Alum and judge credits her high school with jump-starting career in law

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Pontiac Catholic alumna Colleen O'Brien (’74) is a judge on the Michigan Second District Court of Appeals. Governor Rick Snyder appointed her on September 29, 2015, to finish the unexpired term of Pat Donofrio, who retired the following day. She subsequently was elected to the seat in 2016 for a full six-year term, which expires on January 1, 2023.

Following a brief biography of her professional career, a recent interview of O’Brien by the editors of IRISH magazine is posted below.

Judge Colleen O’Brien was appointed to the Court of Appeals in October of 2015. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and from the Detroit College of Law with a Juris Doctor degree in 1981. O’Brien practiced law for 17 years prior to being elected to the Oakland County Circuit Court in 1998. As a circuit judge, she served as the presiding judge of the Female Adult Treatment Court for twelve years and as the presiding judge of the Civil/Criminal Division for several years. O’Brien is a long-time member of the Michigan Judges Association and served as its president in 2015. She also has served as president of the Oakland County Women’s Bar Association and served on the Board of Directors of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. An active member of the Oakland County Bar Association, O’Brien received the Distinguished Public Servant Award in 2011. Her civic activities include serving on the Advisory Board to Crossroads for Youth, serving as a member of the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, and serving as a member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.


IRISH: Judge O’Brien, can you go into a little more detail on your journey from high school to your current position?

O’BRIEN: After graduating from Pontiac Catholic in 1974, I attended Oakland University for two years and eventually transferred to the University of Michigan. I graduated from Michigan in 1978 where I majored in political science during college with the intent to continue onto law school.

I have to say that I believe the excellent education I received at Pontiac Catholic was instrumental in my success in college and later in law school. Specifically, a strong background in English and the development of excellent reading and writing skills were invaluable.

During law school, I worked part time as a law clerk for a small law firm in Pontiac. After passing the bar exam I was hired by that same firm to work as an attorney. For the next 17 years I worked at several different southeast Michigan law firms where I gained courtroom experience in many different areas of the law including criminal, family, personal injury and municipal law.

In 1998 I was elected to serve on the Oakland County Circuit Court. The Circuit Court handles criminal felony cases, civil cases over $25,000.00 and family law matters. While on the court I served as the presiding judge of the Civil/Criminal Division as well as the presiding judge of the Adult Treatment Court. I also served as an adjunct professor at Thomas Cooley Law School.

In 2015 I was appointed by the governor to the Michigan Court of Appeals. In November of 2016, I was elected to serve on the Court of Appeals for a six-year term. The Court of Appeals hears cases being appealed from the circuit courts as well as many administrative agencies. This position requires hearing oral arguments  and deciding cases from around the State of Michigan while sitting with a panel of three judges. The courtrooms where the cases are heard are located in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

IRISH: What or who were the big influences in your life that led to your career in law?

O’BRIEN: I believe my parents were the strongest influence in my career choice of the law. During my youth, I enjoyed watching courtroom dramas on television. My parents suggested that I pursue law school in the future even though at that time, in the late 60s, there were very few women lawyers.

IRISH: What types of extracurricular activities were you also involved in at Pontiac Catholic?

O’BRIEN: While at Pontiac Catholic, I was involved in two extracurricular activities that contributed to my skill-set and enabling me to successfully complete law school and later become a successful attorney. I was a member of the debate team at PC which required great preparation, research and development of a position. I was required to defend that position whether I entirely agreed with it or not. Also being active in theater during high school required me to speak in front of large audiences. This was instrumental in developing the confidence necessary to argue a case in court before a judge and a jury.

IRISH: What kind of specific memories do you have of high school at Pontiac Catholic?

O’BRIEN: I have many wonderful memories from my years at Pontiac Catholic. I am very thankful for the wonderful friendships I developed with many of my classmates. Several of my closest friends, with whom I stay in close contact today, were my classmates at Pontiac Catholic.

Some of my favorite memories include playing major characters in the drama productions of Showboat and Brigadoon. Also during the 70s, Pontiac Catholic's basketball teams often made it to the state finals. I remember watching many exciting basketball games.

I also had many wonderful teachers at Pontiac Catholic. Standing out are Sister Margaret, whom I credit with my strong education in English and the development of my reading and writing skills, as well as Sister Mercia who gave of her free time to direct the school's theater program.

In addition, I believe alumni should support their alma mater, which in my case also includes, if asked, sharing my experience in the law with the students at Notre Dame in the future.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." The Marist Fathers and Brothers sponsor NDPMA's Catholic identity and manages its educational program. Notre Dame is accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.

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