For 15 years, Janet Welch has been the leader of the State Bar of Michigan. She retires this year, capping a career that earned her a reputation as a master problem solver, crusader for access to justice, national expert on integrated bars, and international thought leader on innovation in the legal profession.
Her tenure is stacked with awards and recognitions, and her impressive résumé is well-documented. There has been little effort to capture that here, because Welch’s legacy is so much more than the official transcript of her achievements.
There is an air of regality about Janet Welch.
It comes neither from her prowess nor from her position. It is not quite definable, and yet it is clearly apparent to all who meet her. She stands 5 feet, 5 inches tall and might not always wear black, but there isn’t much evidence to the contrary. She would never be described as loud or boisterous, and yet she commands the room. Always.
Some of it is perhaps the grace and presence she learned from all those years in ballet, a love that started as a child growing up in Livonia and continued through adulthood, even installing a barre in the family’s East Lansing home.
Some of it surely is her incessant intelligence. She approaches all matters with a logic and analysis so constant that it causes thoughtful pauses and, at times, an almost halted speech.
Her daughter, Mara Harwel, describes Welch as “exacting.” Her son, Andrew Harwel: “In a word, she is unflappable.”
The thing is, there is this other part of Welch, too. It’s not soft and cuddly. It is, though, intensely kind and caring with jarring sincerity. Her laugh is joyful. Her interest in you, your family, your achievements, and your challenges is earnest. She helps others tackle their problems, and her willingness to assist is both patient and persistent.
In this side, we see the traits that are completely contradictory to her tendency toward precision. Here, we see that while her work is thorough and orderly, her desk is nothing short of a mess, strewn with reports, notes, newspapers, and draft documents. Often, one could find her sitting at her desk at the State Bar, surrounded in the clutter, usually not wearing any shoes.
“She is not at all flighty, but she also cannot ever find her phone,” Mara Harwel said.
In short, Welch just doesn’t fit well into any standard label.
The Welch family started very conventionally. Like so many others in the late 1940s and early 1950s, their lives were defined by World War II.
Like 4 million1 other Americans, Welch’s father, Robert, enlisted between 1941 and 1942.2 However, he was among just 3.7% of enlistments that signed on to the Army Reserves,3 joining just five months after the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve was established.4
On Sept. 8, 1944, Capt. Robert Welch was assigned to the 343rd Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force,5 officially a pilot and a good one. Based in England, the 343rd’s primary job was protecting bombers on long-range missions.
Five days later, on Sept. 13, 1944, Robert Welch is credited with downing his first and second Nazi planes in air combat over Eisenach and Gotha, Germany. He also lent critical support during the Battle of the Bulge, shooting down one enemy aircraft on Christmas Eve and two more on Christmas Day as part of an air campaign to cut off German supply lines to advancing Nazi troops.6
In all, Robert Welch was credited with destroying 12 targets on the ground and six planes in air combat,7 earning him the title of World War II flying ace for the U.S. Army Air Force. For his service, he was honored with an Air Medal and eight Oak Clusters, a Silver Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.8
After returning home from war, Robert Welch married a Detroit girl, Jean Lewis, and remained in the Michigan Air National Guard. They settled into family life and planted roots in Livonia, buying a house in one of the many new neighborhoods sprouting up to house the returning troops and the baby boomer generation. All the houses were tidy, with cookie-cutter frames and the same wellgroomed lawns.
He and Jean welcomed their first daughter, Janet, and two years later were a month away from the birth of their second daughter, Jill, when then-Major Welch was one of 1,500 members of the 127th Fighter Wing activated in response to the Korean War.
He was 27 years old and one of the Air Guard’s most decorated members.9 Six weeks after being reactivated and 19 days after the birth of his second child, he was leading four Thunderjets flying formation in a training exercise near Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Welch’s plane and one of the others came too close and collided midair, causing both planes to crash. Robert Eadon Welch died March 23, 1951.10
Nothing was ever normal again.
Today, there is still marked sadness when Welch talks about her father, but also a recognition that his untimely death made her who she is.
“I think for sure I don’t follow any conventional template, and I don’t know whether that is the way I would be if my father hadn’t died,” Welch said. “The story line just got ripped up when my dad died. I didn’t get reinserted into that (typical) narrative because my mother never remarried. … I never got a script to follow. I just did what made sense.”
