Lead role: New Foundation President seeks to build on its success

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News
When it comes to volunteer service, Liz Luckenbach admits that she has a “hard time saying ‘no.’”

Her propensity for saying “yes” fits neatly with the axiom, “When you want something done, ask a busy person.”

Luckenbach, a partner in the Southfield office of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, is plenty busy as a member of the firm’s Estate Planning/Probate and Litigation Practice groups, focusing her daily attention on probate litigation, special needs planning, and elder law.

That is on top of her responsibilities as a single mom raising three daughters, two of whom are in high school and involved in a range of sports and extracurricular activities.

This summer, for good measure, she began her duties as president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to supporting legal aid work and educational programs in the greater legal community. Her first official meeting as president was August 20, a time when she paid tribute to her predecessor, Patrick McCauley, for his second tour of duty as head of the OCBF.

“Patrick did an amazing job as president, helping us raise a record amount of funds at the Signature Event last spring and setting in motion plans to establish a legacy program that will help sustain funding for our mission,” Luckenbach said during an interview this week at Jaffe’s headquarters atop the American Center, the former home of American Motors Corp. “It is my hope to continue his good work and that of all of the former presidents of the Bar Foundation.”

Luckenbach, a graduate of Cranbrook who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, has been on the “fast track” to the presidency since joining the OCBF Board four years ago.

“I was elected treasurer my second year and then became vice president and now president,” Luckenbach said of her rise to the top of the 20-member board that includes some of the “finest legal minds and dedicated community servants” in the Metro Detroit region. “It’s a bit humbling to lead an organization with such a rich history as this, but it’s comforting to know that we are part of a team that is devoted to our legal aid and educational projects.”

Cynthia Brazzil, an attorney with the Kemp Klein Law Firm and now an emeritus member of the OCBF Board, was instrumental in encouraging Luckenbach to become involved with the Bar Foundation, noting that she was impressed with her drive and zeal while the two served on the membership committee for the Oakland County Bar Association.

“I knew when we were looking for good trustee additions for the Oakland County Bar Foundation that we would not be able to do much better than to persuade Liz Luckenbach to join,” said Brazzil, a past president of the OCBF and a former winner of the Distinguished Service Award from the OCBA. “In addition, I knew Liz had the ability to rise quickly through the ranks and become president. I remain convinced that the Foundation will be a better organization once Liz has a year at its helm.”

An elder law attorney at Kemp Klein, Brazzil noted that, “Liz is a very busy Jaffe attorney who engages in probate litigation and is very highly thought of by the partners at my firm who practice in her area.” In fact, said Brazzil, “I listened to her give an ICLE seminar on Special Needs Trusts and was thoroughly impressed with her understanding of an extremely complicated and technical area of law and her ability to communicate it so that the audience – including myself – could actually understand it.”

Luckenbach could give a few lessons on the art of juggling as well, somehow finding time to serve on the board of the Children’s Center in Detroit, a nonprofit agency serving child welfare needs.

“In addition to everything else in her life, Liz is the Finance Committee Chairman for Karen McDonald, her partner (at Jaffe) who is running for the open judicial seat in the Oakland County Circuit Court and who came in first in votes in the recent primary,” Brazzil indicated.

A native of Birmingham, Luckenbach is the daughter of an architect and an interior designer, and readily acknowledges that the “artistic gene in the family skipped over me.” Her father was the principal architect of The Silverdome, while her mother served as the interior designer for the luxury suites at the 80,000-seat stadium that hosted the Super Bowl in 1982.

A field hockey and lacrosse player at Cranbrook, Luckenbach worked as a part-time sports writer for The Lansing State Journal during her college days at MSU, paying her dues cobbling together box scores of area high school games. She also did some free-lance work for The Ann Arbor News, writing a feature on an 85-year-old woman who finished a marathon – and lived to tell about it.

“I moved to Seattle after college and hoped to be a stringer for The Seattle Times, but it was a tough time in the newspaper business then, so I ended up landing a job as a public relations and marketing consultant for an architectural firm there,” Luckenbach said. “I always had a plan to go to law school, but I just loved living out west with all the outdoor activities there are to enjoy.”

The lure of life on the West Coast was so great that Luckenbach delayed her law school plans by two years, working as a bartender instead.
“My Dad didn’t exactly buy into it, but I just wasn’t ready to buckle down and get on a career path,” Luckenbach said with a smile.

When law school did roll around in the fall of 1993, Luckenbach enrolled at DePaul University, allowing her the flexibility to visit her beloved grandmother who had been admitted to a nursing home in Ann Arbor.
“I made a lot of trips there to see her and she ended up dying during finals weeks of my first year of law school,” Luckenbach related. “Her death was a huge loss.”
Upon graduation from DePaul, and by then a mom of a toddler and a 3-month-old, Luckenbach accepted a part-time job as an estate planning and probate lawyer for a firm in suburban Chicago. The job became full time in short order and eventually led to an opportunity with a firm in Bloomfield Hills in the summer of 2000, allowing her to move home to her roots. Five years later, she accepted an offer at Jaffe after being encouraged to look at an opportunity with the firm by her friend, Mike Jacobson, a partner in the Commercial Litigation Practice Group.
“It has been a great fit for me,” Luckenbach said of her move to Jaffe, where she is head of its Recruitment Committee. “It was sold to me as a big firm with a reputation for high end and sophisticated legal work, but with the atmosphere of a smaller firm where everyone feels part of a family. It has been everything it was billed to be, and I’ve certainly appreciated the firm’s willingness to support and encourage community and charitable involvement.”
All the while, Luckenbach said she “works hard” to strike the proper balance between her professional and family life, where her three daughters – Colby, Claudia, and Maggie – are centered.
Colby, 17, will be a senior at Lahser High School this fall, where she is a member of the lacrosse team. She has been accepted to the University of Iowa and also is eyeing admission to another Big Ten school, the University of Wisconsin.
Her sister, Claudia, will be a sophomore at Westover School in Middlebury, Conn., an all-girls academy where she is on the varsity volleyball and lacrosse teams.
The youngest in the family, 8-year-old Maggie, who is named after her great-grandmother, will enter third grade in Bloomfield Hills this fall.
Last weekend, the Luckenbach family grew by one more.
“For Maggie’s birthday, I got her a dog, Sophie, a Malti-poo,” Luckenbach said. “Just what we needed, another girl in the family.”

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