T.J.Ackert reflects on the Grand Rapids Bar Association, his year as president



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

July 1 brings a changing of the guard in the leadership of the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA), but fortunately the guard does not change much.

Not only will new president Kristin (Kris) VandenBerg, staff attorney at the U.S. District Court, Western District of Michigan, have the advantage of learning the ropes through a three-office succession plan (vice-president, president-elect, and then president), she will also continue to have the benefit of current president T.J. Ackert’s expertise.

Ackert, a member at Miller Johnson, is not going anywhere. As Immediate Past President, he has accepted the traditional chairmanship of the Community Interaction Committee and intends to keep
working on projects he got underway during his term.

He says GRBA staff members make the transition easy. Ackert praises  Kim Coleman, Executive Director, for her support in making the president’s job as easy as possible. “A lot of what gets done goes on behind the scenes,” Ackert says. “The staff helps with the heavy lifting and we’ll see the results over the next few years.”

He adds, “No bar president can come in and impose their agenda on the Bar. You’re working within the structure of the Bar and the vision and strategic plan of the Bar. There are issues that come up, and a president can focus in on an area during the year, or start a conversation during that time. Sometimes it will go quickly, sometimes it will take a period of time. And as president, what you do
is stay out of the way, try not to impose your own view, and the energy within the bar will produce results.”

As a case in point, Ackert mentions the work of his predecessor, Mark Smith. “One of the programs Mark Smith wanted to continue working on was civic education,” Ackert says. “He’s been very diligent with that throughout this whole year, and there will be an announcement soon of a program partnering with the Grand Rapids Public Schools.” Since civic education was also one of Ackert’s priorities, he is pleased at the direction it has taken.

But, he cautions, “As president, you start the discussion, you talk with the people who can implement the program, and you learn from all the people who can bring their knowledge to bear. It generally takes quite a while, and it’s the effort of a whole lot of people when it becomes a reality.”

Ackert said last year that he would really like to work on helping solo and small firm practitioners, and he expects within the next year his plans will come to fruition.  At the same time, the assistance may not come in the exact form he envisioned it. “We’re still working with the section — it’s a very active section — to determine how some programs can be initiated and how they’ll unfold over the next year or so,” Ackert states. “We’re still going to take our time to be sure they’re doable from an ethics and legal practice point of view. But there are discussions and there are good ideas, and I’m committed to working on those issues in the next year under Kris VandenBerg.”

Another priority area for Ackert was increasing membership and growing the GRBA, which has been successful over his presidential year. “Our membership is up over 1400 and our revenues are doing well. We’re healthy right now, and growing, and that’s been the work of the board over the last several years, really focused on the programs and services we offer the membership,” he says.
“A lot of what we did during my term was working on some structural issues such as staying connected and communicating better with the members. We now have something called Affiniscape – that’s a software program that will help us track our members in terms of the sections and programs they’re interested, so that we can push notices to them and keep them informed on what’s happening  that best suits their own interests.”

The innovative Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative continues to be front and center for the GRBA, and  Ackert is very proud of what the managing partners and staff have accomplished over the past year. “The firms have been really working hard at putting the structure in place to bing about diversity and inclusion,” he comments.

“And you’ll be seeing over the next year the GRAB Law initiative — I can’t say much more until the launch, but it will market to the millennials and others to create a diverse and inclusive bar. It stands for Grand Rapids Achievement and Balance..”

Since Ackert’s practice as a business and corporate attorney specializing in  construction, technology, e-commerce, corporate finance, and new business formation continued unabated, he had to manage his time carefully.  He comments, “You just have to fit everything into the schedule, you just have to manage your time. And Miller Johnson is very supportive of our lawyers being involved in the Bar, as well as of the Bar itself and the Bar initiatives.” He mentions Miller Johnson managing partner Craig Mutch’s deep involvement with the Diversity Collaborative.

One thing the staff and officers learned from last February’s Justice Foundation dinner with the Second City comedy troupe is that the members want more networking time together. “We’re looking at events to bring lawyers together and to create opportunities to know each other. It’s really a high level of practice in this area. It makes for a very good environment to practice law,”Ackert observes.

Finally, Ackert says that a high point of his term was presiding at the swearing-in ceremonies for new attorneys. “That just gives you a lot of hope and reminds you of why you keep at it. Yes the market is different now, but there are a lot of bright young people who want to participate in the law not just as a business but truly as a profession.”

Next week: Incoming President Kris VandenBerg talks about her vision for the next year.

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