Up to the task: Hudson Award honoree helped lead State Bar effort

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Even now, with three decades of experience as an attorney and a slew of honors behind him, Bruce Courtade is as humbled by being named a recipient of the State Bar of Michigan’s highest honor, the Roberts P. Hudson Award, as someone who is being recognized for the first time.

Responding to the SBM’s description of him on its website as “one of those rare people who are born to serve and to lead,” Courtade said, “I love the quote that the State Bar gave and I truly am humbled by it, but there were a number of people along the way who taught me and encouraged me to serve others. They reinforced the message that my parents and my faith have given me that, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’”

A shareholder with Rhoades McKee in Grand Rapids, Courtade will share the Roberts P. Hudson Award with Julie Fershtman, a Detroit area attorney, at the SBM’s annual meeting September 27 in Grand Rapids. Both Courtade and Fershtman are past presidents of the SBM and were co-chairs of its 21st Century Practice Task Force.

Courtade graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1988, but his plan to become an attorney began long before that.

“A couple of years before my mom passed away she gave me a questionnaire that I’d filled out in second or third grade. I was just learning how to write and the question was, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I don’t know why exactly, but I wrote down that I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, I spelled it ‘laywer’ instead of lawyer,” Courtade recalled, with a laugh.

Growing up in Dearborn Heights, Courtade said his lawyerly instincts also were ignited by his father’s work for The Detroit News.

“For a decade or more my dad worked for The Detroit News where he was involved in a consumer advocacy column where people would write in with problems they had. I think that definitely helped to spark my interest in the law,” Courtade said.

From the time he and his wife, Jenny, who he met when they were law students, moved from the Detroit area to Grand Rapids, Courtade has been an active member in local, state, and national bar associations.

“My first endeavor was in the local bar association’s young lawyers section. That was a chance to meet people because we were new to Grand Rapids,” Courtade said.

Since that time Courtade has risen through the ranks of the State Bar, where he is particularly proud of the progress that he, his co-chair, and committee made as part of the 21st Century Practice Task Force.

“It (the task force) was designed to take a look at where the profession needs to be now versus where it is now and where it’s going in the next 20 years,” Courtade said. “Specifically, what adjustments have to be made in order to allow our profession, not just to survive, but to thrive in the face of such dramatic
changes.”

One of the task force’s major recommendations was to create a justice innovation center, in tandem with the community, the State Bar, and other organizations.

According to Courtade, “The center would help advance the task force’s recommendations beyond the first steps, evaluate the most innovative ideas from other jurisdictions, develop ideas and applications for consideration by stakeholders, design pilot programs, identify redundancies and obsolescence in the court system and practice of law, and seek grant funding.”

The differences between how law was practiced in 1988 and how it is practiced today are remarkable, Courtade said.

“When I started to practice in 1988 there was one fax machine that spit out 40 feet of paper. The only computer in the office had one dedicated terminal, that I would use to type memos,” Courtade said. “Now I have my iPhone on my desk, two computer screens and an iPad that has a third monitor. And we don’t even have a library in my firm, something that used to compose the biggest chunk of space in a law office.”

To that end, the task force further examined how technology and other external changes are challenging members of the legal profession to redefine their approach to the practice of law.

“We were also looking at the flattening of the world and how competition used to be the law firm down the street and now we were finding that it was attorneys who were halfway across the world. They could crank out a brief overnight while we were sleeping and it was the middle of their day,” Courtade said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How could we help the profession, the lawyers in Michigan address that type of competition?’ Another part of it was how could we serve the public in the face of all this change, especially when the cost of access to justice is higher than it’s ever been,” he added.

Hundreds of Michigan attorneys volunteered their time to serve on the task force, a fact that is not lost on Courtade.

“Over 300 attorneys literally donated thousands of hours to work on the committee. And the State Bar staff did a phenomenal job of providing the resources we needed,” Courtade said. “I remember our first meeting when I handed out a box of Crayons to everyone. My message to them was, ‘When you’re a kid in kindergarten you’re given a pack of Crayons and told to color whatever you want. But by the time we graduate law school we are trained to have a ballpoint pen and a piece of paper.’ In order to tackle the task that was given to us, I needed them to free their inner Picasso and get as creative as they possibly could, to color outside the lines. For a profession that is based on precedent, that’s was a real tough task, but boy did they exceed my expectations.”

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