'Meaningful' mission: New State Bar chief goes out of his way to help out

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The Buchanan family – Rob and his wife Mary; their three daughters, Ellie, Brooke, and Sarah; and their new pup, Gatsby.


By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Rob Buchanan, the newly-minted president of the State Bar of Michigan, is an adventurer, whether in his personal or professional life.

“Evidently it’s in my DNA,” Buchanan said of his propensity for stepping out of the safe lane where most people find comfort in their daily existence. “I like to explore, to experience what life has to offer.”

He did it as a student at Kalamazoo College, the topflight liberal arts school that prides itself in experiential education and study abroad programs.

While at K-College, Buchanan spent six months in Spain, immersing himself in the language and culture, attending the Instituto Internacional in Madrid and working toward bilingual proficiency.

After returning stateside in 1984, Buchanan served as an aviation intern at the Ionia airport, eventually obtaining his commercial glider’s license and private pilot certification for single engine planes. Following law school for Buchanan, his love of flying would lead to part ownership of a 1940 L4 Piper Cub, an observation aircraft used for the Allied invasion of Normandy, France in 1944.

“There’s nothing quite like flying at 1,500 feet with the windows open – incredible views, invigorating airflow, and soothing purr of the motor,” said Buchanan.

Which explains the path the Grand Rapids native took in his legal career after graduating from Wayne State University Law School, cum laude, in 1988. His first job was as a commercial litigation associate with Warner Norcross + Judd, widely recognized as the top law firm on the western side of the state. Buchanan would spend 6 years there, making a name for himself as a skilled AV-rated trial attorney and potentially a future leader of the firm.

And then, Buchanan made what friends in the legal community thought was a bold decision.

“In 1995, I left the most prestigious law firm in West Michigan to start the Buchanan Firm with my family,” Buchanan related. “Though I had a terrific career as a business litigator with Warner Norcross + Judd, and about to join the partnership that year, I chose not to step onto that up escalator. Partners at the firm and many friends thought I’d gone mad. Why would anyone work so hard for years and walk away from financial security?”

Why? The reason was a DNA quirk, he said.

“I knew myself,” he explained. “I wanted to help real people, solve real problems, doing meaningful legal work, and no longer serve big companies and wealthy executives in their squabbles over money. Today, I enjoy helping wonderful people every day resolve true injustice, and I’ve never regretted my decision.”

As a co-founder and managing member of Buchanan Firm, he limits his plaintiff practice to only large, catastrophic medical malpractice and vehicle crash claims.

“As a plaintiff attorney, I am always helping the little guy, the underdog to right wrongs,” he said. “I enjoy being their metaphoric David figure in single combat against powerful and moneyed Goliaths. Giants are arrogant and terrifying bullies, and they try pummeling the little guy with their superior size, weapons, and brute strength. No one fights them unless it’s a death wish.”

Which, to Buchanan’s way of thinking, is the reason to do legal battle.

“As attorneys for the little guy, we must be quicker, smarter, more resourceful, and spot how to win early because combat with giants is never fair,” he claimed. “I like the challenge of knocking out a giant.”

Buchanan, not surprisingly, has had more than his share of triumphs, earning recognition from The Best Lawyers in America for more than 16 years and Michigan Super Lawyers annually since 2006.

Despite his demanding legal work, Buchanan always has made time to volunteer for bar association services for more than 32 years, first for the Grand Rapids Bar Association. He became chair of the Young Lawyers Division in 1995 and then a trustee from 2007-10.

“Initially, I was interested in getting to know other young lawyers, protecting the public, and defending the legal profession against unfair attacks,” Buchanan said. “I quickly discovered how rewarding bar service is and it energized me to join brilliant teams of selfless attorneys.”

In 2003, Buchanan became a member of the State Bar Representative Assembly, and in 2010 West Michigan elected him as its commissioner to the Board of Commissioners.

“As a State Bar commissioner, I’ve especially enjoyed working on public policy issues, helping educate lawmakers about bad or unjust legislation. I also enjoy the challenge of looking ahead as a legal profession over the horizon to determine how we should best respond to coming changes. It’s particularly important now during this pandemic, with seismic disruptions, delays, accelerated changes, and the swerve to remote communications and hearings. What we choose to do now will have long-lasting value and impact.”

One of three children, Buchanan is sandwiched between an older brother and younger sister. His brother, Jack, is a commercial real estate developer in Denver. His sister, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane Beckering, earned her law degree at the University of Wisconsin. She practiced law in Chicago before returning to Grand Rapids to work with her legally talented family.

Rob and Jane learned from one of the finest trial attorneys in the state, Grand Rapids attorney John C. Buchanan, whose legal influence is now global as founder and CEO of the International Society of Primerus Law Firms.

“My father has had an amazing legal career and has been an excellent trial attorney for over 50 years,” said Buchanan. “He was not only gifted in the courtroom, but also passionate about protecting the integrity, reputation, and trust of the legal profession. That’s why he started Primerus, a global network of firms that ascribe to the precept: ‘Good People Who Happen to Be Good Lawyers.’”

Buchanan’s mother, Sheila, serves as the Events and Meetings coordinator for Primerus.

With three generations of attorneys in the Buchanan family, there may be a fourth soon. Buchanan and his wife, Mary, have three daughters.

Twenty-two-year-old Ellie graduated from the University of Michigan in May and now clerks for a defense law firm in Chicago.  She is applying to law school starting in the fall 2021. Her sisters, Brooke (20) and Sarah (18) are both undergraduates at Indiana University in Bloomington.

As a family, the Buchanans “love to travel,” said dad, exploring National Parks, searching for fresh snow on ski slopes out west, or cultural adventures in Mexico.

Like others during the pandemic, the Buchanan family added a “furever friend,” a “COVID puppy.” The golden retriever sports a name traced to the great American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby.”  The family’s first dog was named “Daisy,” as in Daisy Buchanan, the beautiful enchantress of East Egg, Long Island. The family’s new dog carries that theme a step further.

“Gatsby is his name,” Buchanan said. “It seemed only fitting that he should return for her.”

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