The Other Side of the Law

Tracey Brame wants to be a guide for the next generation of lawyers, and a role model especially if they’re minority students.

That shouldn't be difficult for a woman who has been involved in everything from helping prepare a death row appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court to representing low income families and sexual assault victims here in Kent County.  But she concedes it requires a delicate balance of commitments to students, the community and her family.

Brame, 38, is using years of research and court experience in federal district court, state and federal appellate and public defender offices in Washington D.C. and Michigan to teach, advise and create awareness. She’s using her talents to encourage minorities to think out of the box when it comes to career choices.

Within Reach
As a role model, Brame, says she can show by example that a law career is not out of reach. She does that through her positions as assistant dean and assistant professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s campus in Grand Rapids.

“Dean Brame has an open door policy and you can talk to her about everything,” says Moraima Ruiz, 26, who is starting her third year at Cooley. The New York City native is the first college graduate in her family, who came to this country from the Dominican Republic.

Ruiz has lived in Grand Rapids for 10 years and considers the area her second home. Brame’s success has been a tremendous influence in her class choices and approach to a law career.

“I see what (Brame) has accomplished and it encourages me as to what I can do, too,” Ruiz says. “There are a lot of barriers to overcome, but she shows you what things have worked for her.”

Brame came to Cooley in 2006 from Legal Aid of Western Michigan. She has quickly moved up the ladder because of her enthusiasm and get-things-done attitude. 

The Thomas M. Cooley Law School is the largest in the country, with three campuses in Michigan. In addition to Grand Rapids, schools operate in Lansing and Auburn Hills. Cooley is ranked first for the number of African-American students among the country’s 195 American Bar Association-accredited law schools. In Grand Rapids, the campus has more than 600 students, with 25 percent minorities. About 7 percent are African-Americans.

Access For All
Brame began her work at the school as the first director of the Access to Justice Clinic, which is a hands-on program staffed by students who serve as lawyers under the supervision of faculty. Brame helped develop the project to serve primarily family law cases that fall through the cracks of the Legal Aid system. She speaks fluent Spanish, which has been essential for clients with language problems.

Brame has been advocate for the poor since law school at the University of Michigan. An internship in the early 1990s at the non-profit Alabama Capital Resource Center, now called the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama, “changed my life.”

“I worked on racial justice legislation and did a lot of research on death penalty appeal cases,” Brame says. She was 23 at the time and under the “brilliant” mentorship of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer who established the center and continues to direct its efforts for the poor and underserved.

“I drove around a lot of the backwoods of Alabama trying to find old witnesses and jurors,” she adds.  “That work really opened my eyes and set the tone for my whole career.”

As the first generation in her family to graduate from college and move into law, Brame feels “somewhat humbled” by her quick rise in a job both varied and challenging, she says.

“I want to get more involved with the Grand Rapids community and do as much as I can for the kids,” she adds. “Every problem seems to be more acute for African-Americans and the underprivileged.”

The Work of an Advocate
While Brame has been involved in many civil law cases, her passion is in criminal law and defense cases because of her past experience.
“I have a disposition toward advocacy work because there’s far too many African-Americans in prison who didn’t have the money or right representation,” Brame says.

Brame hopes to establish a teen court in Grand Rapids, similar to the Lansing Teen Court in Lansing, a division of the state’s Child and Family Services. She serves as a volunteer judge for first time youthful offenders charged with misdemeanors and judged by their peers. The kids admit to their conduct and must go through mentoring, counseling or academic tutoring. The “jury” decides their fate, be that community service, paying a fine or reimbursing a retailer for stolen merchandise.

“I love kids and feel it’s my mission to help keep them out of the criminal justice system,” she says. “Early intervention can really make the difference.” An effort is underway to sell the program to the Grand Rapids judicial system, Brame adds, “but we’re on the ground floor here.”

Cooley law students can attest to that. Ebony Holden says that Brame “has had a profound effect on my law school career.” The Chicago native is in her third year as a part-time student at Cooley and hopes to specialize in family law, primarily domestic violence mediation and children’s rights.

“As (Brame) climbs the corporate ladder, she often times makes me feel as if I’m strapped in for the ride,” Holden adds. “She is the guiding light behind the campus’ Black Law Student Association. It is her zealous and diligent advocacy and contributions that help to maintain the organization’s longevity.”

Indeed, Brame’s support has helped the association become the largest and most active group on campus, says Nelson Miller, associate dean.

More Than an Advisor
“Tracey is not only an advisor, but also like a mother,” he adds. “With about 42 African-Americans on campus, the association is a very special organization and she even opens her home to the students. She is committed to our minority population.”

Brame also is committed to her family, which includes her husband, Kenyatta Brame, 38, also a lawyer and vice president of business services at Cascade Engineering. The couple has two children, Kamau, born in 2006 and Kimani, who arrived in September, at just about the same time Brame was appointed assistant dean. At times, Brame’s office holds almost as many toys as law books, when the children are in tow.

“I’m passionate about finding a balance between motherhood and my profession,” Brame says, thankful that Cooley allows her to work from home one day a week. “I value the idea of staying home, but not at this point in my life.”

Brame is working with Miller and other colleagues to establish another clinic in collaboration with the Kent County Public Defender’s Office, where students will team up with lawyers in that office. Brame would teach the class and course work.  A proposal is being drafted for Kent County’s consideration, which Cooley officials hope to implement by the fall semester.

“Tracey is a creator and innovator and she fits so well here because one of Cooley’s points is innovation,” Miller says. “We try to offer many different options and programs and clinics and she’s been wonderful in that respect.”

The Other Side of the Law
As an under-represented population, minorities need to be drawn into law careers to help level the playing field. The local bar association has been supportive of efforts by Cooley to do just that, Miller adds. The idea is to graduate more minorities and encourage them to practice law in Grand Rapids.

“Tracey has been a leader in getting to law firms with programs,” he says. “It will only benefit Grand Rapids if we can change its reputation that we’re pretty homogeneous. Actually, we have some very special diversified resources here.”

Brame is actively trying to recruit more people of color for adjunct faculty positions and wants to work more with high schools - especially inner city schools – to expose them to “the other side of the law.” That could include workshops at Cooley, use of the school’s library and other activities.

“Grand Rapids has come a long way, but the more diversity we can achieve, the better,” she says. “If we have a school that actively recruits and sets an example, it will help keep people here. Sometimes the access to the majority culture can be hard to come by and it’s important to show young blacks there’s not really a whole lot of difference between ‘me’ and ‘them’.”



A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary Radigan is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. She most recently wrote for Rapid Growth about the FIRST Robotics competition.

Photos:

Tracey Brame, assistant dean and assistant professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s campus in Grand Rapids. (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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