bar community— if you just look at the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Kent County Prosecutors. Those two offices do great work for the community. How do we continue to maintain value for them, so they can learn, so they can interact with each other?” Ackert believes strongly in the bar facilitating peers gaining ideas and knowledge from each other, as well as passing along local community culture and ethics.
He was very pleased with the Civil/Criminal Bench Bar Conference GRBA held in April, where judges and lawyers had an opportunity to discuss what was in their mutual best interest, Mark Smith, Tom Behm and President-Elect Kristin Vanden Berg “took the laboring oars on that,” as Smith puts it, and Ackert intends to continue that tradition.
Ackert’s own passion is to extend opportunities to solo and small firm practitioners, and GRBA has already started working to survey those attorneys about what will best help them.
“The larger firms have many different resources to help their attorneys, so how do we make the same type of resources available to small firms or solo practitioners?” Ackert asks. “How do we as a bar make sure all those folks are integrated and talking to each other, and have opportunities to learn from each other and from outside consultants or folks who can help them?
“I’ve found that in this bar, people will share ideas, share insights, share resources with each other, so we need to enhance those opportunities.”
Taking a page from the playbook of both Mark Smith’s GRBA presidency and local attorney Bruce Courtade’s upcoming State Bar presidency, Ackert says he wants to continue an emphasis on civics education. “Not only did we have a great start with the Constitution Day programs, but also we’re working on ongoing programs within the public schools to make sure students have a thorough understanding of civics.”
Mark Smith acknowledges that when he deemed civics education in the schools to be one of his top priorities last year, he was naive about the time it would take. Having decided not to reinvent the proverbial wheel, the civics education committee looked very comprehensively at what curriculum already existed. “I just didn’t know how long a horizon was involved. It took a ton of meetings to work through all the models out there,” Smith commented.
The committee ended up finding a curriculum developed by the Cleveland Bar Association that is a perfect fit. The committee also determined that approaching the subject at the high school level would be most beneficial, and Cleveland’s year-long program is intended for high-schoolers.
“It also just fits in very well with the pipeline development piece of the managing partners’ plan,” says Smith, “because it calls for regular contact with students, and a very specific mentorship program that’s part of it.
The group is currently exploring the program with Grand Rapids Public Schools and other district. “We really wanted to be pretty conversant with what it was we wanted to do before we started talking with the schools,” adds Smith, who intends to continue working on the project despite his presidential year ending.
In fact, Smith says he will still be active in many ways. “I definitely have a commitment to staying involved – I wouldn’t know what else to do!” comments Smith. “I’ve literally participated in the Grand Rapids Bar since I started as a young lawyer, through all the 31 years I’ve practiced.”
Smith went through a career challenge during his term when his former firm decided to disband. He landed happily at Rhoades McKee, while continuing his GRBA work unabated.
One of his other priorities, to explore the judicial selection process, was achieved by “serendipity” when the timely release of the state task force report resulted in a debate on the topic at the annual Law Day.
“I thought it really gave people a very clear view of where the lines are drawn, and I got a lot of positive comments on it,” Smith said. “I don’t know at the end of the day exactly which way I go, but there’s so much of what the task force recommended with which I agree completely, especially the need to educate the public about candidates.”
Smith is also very proud of the 100-year anniversary video he helped spearhead, which has already been shown at a new bar admissions swearing-in.
He praises the GRBA staff — “they do a marvelous job” — but adds, “We’d have a much harder task if it wasn’t for the dedication of the various lawyers who give tirelessly of their time.”