Their character defined a sense of true purpose


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Over the last month, two “passings” have passed, offering a true sense of sadness over the loss of two friends who legitimately could be labeled as “legends” in the state’s legal profession.

Tom Plunkett, who died in October 2017 at age 78 after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer, was posthumously honored last November at a special reception hosted by the Oakland County Bar Foundation at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. That evening, Plunkett was saluted as the Bar Foundation’s first “Legend of the Law” honoree.

The ceremony, which drew scores of prominent members of the bench and bar from the Detroit area, featured a televised interview of Plunkett that was broadcast just months before his death. The interview was conducted by Henry Gornbein, a noted family law attorney who for the past 21 years has hosted an award-winning local cable television show titled “Practical Law.”

“Tom Plunkett truly was a ‘Legend of the Law’ over the course of his career,” said Gornbein, a family law practitioner for more than 50 years. “He served Oakland County with distinction as an assistant prosecutor and then as its prosecuting attorney before moving into private practice for the balance of his career. He also was a positive force in the local and state bar associations.”

A year before Plunkett’s death, his friend Mike Lavoie died of a massive heart attack at age 63. His death on October 13, 2016, came just hours after the Butzel Long attorney completed a weekly doubles tennis match in Birmingham. For his friends and loved ones, it was a sudden and shocking end, leaving a legion of admirers reeling and at a loss for words.

Lavoie, as it turned out, was seldom at a “loss for words,” whether in his personal or professional life. I learned as much in 2007 when I first crossed paths with the Notre Dame alum who grew up in Pontiac.

Joe Papelian, then deputy chief of litigation for Delphi Corp., suggested I write a feature story on Lavoie and all of the good works he was involved with in Pontiac and in Burkina Faso, the West African nation where Lavoie served in the Peace Corps years ago. It proved to be an interesting assignment that led to a friendship cemented by the twin forces of golf and tennis.

Along the way, when Mike and his twin brother Rob celebrated their 60th birthdays on a Super Bowl Sunday in 2013, I discovered something about Mike that seemed a bit incongruous.

He once was an altar boy.

The thought of Mike, even as a youth, with a facsimile of a halo over his head didn’t quite add up to the reality of the present-day mischief-maker that we had all grown to know and love.

As one of his frequent golf partners over the years, I had grown accustomed to his penchant for pranks, wise cracks and good-natured barbs, and admired his quick wit and wry sense of humor.

And yet, all that time on the golf course together also allowed me the privilege of seeing his decidedly softer side. He was a man of deep faith, who cherished his role in helping make the world a better place.

Upon his college graduation, Lavoie joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa that is heavily dependent on agricultural production to fuel its economy. Lavoie, with only two weeks of technical training, was charged with directing a well-digging effort in several remote villages where water was as scarce as hope for a better life among villagers.

The experience there was a “game-changer” for him, as Lavoie remained committed throughout his legal career to strengthening bonds between the U.S. and Burkina Faso as well as improving the lives of those he befriended during his many trips to Africa.

For that desire, he would be rightly honored by various organizations. In 2008, he received the State Bar of Michigan’s “Champion of Justice Award,” earning recognition for his efforts to promote diversity in the legal profession and economic advancement for the underprivileged at home and abroad.

Such missions also were dear to the heart of Tom Plunkett, whose moral compass could never be questioned.

Attorney Rick Rassel, a partner in the Birmingham firm of Williams Williams Rattner & Plunkett, knew full well.

“Tom hired me on behalf of the firm in March 1998, fresh out of a judicial clerkship,” Rassel told those gathered for the vigil following Plunkett’s passing three years ago. “I was very wet behind the ears. Tom soon became my mentor, friend, and moral compass. I immediately attached myself to his hip with respect to his great law practice at the firm. 

“Tom had many exceptional talents, but one of them was the ability to transition from the role of serious, dedicated lawyer to just one of the guys who could enjoy a good laugh, round of golf, or a light moment,” related Rassel, a Marquette University alum who earned his law degree in 1997 from Wayne State.  “A great example is two stories I remember from my early practice with Tom, circa 2000.” 

The “first story,” Rassel recalled, involved a request by a “very well-known East Coast real estate developer to have our firm” concoct an excuse to suppress crucial evidence in an important case.

To Plunkett, the case was more than clear.

“I sought Tom's guidance and without hesitation Tom fired the client on behalf of the firm,” Rassel said. “Tom would have none of it. 

“He was not going to compromise his personal ethics, mine, those of the firm or the legal system for any reason, period.  It was as simple as that, a clarifying moment in my legal career.  The client later acquiesced to turn over the evidence and the case was resolved, but I never forgot that crucial professional lesson that Tom taught me.” 

The “second story” was of a much lighter nature and reflected “Tom's joyful sense of when to take an opportunity” to relax and enjoy the fruits of labor, according to Rassel. 

“Tom and I were involved in a fairly large case involving a construction project on a golf course,” Rassel related.  “Tom wanted to conduct a ‘site inspection’ of the construction project but told me to bring my golf clubs, ‘just in case.’

“We may or may not have observed in any meaningful way the construction project that day, but we had a great time playing golf, enjoying life and a break from the office that Tom carefully orchestrated,” Rassel recalled with a smile.

And “for the record,” Rassel noted, “we later won the case hands down,” bringing a matter of “course” to a fitting end.

“That was Tom,” proclaimed Rassel, “orchestrating a great legal success while participating fully in the enjoyment of life.”


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