New bar president keeps goals uppermost in mind

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Photo by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As the incoming president of the Oakland County Bar Association, Jim Derian followed custom during remarks at the OCBA’s 79th Annual Meeting earlier this month, paying homage to his predecessors.

He lauded “all the great leaders before me who’ve helped build the OCBA into the leading county bar association” in the state, reserving special praise for “all the brilliant people who serve this organization at every level,” including outgoing president Judy Cunningham, the proverbial “tough act to follow,” according to Derian.

Then he decided it was time to break custom, going a bit on the edgy side to describe the presidential task before him over the coming year.

“So, I’ve got to tell you, right about now I’m feeling less like the 80th president of the Oakland County Bar Association and more like Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband on their wedding night,” Derian said with
aplomb. “I mean I know what I need to do, but I don’t know if I can make it interesting.”

Judging by the audience’s roar of laughter, Derian figures to be more than up to the challenge, quickly instilling in the minds of OCBA members that the organization remains in good hands.

For Derian, a litigation attorney with Delphi Automotive Systems, much of his early energy as OCBA president will be spent promoting the importance of law-related education.

“The statistics are pretty shocking, but I’ll just share one with you: 50 percent of American adults can’t identify the three branches of government, let alone tell you about their basic constitutional rights,” Derian said during his speech at the OCBA Annual Meeting June 6 at the Marriott at Centerpoint in Pontiac.

“There are a lot of reasons for this problem, of course. But, the main one is that schools aren’t teaching civics like they once did,” Derian proclaimed. “This is especially so in Michigan because the MEAP Test is focused on math, science, and reading. So, the question for us becomes: What can we lawyers do to help better educate people, particularly young people, about our Constitution and system of government?”

While noting that the OCBA has a distinctive track record of sponsoring various educational projects annually (Senior Law Day, Youth Law Conference, Legal Aid Mini-Clinics, and Elementary School Mock Trial Program), Derian said bar volunteers will be mobilized this fall “to carry out a series of Constitution-themed programs” in Pontiac schools.

“We’ll be starting with seventh- and eighth-graders in two Pontiac schools this September 17, which is Constitution Day,” Derian said. “We’ll be following up with programs in other Pontiac schools later in the school year. Our Oakland County Circuit Court is located in Pontiac, and the Pontiac schools need us the most, so this is the most logical place to start. But, I’m hopeful that in the future we can expand this program to other schools in Oakland County that need us.”

A native Detroiter, Derian is of Armenian descent, the same as his presidential predecessor. He grew up in northeast Detroit and St. Clair Shores until age 15, when the family moved to Bloomfield Township.
“My parents always placed great value on education, seeing it as the ticket to a better life,” Derian said.

His father, Haig, was a dentist, using the G.I. Bill after his World War II infantry service to attend dental school at the University of Detroit. For years he operated a successful dental practice from an office on Jefferson Avenue and later in Southfield.

“My father was always a heroic figure for me, and he was absolutely passionate about his profession,” Derian related. “He could talk for hours about dentistry and all the things he was doing in his practice. He truly loved his work.”

His mother, Dorothy, was a Detroit teacher before becoming a school psychologist for the Berkley Schools, a role that has served her well later in life as she provides daily care for her husband, now 91 and suffering from dementia.

“My mother is absolutely devoted to him and works tirelessly everyday as his principal caregiver,” Derian said. “She is simply amazing. Obviously, they had a great marriage.”

A 1977 graduate of the University of Michigan, Derian is the oldest of three children. His brother, Peter, works in an I.T. position at Wayne State, while his sister, Lisa, is part of the design team for General Motors.

Following his graduation from U-M, Derian took his academic talents to Wayne State Law School, where he earned a spot on the Law Review. His immigrant grandfather, Alex, was a World War I veteran and a member of the fabled Michigan Polar Bear Division in northern Russia. He was the first in the family to become a lawyer, serving as a legal role model for Derian.

“When I graduated from law school in 1981, the economy was in recession and times were tough in the legal profession,” Derian said. “I was fortunate to land a job with a small firm in Mount Clemens, handling mostly insurance defense work. It was great experience and I made some good friends. It got me hooked on bar association work. The Macomb Bar is a very cohesive group and my experiences there sold me on the value of getting involved.”

After practicing as a partner for a mid-sized Southfield firm for a number of years, Derian joined Butzel Long, spending six years there before being recruited in 2006 to his current in-house position with Delphi.

“I’m fortunate that Delphi has supported and encouraged my work with the (Oakland County) Bar Association, and I was especially pleased that so many of my colleagues turned out for the Annual Meeting when I was sworn in to office,” Derian said. “It meant a lot to me.”

His mother also was in attendance that night, as were his wife, Genya, and the couple’s two school-aged children, Van and Lara. His son, Sam, who graduated from Michigan State University last month, was there as well.

Derian and his wife of 15 years now speak English together, but it wasn’t always so. In the late ‘90s, the then-divorced Derian traveled to the newly independent Republic of Armenia as part of a legal delegation assigned with the task of helping promote the rule of law in the former Soviet satellite. After presenting a paper on product liability law to a group of Armenian attorneys, Derian was invited to a dinner reception where an attractive and talented pianist caught his eye.

“Despite my sketchy Armenian language skills, she agreed to go out to dinner with me the following night. We met one more time too before I left,” Derian said.

“When I returned to the U.S., we talked on the phone and corresponded the old-fashioned way, by letter,” Derian said of the budding long distance romance.

Six months later, he invited her to the States for a summer visit. The hitch was that she would be living with his parents while the two decided if their relationship was marriage material.

It was, and for that Derian is especially grateful, calling his wife a “true gem, an incredibly wonderful woman.”

She now, of course, speaks English fluently, and believes in the importance of what lies ahead for her husband, the 2013-14 head of the OCBA, perhaps even echoing his closing thoughts to those assembled for the Annual Meeting.

“Volunteerism is at the heart of what the OCBA is about,” Derian said at the meeting. “It’s certainly not about me or other individual officers or directors. It’s about us choosing to come together as a community of lawyers to pursue our common interests. In so doing, we need to stay focused on what’s interesting, useful, and relevant to our members.”

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