Change of pace: New president takes the helm of OCBA


By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Judy Cunningham, longtime corporation counsel for Oakland County, made a bit of history June 6, beginning what may become known as the "year of the nudge."

The occasion was the 78th Annual Meeting of the Oakland County Bar Association, an event held at the Marriott at Centerpoint in Pontiac. The gathering of more than 325 OCBA members served as an opportunity to express formal appreciation for the leadership efforts of outgoing president Peter Alter, while also welcoming Cunningham as the new head of the organization for 2012-13.

The county's corporation counsel since 1999, Cunningham is the first public official to serve as president of the OCBA, according to Circuit Court Judges Wendy Potts and Joan Young, the emcees for the evening. The role of a trailblazer has become second nature for Cunningham, who also is the first woman to hold the job of corporation counsel in Oakland County.

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 embarking on law school, Cunningham served as a teaching assistant at Central 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.

"As a single mother at the time, it was quite a leap of faith to go to law school, but I will be forever grateful to my parents for making it happen," Cunningham said of her father, a dentist, and her mother, who helped raise the couple's four children. "It was tough to juggle school with raising a young child, but my daughter was great throughout the whole law school experience. I can remember her bringing me casebooks and saying, 'Mommy, please read me a case.'"

Her daughter's pleadings must have paid off, as Cunningham graduated magna cum laude from DCL, which has evolved into Michigan State University College of Law. After six years as deputy court administrator, Cunningham was promoted to administrator of the Circuit Court, serving for more than a decade in the key executive role.

In 1999, on the day before her 50th birthday, Cunningham was asked by County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to become corporation counsel for Oakland County. Fittingly, Patterson was on hand at the June 6 Annual Meeting to present the gavel to Cunningham as incoming president. In turn, Cunningham thanked Patterson for "supporting my work with the OCBA," while also acknowledging his "continuing interest, support, and involvement in our bar."

Yet uppermost on Cunningham's mind last Wednesday was the desire to express deep appreciation to each member of her family for their love and support. She singled out her daughter and son-in-law, Meredith and Kevin Montgomery, and their daughter, Madeline; her son, Jacob, recently sworn in as an attorney; and her two sisters, Pat Ruelle and Beverly Zeeman. She reserved special words of praise for her parents, who marked a marriage milestone the following day.

"Please join me in raising a glass and offering heartfelt congratulations on their 66th anniversary," Cunningham asked those in attendance at the Annual Meeting.

As she embarks upon her year as president, 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." She said she will be especially mindful of a vision statement the OCBA Board adopted several years ago, in which it was articulated that "Oakland County lawyers and the Oakland County community will view the OCBA as a safe harbor, an organization dedicated to providing service and support."

Cunningham said the "safe harbor" concept has particular application for those at opposite ends of the legal spectrum. She has asked several major law firms in the county to help cover the cost of annual membership dues to the OCBA for law students, making it a "collaborative effort" with the law schools.

"What better way to nurture and initiate future lawyers into our fold early on in their careers and, at the same time, create good will and promote our relationships with the law schools?" Cunningham asked.

On the flip side are "Lawyers of a Certain Age," attorneys who have reached "the age of Social Security but they still work, they still contribute, they still lead, and they are still part of the lifeblood of the OCBA," according to Cunningham.

"Other bar associations have created senior attorney committees and councils, master lawyer programs and the like--not only to address the needs of these professionals, but also to draw upon their abundant skills, their rich expertise, and their desire to share and stay involved."

The OCBA Board, at Cunningham's request, has approved "the creation of a focus group to study the needs of our Lawyers of a Certain Age--as well as to consider the unique role these experienced colleagues can play in furthering our strategic vision and serving the Oakland County community at large." Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick, who will retire from the bench at the end of the year, has agreed to join Cunningham as co-chair of the effort.

Expect the work of the group to be mentioned in the contents of a time capsule that Cunningham plans for this year. It will be a joint project of the OCBA and the Oakland County Bar Foundation.

"I envision the time capsule as a way to celebrate the good work and the generosity of our members and I want future generations of OCBA members to have a glimpse of what we are--a helping, healing profession whose members make a difference in the lives of our clients."

Published: Mon, Jun 11, 2012