Exit strategy: County's corporation counsel bids farewell

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 By Tom Kirvan 

Legal News
 
It has been a decision that has been brewing in her mind for more than a year, but last week Judy Cunningham made it official, informing Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson that she will be retiring April 26 after more than three decades with the county, including the past 14 years as its corporation counsel.
 
For Cunningham, the decision to depart will offer an opportunity to enjoy life at a “less frantic pace” and to spend more time with her family, including her parents, two children, and one granddaughter. Her move into the world of retirement also will come just a few months before she steps down as president of the Oakland County Bar Association, a year-long assignment that she has tackled with her customary vigor and enthusiasm.
 
“I’ve loved my job and my association with all the wonderful people with the county, but the time has come to write a new chapter in my life,” Cunningham said. “I want to take the spring and summer off and have some time to reflect on what I want to do next. All I know for sure is that it won’t be at the pace I’ve become accustomed to over the course of my career.”
 
A graduate of Central Michigan University, Cunningham got her start with the county in 1983 after earning her law degree from Detroit College of Law. She was hired as deputy administrator for the Oakland County Circuit Court after toiling as a law clerk during the summers of law school.
 
Before attending law school, Cunningham served as a teaching assistant at CMU and then as a professor at Muskegon Community College. Her parents, Dr. Harry and Mary Kems of Waterford, encouraged her to attend law school, agreeing to foot the bill while also helping with babysitting duties for Cunningham’s then 3-year-old daughter, Meredith.
 
Her daughter, now married and a mother herself with a second child on the way, is a high school Spanish teacher in Waterford. Cunningham’s son, Jacob, is an attorney and serves as a judicial clerk for Oakland County Circuit Judge Wendy Potts. They should see more of their mother in the years ahead.
 
“I don’t want this to sound corny, but I want to have time to spend in my yard, to learn how to make a pie crust, to make cookies with my grandchildren,” Cunningham said. “It’s time to enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures.”
 
Suzanne Hollyer, administrator of the Friend of the Court operation in Oakland County, can relate to that, proudly calling Cunningham “my friend and mentor” since being hired.
 
“My position is one that comes with a high level of public scrutiny,” Hollyer said. “Judy has nurtured my development in this position, offering on more occasions than I can count gentle advice or ‘nudges’ in the right direction. Whether I am managing the demands of elected officials or the demands of the public, I have learned that I can always trust her judgment. 
 
“A few years ago, I contacted Judy for legal advice about how to best handle a personnel matter. Hearing the strain in my voice, she dropped everything and insisted I come right over for a ‘wise words between women’ session with her.”
 
Such sit-downs invariably show a side of Cunningham that not everyone gets a chance to see, according to Hollyer.
 
 “At some point, Judy began introducing herself as my stage mother,” Hollyer said with a smile. “This description of our relationship is apt. I always take whatever advice she offers, whether it is to join the lunchtime yoga group, to send a letter of introduction to the new chief judge or to manage a personnel matter in a certain way. 
 
“I have often been inspired by Judy’s leadership,” Hollyer added. “From her involvement in the Oakland County Bar Association Board of Directors to her mentorship of new lawyers, she is a role model to me and to many other women throughout Oakland County. She will be missed!”
 
Attorney Gordon Snavely, head of the Claims Review Committee for Oakland County, would undoubtedly concur, stating that Cunningham for years has set a “standard of excellence” in her legal work.
 
“Oakland County has been blessed for a number of years in having the best corporation counsel in this state,” Snavely said of Cunningham. “It’s easy to say something like that because it’s absolutely true. She is decisive, knowledgeable, and has the backbone to say what needs to be said at difficult times and in difficult situations. Her input will be missed on so many levels at the county.”
 
Snavely should know. For more than 25 years, he has served on the Claims Review Committee, a panel that reviews matters where the potential legal exposure to the county exceeds $25,000 in damages.
 
“We have had some very tough cases to review over the years, and Judy’s level-headedness and her overall smarts have been hugely beneficial in bringing these matters to resolution,” said Snavely, a Bloomfield Hills attorney specializing in estate law. “She has a special knack for bringing the key issues into proper focus.”
 
Bloomfield Hills attorney Mike Schloff, a past president of the OCBA and a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, echoed the remarks.
 
“Judy has served the citizens of Oakland County and the attorneys of the OCBA with distinction for many years,” Schloff said. “She has exhibited extraordinary loyalty, dedication, resourcefulness, integrity, and a laser focus on the task at hand. The county and all her friends will miss her.”
 
The county’s corporation counsel since 1999, Cunningham is the first public official to serve as president of the OCBA, according to Lisa Stadig Elliot, executive director of the Oakland Bar Association. The role of trailblazer has become second nature for Cunningham, who also is the first woman to hold the job of corporation counsel in Oakland County.
 
Last summer, as she embarked upon her year at the helm of the OCBA, Cunningham made mention of her “nudge, nurture, and nag theory of leadership,” a style that applies also “to parenting, to teaching, to working, and even to relationship dynamics.” Perhaps even to life outside the grind of the workaday world. In other words, retirement may be an acquired taste for Cunningham.
 
“As long as my health continues to be good, I know I will always be active, whether that is with volunteer service or in some part-time legal capacity,” she said. “It’s not in my nature to be idle. There is too much good that needs to be done.”

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