Trial by fire: Noted attorney tested his legal talent with power of persuasion

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Photo courtesy of Sheila Buchanan

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

During his days as one of the state’s most prominent trial attorneys, Jack Buchanan displayed a way with words when in front of a jury, always keeping in mind the Jeffersonian message of “On matters of style, swim with the current; on matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Buchanan has parlayed the message to legal distinction over his 57-year career in the law, successfully trying more than 200 cases while also making a mark as an innovator and entrepreneur in launching the International Society of Primerus Law Firms.

For good measure, Buchanan and his wife Sheila can take special pride in serving as role models for two other well-known members of the state’s legal profession – their son, Rob Buchanan, the current president of the State Bar of Michigan, and their daughter, Jane Beckering, a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 2007.

At various times, Buchanan has been more than a mentor to his son and daughter, also partnering with them in his law practice, which specialized in personal injury claims, medical malpractice cases, and wrongful death actions.

When his daughter was sworn in as an appellate judge, Buchanan took the opportunity to tell one of his “war stories” about the ups and downs of father-daughter law. In one such instance, they were joined at the legal hip, trying a case together for the first time.

It was a “big case” and a “tough case,” according to Buchanan, and revolved around a wrongful death action they brought against a defendant they deemed responsible for an accident that occurred at a local park.

“And when we as plaintiffs’ lawyers in these big cases actually go to court on them, it means that something’s wrong from our end,” Buchanan told the audience gathered for Judge Beckering’s investiture in October 2007.
“We either picked the wrong case to start with . . . and the defense is going to take us to the mat or we will have a fight on our hands.”

Their decision to try the case looked even more “questionable” after they had three “trial runs” before focus-juries, losing two out of three times.

But, like any trial attorneys worth their weight, the Buchanan-Beckering team approached the real trial with more than just hope, doing their best over a two-week case in circuit court to win over a jury.

“It was a stressful trial,” Buchanan said. “The odds were tough. And I remember I was walking down one end of the corridor in front of the courtroom and Jane was pacing the other . . . We go get some coffee and we just keep pacing back and forth, back and forth. We were probably doing that for about two-and-a-half hours, and I could see this was really wearing on Janie. And as we met each other halfway on this pacing, right in front of the courtroom door she sees me and she’s really looking worn out. And she comes up to me and she says, ‘Dad, is this supposed to be fun?’”

His reply, spun in his best double-negative fashion, may have said it all to an up-and-coming lawyer:

“Janie, no,” Buchanan said matter-of-factly. “It ain’t no fun, but it sure is exciting, isn’t it?”

And it also was a winner, as the jury awarded the plaintiff a “very large verdict after about three hours of deliberations,” according to Buchanan.

Winning in that fashion may have come to Buchanan by way of a family line. His father, William, was one of the partners in the Grand Rapids firm of Cholette Perkins & Buchanan. He ranked not only as a “hero in our family,” but also as the “finest trial lawyer in the world as far as we are concerned,” Buchanan said of his father.

It was a title the elder Buchanan could have shared with his brother, Cam, a Detroit trial attorney who also enjoyed more than his share of courtroom success.

“They were my role models as lawyers,” Buchanan said. “Both my dad and uncle were outstanding trial attorneys. My proudest achievement was following in their footsteps.”

After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan, Buchanan went to work in his father’s firm, trying cases “big and small” before 12-member juries for many years.

“It was an all-litigation firm where I learned to become comfortable speaking in front of a jury, developing a relationship with them over the course of the trial,” said Buchanan, a past board member of the invitation-only International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers. “Back in the early days of my career, it seemed like the majority of cases went to trial. Now, probably 95 percent of the cases are settled, principally because of the time and expense, coupled with the fact that all of your cards are on the table after discovery proceedings.”

Buchanan, the oldest of four boys, was raised on a “gentleman’s farm” near Plymouth.

His mother, Betty, was a Wayne State University Law School alumna who died in 1967 at the age of 57.

It was as a young farm boy that Buchanan developed a love for horses, a lifelong fascination that continues to this day. It began when his parents bought him and his brother a pony, and ramped up when he learned how to ride his quarter horse bareback. He eventually turned his attention to Arabian show horses, owning a particular favorite for 25 years until its passing in 2011 at the age of 33. He now owns another 8-year-old Arabian show horse called “Euphoric” who already has won a fair number of blue ribbons and is entered in the world famous Scottsdale Arabian Show this month.

“He’s very fast and spirited, and is so smart that you’d think he’s human,” Buchanan said of his equine friend.

Speed also has been Buchanan’s friend, whether by plane or by boat.

“After my college roommate took me for my first ride in a single-engine airplane, I was hooked and have been flying for over 50 years,” said Buchanan, who attended Western Michigan University for two years before earning his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University School of Business.

In the summer months, Buchanan is equally at home on his boat with his family, cruising along the shores of Lake Michigan and the North Channel of Canada, enjoying the opportunity to anchor in a “beautiful bay and jumping into crystal-clear waters of our magnificent Great Lakes.”

With three children and 10 grandchildren, Buchanan and his wife consider themselves “especially blessed,” and will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in June.

On their first date he took her flying, a “leap of faith” that must have cemented their lifelong bond, noting that “we have flown together in our Beechcraft Bonanzas all over North America and Mexico,” according to Buchanan.

“She’s been my life – as a wonderful wife and mother to our children, and as a business partner,” Buchanan said. “For years she has been in charge of organizing all of our Primerus meetings, negotiating contracts with all the resorts and handling the entertainment arrangements for all of our major events. It’s been a big job and nobody could do it better.”

When Buchanan launched Primerus in 1992, he did so in part to help counter much of the negativity that was aimed at the legal profession. Little did he expect that it would grow into an international society of boutique law firms that are bound together by the concept of “the Six Pillars – Integrity, Quality, Reasonable Fees, Proficiency Through CLE, Civility, and Community Service.” The Primerus trademark is “Good People Who Happen to Be Good Lawyers.”

Said Buchanan: “Quite honestly, I never thought it would take off like this, where we have some 170 law firms in more than 50 countries around the world and more than 3,500 lawyers. It’s been exciting to see it grow and prosper. It gives me a new sense of energy every day.”



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