Not Just Any Ol’ Attorney
Specialty Practices Show Lawyers’ Passion And Personality
“My nonprofit clients usually want a seat at the table, and sometimes it takes a lawyer to get there.” – TJ Andrews
Growing up on a farm in Swaziland – a small, land-locked country in southern Africa – Traverse City attorney TJ Andrews didn’t have your average, run-of-the-mill childhood.
“As a kid in Africa, I spent a lot of time in nature,” she said. “Real wilderness was everywhere – even in our house. I checked my bed for snakes every night, checked shoes for scorpions before putting them on and crocodiles prevented river swimming. I have a lot of monkey stories and spent endless hours looking for wildlife in Kruger Park.”
And it apparently set the stage for her future career as a public interest environmental attorney.
“It wasn’t a conscious connection, but my decision to go into environmental law at some level must stem from spending so much time in the wild,” said Andrews, who went on to work for the state and federal governments and a public interest firm.
Andrews is now on her own, practicing public interest environmental law as the Law Office of Tracy Jane Andrews, PLLC. She has two offices; one at The Watershed Center (TWC) Grand Traverse Bay, one of her primary clients, and another in her basement.
“It doesn’t have a view (of the bay, like at TWC), but it’s convenient and quiet,” she said, adding that running her own practice allows her to be available for her two preschool-aged children.
Andrews provides legal counsel to individuals and nonprofit organizations in environmental, natural resources, and land use matters, primarily working for public interest nonprofit organizations whose mission is to improve water and air quality in their communities.
She helps the groups navigate the myriad ordinances, rules, and statutes that affect air and water.
“Typically, this means trying to convince a regulator, on my client’s behalf, to apply the rules to protect the affected community,” said Andrews. “Regulators (from county inspectors to DEQ permit writers) are used to working with the regulated community – developers, industries and maybe commercial operations. The community most directly impacted by their decisions may not be invited to the table until after decisions have been made. My nonprofit clients usually want a seat at the table, and sometimes it takes a lawyer to get there.”
She has a handful of clients who keep her busy. One of the best known is The Watershed Center, which aims to protect and preserve the Grand Traverse Bay and its 1,000-square-mile watershed.
Her work with the nonprofit involves three main categories: First is keeping an eye on requests to regulators when people seek permission for projects that might have adverse effects on local water quality.
“When we see, for example, a permit request to harden a shoreline or construct a new subdivision, we evaluate the situation and may comment to the DEQ or township on our water quality concerns about the project,” she said.
Secondly, Andrews spends “a lot of time” looking at ordinances and offering suggestions that might help protect water quality. And, lastly, she helps TWC weigh in on pending state and federal legislation that could affect local water quality.
One of the most rewarding cases of her career, she said, is happening right now. She’s partnering with her former employer, Olson, Bzdok & Howard of Traverse City, to represent an “environmental justice” (minority, low income) community in Dearborn fight a DEQ permit that increases air pollution from a steel plant.
“To put it simply, this is the last community in Michigan that deserves increased air pollution, and the rationale and process for the new permit are indefensible,” she said. “It’s a long battle and it’s not over, but working on behalf of this client to fight this permit is very rewarding.”
While there are numerous attorneys who specialize in environmental/natural resources/land use and work on behalf of the regulated community, Andrews sees a “big, unmet demand” for attorneys who can help community and neighborhood organizations navigate the legal systems that affect their air and water.
“The laws and processes are so complex and this is a specialty area,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s a constant challenge of demand for specialized expertise combined with limited resources.”
In 2004, Andrews joined Olson Bzdok & Howard in Traverse City as an associate, working on environmental issues. She left four years later to study yoga, attending the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India.
When she came back, things had changed for her, both personally and for the economy (in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. labor market lost 8.4 million jobs) so she joined the U.S. Air Force as an Environmental Litigation Attorney.
“The Air Force provided an excellent opportunity for me to see how things work inside the federal government,” she said.
Andrews handled “complex” federal environmental litigation, primarily involving hazardous waste contamination matters, and was twice recognized by the Department of Justice for outstanding legal advocacy.
“I really had no idea when I left Olson Bzdok & Howard that I would end up immersed in litigation over the environmental legacy of rocket propulsion, or would spend months digging through the National Archives looking for Agent Orange materials, for example,” she said.
“Fraud and piercing the corporate veil are the two hardest things to prove in civil litigation, which is a deterrent for most attorneys. I view those victories as badges of honor.” – Brace Kern
Traverse City attorney Brace Kern specializes in real estate litigation, usually involving fraud arising during the Great Recession.
But before starting his own firm last December, he developed a tough skin fighting medical malpractice, personal injury and even police brutality cases in Manhattan.
“You have to endure condescension, ridicule and hatred for bringing a case against NYC’s finest, then you have to overcome the dismay of seeing their cover-up attempts,” he said. “Eventually the city pays, and pays even more to keep it out of the media, so you’re never publicly vindicated for being in the right. Now I don’t think twice about taking down ‘the man’ – whether it’s the NYPD, a locally-revered businessman, or a beloved politician. If you’ve wronged someone, you better hope they don’t end up in my office.”
Eyeing a better quality of life, Kern moved to Traverse City in 2011 and began working for Dingeman, Dancer & Christopherson (now Dingeman & Dancer).
“Manhattan is fun, but it’s no place to raise a family,” he said. “As a Michigander, I knew I wouldn’t stay in NYC forever, but it’s the most advanced legal market in the country. Now, I feel fortunate to be surrounded by water that I can actually use, and people with much nicer attitudes.”
After three years at the firm and after developing close relationships with his clients, Kern decided to open his own firm, BEK Law, located on Veterans Drive. Focusing on real estate litigation vs. medical malpractice was a matter of demand more than anything else.
“Traverse City only has one hospital, whereas it has many real estate development opportunities,” he said.
Kern said most disputes over real estate these days arose during the Great Recession, between December 2007 and June 2009. There are six-year statutes of limitations for claims of fraud and breach of contract, so legal resolution of these cases lags by almost a decade.
“What sets me apart from the competition is that I prefer a challenge,” he said. “Fraud and piercing the corporate veil are the two hardest things to prove in civil litigation, which is a deterrent for most attorneys. I view those victories as badges of honor.”
Kern cited a recent “very gratifying” jury verdict in Livingston County in which the developer was ultimately found liable for four counts of fraud and breach of contract.
His clients had lost their homes to foreclosure after they provided their land to a developer who agreed to finance and develop a subdivision. When the Recession hit, the developer breached the contract because he no longer wanted to invest in the project. He also lied to the homeowners to deter them from pursuing him for breach of contract.
Aside from the four counts of fraud and breach of contract, Kern was able to “pierce the corporate veil “of the fake entity that (the developer) created to shield himself from liability.
“Consequently, we can now collect our $310,000 judgment from his profitable engineering company, rather than the insolvent fake entity,” he said.
The most personally rewarding case of Kern’s career, however, was obtaining political asylum for a former member of Nepal’s parliament.
“Being democratically elected, he was kidnapped, beaten and threatened by the country’s communist Maoists,” he explained. “Fearing for his life, he fled to America and I was able to help him obtain political asylum, which meant that he, and eventually his family, could stay in America. He suffered the ultimate fall from grace; he was a successful political figure in his homeland, but in America he earns minimum wage stocking bookshelves by Dewey decimal numbers because he doesn’t speak English.”
Kern – who took the two hardest bar exams in the country – admits he “comes across as a very aggressive litigator,” but that he’s actually a “big softie with a strong sense of empathy.”
“I suppose it’s an occupational hazard,” he joked.