Incoming Grand Rapids Bar president will work for justice during her term


Kris VandenBerg, staff attorney for the U.S. District Court Western District of Michigan and incoming Grand Rapids Bar Association President


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Talking with Kristin VandenBerg, it is impossible to avoid observing that she is passionate about a whole lot of subjects. “I have a lot of passions, can you tell?” she asks.

Eventually it becomes evident that all of those passions and consuming interests cluster around one over-riding concept: justice.

And with her upcoming Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) presidency, VandenBerg brings those passions to the right place. GRBA is a vibrant organization that serves all its members broadly, but its focus is on justice, equality, and inclusivity.

Actually, VandenBerg — who is a staff attorney/pro se law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan — is only extending her deep involvement with GRBA by assuming the board presidency. “I have been active in this Bar Association since I got to town in 1992, and in 1994 I was on my first committee, the Diversity Committee,” she says.

Diversity and inclusion are, indeed, at the forefront of what VandenBerg cares so much about. She intends to make it the focus of her year in office, which starts July 1.

“I’ve been really thrilled with what the Bar has done,” she says, “especially the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative. A few years ago Anne Cooper and I chaired the roundtable on minority and women retention. We had been doing a lot to attract female and minority lawyers, but then we had to think about, what’s next? We recognized that flexibility is very important to retaining these great people, but we also learned at the roundtable about how to use best practices to set up an environment in which people are able to thrive.”

There has been a growing recognition in the Grand Rapids legal community that having good intentions is not enough, and that drilling down into how to make the profession more diverse and inclusive entails a lot of soul-searching.

“We need to look at implicit bias. Some of the practices law firms have used which they think are unbiased are not necessarily seen for the different impacts they have on people,” VandenBerg says. An example might be in a firm’s mentoring program, where well-meaning mentors use the same approach for an African-American woman as a Caucasian man. Learning more about that woman and her particular set of circumstances would allow for greater success.

But VandenBerg is impressed with how the managing partners have not only addressed implicit bias but also overcome their natural tendency to be competitive with one another. She comments, “I have to say the response was absolutely wonderful; the level and degree of interest were really heartening. They were so positive in their reception to how we proposed the process. As far as merging their interests so we can become a community that’s more welcoming to people — helping people find their place in a more diverse and vibrant town, there was some minor resistance at first because they each wanted to hold on to their individual initiatives, but they jumped out of that right away.”

In all of this work, VandenBerg is long on praise for Executive Director Kim Coleman’s role. “You go to the [national] Bar Leadership Institute and everybody knows Kim,” VandenBerg says. “She’s gotten involved with the National Association of Bar Executives and has brought back so many things to us. When she commented that certain of the association’s programs needed more content, they asked her for her help, and now she’s going to chair its Programs Committee. It’s a big job but she’s very good at it, and it’s great for our Bar Association.”

Another passion of VandenBerg’s is reform of indigent defense. When Bruce Neckers of Rhoades McKee was President of the State Bar of Michigan, he asked VandenBerg to be his representative to the 2002 Task Force on Indigent Defense. Very active at the time, VandenBerg is less so now, but she fervently hopes the problems with the Michigan system will be resolved. “One problem is, you frequently don’t have any defender at the table during policy making. If we had a state defender’s office that would be a very important tool for the rest of the criminal defense bar. The State Appellate Defenders’ Office at the appellate level, for example, only handles 25% or so of the state cases for eligible defendants, but they have the resource base, the guides and the training. Not only are many of the county systems set up so the work goes to the lowest bidder, which often affects how much time an attorney can spend, but we also give the public defenders at the trial court level so many fewer resources. The prosecutor has the whole police force to help with investigations, but the defender gets no investigative help.”

Many of these issues impact VandenBerg’s job directly or indirectly. She is one of a small group of attorneys who do initial screening on prisoner civil rights and habeas corpus cases for the U.S. Western District Court. “We don’t grant habeas relief very often. And we don’t take a lot of the prisoners’ cases either. But it’s important for me to remember  that, even though most of the time it won’t rise to the level of a constitutional challenge, it feels very important to these prisoners. They’re complaining about something very real to them. We have to dismiss their cases when there isn’t a constitutional claim, but it isn’t because we have no understanding of why they wanted to pursue it.”

Before taking her current position, VandenBerg clerked for the well-known Judge Douglas Hillman (of Hillman Advocacy fame). VandenBerg grew up in Portland, Ore., but her family is originally from the Detroit Area. She attended University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree followed by ten years doing “a whole lot of junk work” before returning to University of Michigan Law School. She graduated magna cum laude, and then took a position as clerk for the First Circuit Court of Appeals, living in Maine. Right before moving to the Grand Rapids area, specifically to Hudsonville where her husband has family, VandenBerg was the Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.

Her husband does intensive gardening. “We have hundreds of trained fruit trees, and all kinds of vegetables. His gardens are amazing – we have beautiful food.” (Food seems to be another of her passions.)
Vandenberg praises GRBA predecessor T.J.Ackert, who is “fun to be around and always able to discuss things productively,” and President-Elect Tom Behm. “I think the world of Tom,” she comments.
She is also enthusiastic the benefits she has realized from participating in GRBA. “Most of the time in my job I don’t see people — I do research and writing all day — so for me personally it’s been great,” she says, “but I really think everyone can benefit. The networking you do and friends you make will last a lifetime. People will find that they have a community.”

And it is a perfect home for VandenBerg to work on realizing her justice goals. She adds, “I care about all these things because most of the lawyers I know care deeply about their implementation of systems of justice and making society a fairer place.”