The natural world brings us darkness this time of year. From the start of our day to our trip home from work, it’s just always so dark. Still, among all this darkness, there is always hope and light to be found. This hopeful brightness is at the heart of the holidays and the holy days many of us celebrate during these dark months. Whether it’s the flames of the menorah, the twinkling of a Christmas tree, or the candles lit for the first fruits of Kwanzaa, it is an eternal light that pulls us through to a new beginning.
At the State Bar of Michigan, we’ve had the extreme blessing of having the shining leadership of Janet Welch as our executive director for the past 14 years and even before that, when Janet served as our general counsel. Throughout her time with the State Bar, Janet has been a constant source of light, illuminating our path forward toward numerous improvements in our justice system. Many of you know Janet is approaching her planned retirement at the end of this calendar year, and that her torch is poised, ready to be passed.
Before we say goodbye and move toward our new future, I think it is important to recognize all that Janet has done for the State Bar of Michigan and the legal system here in Michigan because she has accomplished so much.
Looking back, one of the first things I recall being a priority for Janet was supporting those working for indigent defense reform. I was a seated Representative Assembly member (16th Circuit) when the Representative Assembly endorsed the Michigan Campaign for Justice report outlining the 11 principles of a public defense delivery system in April 2002. This provided the gateway for the State Bar of Michigan, on a policy basis, to work toward improvements to the justice system that would ensure constitutionally adequate services be rendered to criminal defendants in the state.
In 2009, with our economy in depression and statewide budget shortfalls threatening funding of our court system, Janet felt it imperative to support the efforts of past Bar President Edward Pappas and Hon. Barry L. Howard as they convened 29 leaders from the bar, business, civic, and political communities to take part in the Judicial Crossroads Task Force, which looked for better and more efficient ways to provide justice to the citizens of Michigan. The task force recommendations largely looked at ways to preserve the best or our traditions while streamlining courts and using technology and data-driven innovation to expand access to justice. I remember visiting the Upper Peninsula as RA chair with Janet and then SBM President Bruce Courtade; implementation of these recommendations was a very hot topic of conversation with many we met on tour.
In 2014, Janet helped facilitate the Summit on the Future of Legal Services, which brought together then Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr., then State Bar President Thomas Rombach, then ABA President William C. Hubbard, and approximately 70 leaders to discuss these same issues. Their work helped illuminate the need for another deep dive into assessing which improvements might be necessary to keep advancing toward an open, accessible, and efficient justice system driven by technology.
All of this eventually culminated into the largest and greatest collective effort of Janet’s tenure when she supported past presidents Courtade and Julie Fershtman as co-chairs of the 21st Century Practice Task Force, bringing together approximately 40 lawyers, judges, professors, regulators, and other stakeholders in our legal community to once again tackle many of the obstacles identified by the Crossroads Task Force. This time, however, the focus intensified on innovations and improvements to keep our profession relevant and effective in light of the changes and external pressures being put on our legal system by platforms using artificial intelligence to deliver services that lawyers often see as their exclusive domain.
As a member of this task force, I recall being handed a set of eight Crayola crayons with the charge to think and draw outside the lines. No idea was off the table. Ultimately, the task force recommendations led to the creation of broader public access to the legal system, the State Bar investing in a statewide legal resource and referral center, and the Bar collaborating with the legal aid community and the Michigan State Bar Foundation to create the Michigan Legal Help online resource. Plus, the task force explored ways to innovate lawyer competence with specialty certificates, and making technical competency and a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion a part of a lawyer’s ethical duty. It also researched the possible benefits of regulatory reform allowing multi-disciplinary practices and opening the door for non-lawyers to play an expanded role in delivery of legal services. This is just some — not all — of the topics covered in the 21st Century Task Force. Some of these ideas are not yet implemented, but very well may be on the horizon.
Janet helped facilitate all these monumental steps toward innovation by bringing people together. She has a keen ability to see the need, at just the right time, to charge the best and brightest in the profession, including lawyers and judges of all points of view as well as experts in fields of technology and regulatory practices, to forge a better future for the benefit of the public we all serve. This is the legacy of Janet’s work. I hope our future executive director and leaders follow the path Janet has so astutely lit for us. If so, we will certainly be successful, and we will certainly not stagnate. We will keep making our justice system an open one that is fair and equitable for all, and we will push our members to be the best advocates we can be.
Janet, I wish you all the best in your future endeavors. I know Ben is looking down with love and pride, and Andrew, Mara, and their families are going to bask in the opportunity to spend more time with you. I am very glad that you will not be entirely absent from the bar world as you continue to serve in the ABA House of Delegates and the Justice for All Commission.
May your light always shine. If Kim were here, she’d quote Bono, saying “Baby, baby, baby, light my way!”