Former State Bar leader took father's wise words to heart


Tom Ryan believes lawyers from firms large and small have a “special responsibility to participate” in bar association service.


by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A piece of fatherly advice has stood the test of time for Tom Ryan, a past president of the State Bar of Michigan who in 2013 marked his 40th year as an attorney.

Ryan, who concentrates his practice in municipal law and in alternative dispute resolution work, attributes his legal longevity to some early words of wisdom from his father, Frank, a tool and die maker who eventually rose from the ranks of the factory floor to vice president of a manufacturing company.
“He always said to me, ‘Be your own boss,’” Ryan related. “If I heard that once, I heard that a hundred times from him. It was something that he longed for in his own career. He always wanted to go into business for himself, but the opportunity never quite presented itself.”

For Ryan, on the other hand, the chance came early in his legal career following graduation from the University of Detroit School of Law. It may have been a partial response to two jobs he held while attending night school at U of D.

“I worked at the Wayne County bail program, a job that was a real eye-opener for someone embarking on a legal career,” Ryan said. “I also had a job as a substitute teacher – and I have the scars to prove it. Those two jobs taught me a lot about what I didn’t want to do in life.”

A University of Notre Dame alum, Ryan was a law clerk at Plunkett Cooney before accepting a teaching fellowship overseas in the fall of 1973. He taught French students classes in constitutional law, torts, and contracts, hoping that it would lead to an international law position in D.C. on his return.

Instead, Ryan landed a job in 1975 with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office then headed by L. Brooks Patterson, spending two years there in various roles, learning the legal ropes from attorneys such as Leonard Gilman, who would later become U.S. Attorney in Detroit. Two years later, he entered the world of private practice, eventually joining forces with attorney Tom Dillon in Oakland County, where “I cut my teeth in the field of municipal law,” Ryan indicated. When Dillon retired in 1982, Ryan was enjoying success building his own practice, eventually representing such municipalities as Bloomfield Township, Clarkston, Keego Harbor, Beverly Hills, and Orchard Lake, while also handling a variety of criminal defense and private litigation matters.
“Being a solo practitioner is not for everybody,” Ryan admitted. “It can get dicey at times, but I like having the ability to call my own shots even without the resources of a large firm. Of course, I have been fortunate to have received a lot of help over the years in building a practice from a number of former judges, current judges, clients, lawyers, and staff members. Obviously, nobody can do it by themselves. Still, there is a special satisfaction
that comes from building something from the ground up, knowing that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into making it happen.”

He imparted that message to fellow solo practitioners around the state when he served as president of the State Bar of Michigan in 2000-01, capping a rise up the bar association ranks that he marvels at to this day.
“I never would have dreamed that I would become State Bar president when I first ran for the Oakland County Bar board in 1986,” Ryan said. “I simply wanted to give back to my profession, to be something more than just a joiner. I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way. Everybody has a part to play in the success of the bar, not just the big firms.”

Seven years after he was elected to the OCBA board, Ryan was chosen as president for 1993-94, some 30 years removed from the time his mentor, Tom Dillon, headed the Oakland Bar.

“There was a bit of symbolism in that,” Ryan said. “For Tom, it was as if I was the son he didn’t have.”

His involvement in State Bar activities was encouraged by attorney George Googasian and would saddle him with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Landslide Ryan” after he won a seat on the Board of Commissioners by a 26-vote margin in his first elective try.

“I eventually was asked to get on the chair list, which ramps up your involvement considerably,” Ryan said. “It was a tough decision to make, since I had five kids and a solo practice.”

When he ascended to the State Bar presidency, Ryan reached out to his friends, attorneys Tom Plunkett and Tom Cranmer, for help, according them the unofficial titles of “co-chiefs of staff” for the new man in charge.

“Tom (Cranmer) and I had some fun with it and performed several ‘important’ functions for Tom such as chauffeuring him around the state for some of his many speeches given to local bar associations,” Plunkett recalled.
“Needless to say, we heard some of the same stories more than once.

“On a more serious note, Tom has shown himself throughout his career to be a fine lawyer who gives of himself for many community causes,” said Plunkett, a former Oakland County prosecutor who now is a partner in the Birmingham firm of Williams Williams Ratner and Plunkett. “Tom is one of the most skilled mediators who has successfully facilitated settlements of all forms of litigation both for our firm’s clients and many other lawyers and clients.”

Christine Derdarian, a Bloomfield Hills attorney and former Michigan Employment Relations Commission chair, was a Detroit law student in the early 1970s when she first met Ryan. She wrote in a 2000 Michigan Bar Journal article, “From our law school days, to those early years of practice, to the present, I have watched Tom grow into the kind of lawyer in whom everyone in our profession can take pride. He represents the best and the brightest, to borrow a phrase from David Halberstam. Tom is a little bit Atticus Finch, a little bit Clarence Darrow, and a little bit Learned Hand all rolled into one. His sense of fairness, respect for his fellow man, and wisdom have served him, his clients, and his profession very well.”

Mike Schloff, who worked with Ryan at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, said he has long ad-

mired the way Ryan conducts himself in and out of court, calling him “unpretentious,” a “great attorney,” and committed “to the good works of the legal profession.”
A member of the Judicial Tenure Commission since 2005, Ryan is a Detroit native. One of three children, Ryan has a special twinkle in his eyes when he speaks of his late mother and father, both Detroit east-siders who achieved “the gold standard as parents.” 

He has a similar gleam when talk turns to his wife, Colleen Ronayne, a distinguished lawyer in her own right, and the couple’s five children.  The Ryan clan is a “tight-knit bunch” that is undeniably proud of their Irish American heritage.