She notes, though, that she also had the opportunity to come of age when society and historic norms were being challenged by both the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
So, she got her first job at age 13 helping in the ballet studio that, Welch said, first introduced her to culture. She became the first person in her family to earn a college degree (followed soon after by her sister), an achievement earned by just 8.5% of US women at the time. Then, she took off on her own to Yugoslavia as a Fulbright scholar in 1971 and stayed despite ongoing civil unrest because she “intellectually needed to figure out what was happening with the development of socialism in Yugoslavia and the resolution of historically opposed ethnic cultures within a federated structure.” She married and didn’t take her husband’s name, waited to have children and when she did, she and her husband combined both names to create a new name, unique to their children.
She was told by the hospital’s name registrar that they couldn’t just create a new last name. “She said, ‘Yes, we can,’” daughter Mara Harwel said with a laugh. “Even before she was a lawyer, she was lawyer-minded.”
Then, after already building a career — rising to serve as the inaugural director of the state Senate Analysis Section (later a division of the Senate Fiscal Agency) — she decided to quit her job and go to law school.
Not just any law school: the University of Michigan Law School. In her mid-30s. More than a decade after she finished her undergrad (in history with a bit of dabbling in comparative literature from Albion College). Commuting an hour each way to classes. A mother of one at first. Then while expecting her second, even when she was put on bed rest and listened to taped lectures. She finished in two years and graduated cum laude.
Why did she do it? “I guess I knew enough about the law at that point that I was interested in the legal processes and the law, and I thought that it could be an avenue to do interesting things,” Welch said.
Then, Welch acknowledges when she went to law school she didn’t really have plans for what she would do with the degree once she earned it. Then, she thought again about why she went to law school: “I don’t have a good explanation.”
But she did it.
“I remember being there. I was only 7 or 8 years old when she graduated,” said son Andrew Harwel, also a Michigan Law grad. “I didn’t have any sense of how much work she put in. … The ability to do all those things, I can’t imagine. I don’t know how she did it.” Welch held Andrew’s hand and carried Mara, who was 13 months old, when she graduated. Afterward, Welch’s mother told her that on a trip to Ann Arbor once when she was just a child, the young Welch looked at the Law Quad and said, “I’m going to go there some day.”
So maybe that’s why.
Through it all, Welch had Ben Hare by her side. They met at Albion. Several friends claim to have introduced them, but all Welch remembers for sure is that she agreed to a first date while holding a pan of green beans and wearing a hairnet.
He was on the university’s first soccer team. She was a bookworm who worked in the campus cafeteria to make it through school. And, they were extraordinarily similar.
When she went to Yugoslavia, as Mara Harwel describes it, they wrote love letters back and forth. “Then, he said, ‘I need to come join you,’ and she said, ‘OK, fine.’” Both were disciplined and sharp. They shared the same values, or as Welch put it, “a common view of the universe.”
“Neither of them were at all interested in rules about how their partnership would work or how their lives would work,” Mara Harwel said.
And, they made each other laugh. That shared sense of humor is what Welch talks about first when she talks about Hare.
They married in Yugoslavia, then moved to Vienna for a year before returning home jobless and uncertain about the future. They worked odd jobs, and Hare got his law degree from Cooley Law School. Eventually, they both ended up working for nonpartisan branches of the state Legislature. He wrote bills for the Michigan Legislative Services Bureau. She summarized and analyzed the impact of bills, first for the House Legislative Analysis Section and then in the newly created Senate Analysis Section.
Both Welch and Hare brought their own strength, sense of purpose, and fierce independence to their shared lives.
“My dad did not care what anyone else thought about what he did,” Andrew Harwel said. “He had his man bag. He was an early feminist.” Similarly, he notes that Welch “has this strong sense of what she believes is right and she is not going to compromise on those lines.”
The children were 16 and 9 when Hare was diagnosed with brain cancer. The treatments soon started, and Welch juggled it all. She never once seemed to never flinch, Mara Harwel said.
“Growing up, I always had the feeling that she had all the answers. If anything bad happened, I could go to her and it would work out. She would fix it; she would solve it,” Andrew Harwel said. “As I’m older now, I recognize that she doesn’t always have all the answers right away, but she always has the calm demeanor.”
The cancer spurred Hare’s early retirement in 2002. For their 40th wedding anniversary, Welch and Hare took their family to Croatia, showing them the sites and the history of the former Yugoslavia. It remains one of their most special family experiences, Mara Harwel said.
“They had a really long and loving relationship,” Mara Harwel said. Ben Hare died June 20, 2017, years after doctors said he would, but still far too soon.
Welch became the first woman to serve as executive director of the State Bar of Michigan in 2007. She didn’t actually want the job.
After becoming the first director of the new Senate Analysis Section and graduating from Michigan Law, she served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert P. Griffin. Then, Welch was named the first general counsel of the Supreme Court, a new position in which she stayed on to serve under four chief justices in five years.
Then, the State Bar of Michigan created a new position, and Welch became its first general counsel. When the executive director left, the board president asked Welch if she would be interested in applying. No, she said, but she would be willing to serve as interim while commissioners searched for a new E.D.
The search commenced and a few months went by. Welch was approached again, this time by incoming SBM Board of Commissioners President Kim Cahill. She convinced Welch to reconsider. After all, Welch was already doing the job and doing it well. Welch put her name in. After five months as interim director and a national search, Welch was named executive director with Cahill serving as president.
“It was a really wonderful, relatively late in her career shift, and she has really thrived in that role,” Mara Harwel said.
Naturally an introvert, Welch even forced herself to become comfortable beyond her normal scope, becoming a frequent keynote speaker and panelist on national and international stages. (This is where Welch would be sure to note that she always paid her own way to any international conferences, never at the expense of the Bar.)
“She is effortless, but it disguises how much she works at things, how much preparation goes into things,” Andrew Harwel said. “She’s brilliant — I’ve always thought she was the smartest person I know — but she also works hard.”
Among staff, Welch’s commitment is undisputed. Many still recollect with awe when Welch was hospitalized for seven weeks after a car accident, and she called a meeting in her hospital room so important work could continue while she was out of the office.
She always works hard, especially at what has become her most important role, “Eema” (pronounced E-ma). The exact spelling is uncertain, but it is the name bestowed on her by her first grandson before he could pronounce “grandma.” It stuck and she is now proudly Eema Jan to Everett, 7; Clara, 5; Asa, 3; and another on the way in June.
“She is so much fun as a grandma. She works so hard on creating new, fun experiences. It’s not just buying a toy: She is going to create a scavenger hunt or do artwork with them,” Andrew Harwel said.
She always appreciates her grandchildren’s unique qualities, treats them with respect, and listens intently to their thoughts and opinions, Mara Harwel said. “She treats kids the same way she treats adults. She is very curious to know them and absolutely delighted to watch as their personalities unfold.”
Although they live out of state, Eema Jan stays active in their lives, even FaceTiming the grands every night to read them bedtime stories. Retirement was inspired in part by a desire to spend more time with them and her children.
As for Welch, well, it seems her whole career she’s been doing new things, so in some ways retirement is no different from all her other career moves. In fact, Welch’s plan for retirement is doing “what I’ve been doing all along — thinking about the things I care about and trying to figure out if I can help.”
Welch considers herself the lucky one.
“I’m really, really glad that I stumbled into this community of lawyers. It feels like home: people that think analytically and carefully, and really care about justice and fairness,” Welch said. “What grand luck to be in that world.”
State Bar of Michigan President Dana Warnez said Welch’s leadership is a source of inspiration for others. Welch embraced as executive director her ability to help others achieve more for themselves, Warnez said.
“She empowers you to be the best person you can be on your own terms,” Warnez said. “She offers so much respect. She mentors you in a way you don’t even realize you are being mentored.”
With remarkable diplomacy, Welch can push people and challenge their thinking to create solutions, Warnez said. Welch simply doesn’t accept things at face value. Just because things are the way they are, doesn’t mean they have to be that way. It’s the crux of Welch’s ability to spark innovation, Warnez said, and it also gives her incredible foresight.
At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, the State Bar modernized multiple systems so it could function better and differently than it ever had before. While others were scrambling to figure out how to make things work when the entire state shut down because of COVID-19 in March 2020, new systems already had been purchased, hardware distributed, and staff trained at the State Bar.
Perhaps that foresight also helped in 2012, when Peter Cunningham called Welch to turn down the job as director of governmental relations for the State Bar of Michigan.
“You would not take no for an answer. You rejected my rejection,” Cunningham said with a laugh during a staff celebration for Welch in December. As usual, she was right. He took the job and went on to become assistant executive director. “It was the best decision I ever made,” Cunningham said.
One month later, on Jan. 21, 2022, the Board of Commissioners named Cunningham the next executive director for the State Bar of Michigan. (It was 14 years to the day after the death of Cahill, who as president ushered Welch into leadership and died of cancer the following year. As circumstances would have it, Cahill’s sister, Warnez, is the president who welcomed Cunningham as the new executive director.)
It is a new beginning, for Welch and for the State Bar of Michigan.
“It feels very good to hand the reins over to someone as capable and qualified as Peter Cunningham,” said Welch, who agreed to delay her planned December retirement date to help with the transition. “I know the Bar had wonderful candidates to choose from. It feels very good at this moment to know that the Bar is in great hands.”
As always, Welch is exiting gracefully, with both strength and tenderness, giving more than could be expected.