Prestigious state award caps off Roegge's 50 years in the law

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is a fitting tribute to a wonderful 50 years in practice that Roland “Bud” Roegge will receive the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award for 2012.

His illustrious career has spanned decades of major change.

“When I started,” Roegge says, “there were probably 250 lawyers in this area. It was much easier to get to know people, which I think contributed to greater trust and civility.”
Though ten years ago he retired as President of the firm that bears his name, Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, he still practices in the areas of health care practitioner and attorney professional liability, environmental matters, contracts, and torts, sometimes as a litigator as well as a facilitative mediator.

The Champion of Justice Award recognizes not only “superior professional competence,” but also those who adhere to “the highest principles and traditions of the legal profession,” and who benefit the national, state or local community through their actions.

Roegge has all that more than covered, from winning several high-profile cases near the beginning of his career and continuing with a solid medical and legal malpractice defense practice, to long-time service to the Grand Rapids and State Bars, to a tireless devotion to making sure the underserved in West Michigan are given a fair break.
“Bud has said that to be a good lawyer, you must first be a good person,” says Bill Hondorp, Smith Haughey CEO. “He certainly has led by example and our firm, the legal profession, and our community is better for it. The Champion of Justice Award is a well-deserved honor.”

Even the Smith Haughey receptionist shares a personal anecdote, concluding, “Mr. Roegge is just a really nice man.”

From Illinois originally, Roegge attended Grinnell College in Iowa, receiving a degree in Chemistry, and then went to Northwestern University Law School for his Juris Doctor.
What brought him to Grand Rapids? “The job, really,” he replies. “When I interviewed, there were just three lawyers here, and I liked that and thought it was a good opportunity. I’m very unusual in that I stayed with same firm my entire career. Two of the name partners, Smith and Haughey, are still living and in their 90s.”

Roegge started with the firm in 1962 and saw his name added to the letterhead in 1968.

His best-known cases concerned the accidental introduction of Polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, into dairy cattle feed throughout Michigan in the early 1970s. Roegge successfully defended Michigan Chemical Company/Velsicol against lawsuits brought against it. In the first, very long case, the defense team he led showed that the cows of the farmer who sued could not have died from the low concentrations of PBB in the feed. “I lucked out in getting those cases,” Roegge says, “because I knew a little about the subject matter, since my father ran a grain elevator and I had the chemistry degree.”

During the trial, Roegge was the contact for the press and other media outlets. He tells the story of taking his family on a European vacation after winning that first case. (He was to defend several more, without losing a single one.) In London, Roegge had a taxicab driver ask about the PBB situation when they told him they were from Michigan. Roegge says that after he explained his role in the case, “The cab driver looked back at me and said, ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen you on the telly.’”

In the 1990s, Roegge concentrated on commercial litigation and a very successful practice defending medical and legal malpractice.

 When asked about another notable attorney of his generation, Bill Farr, who also does legal malpractice defense, Roegge responds enthusiastically, “He’s one of my best friends. I work alongside him at Dégagé Ministries.” He adds generously, “He probably should get this award.”

It may have been the legal malpractice expertise that qualified Roegge to serve on what he calls “probably the most significant undertaking” in his service to the State Bar of Michigan. For many years he was on the SBM Character and Fitness Committee. If after the paid staff determined that there was a serious reason to question a prospective attorney’s fitness for the profession, there would be a hearing in Lansing with the committee acting as judge and jury. “It took a lot of time; you would have to go down for the whole day,” he says. “And there were always pretrial conferences, and a lot more too.”

Roegge has also been on the SBM Grievance Committee, served on the Select Committee for Selection and Rating of Judicial Candidates, been a member of several rules and advisory committees including the Supreme Court Committee on Implementation of Tort Reform Legislation in the mid-1980s, and is a Fellow of the Michigan State Bar Foundation.

He was the President of the Grand Rapids Bar Association from 1985-1986, a trustee on the Grand Rapids Bar Foundation, a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers (including a stint as chair in 1994-1996), and a director on the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel board, to name just a few. Many of these groups have given him awards, and he has been top-rated by third-party organizations such as Martindale-Hubbell.

But he is perhaps best known for his work on behalf of the legal needs of those in poverty. Not only does he lend his hands-on time to Dégagé, he also plays an active role on the Steering Committee of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, advocating relentlessly for funding such efforts.

All that might seem like enough to cause a lesser person to retire, but Roegge does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

“People have asked me why I still come in to the office at 75,” Roegge says. “Well, one big reason is because I like to talk to the younger attorneys, talk about their cases, mentor them. I think it’s the best way to pass along civility and good ethics, and I believe an attorney needs to give back.”

Roegge’s Champion of Justice Award will be given at the Sept. 19 awards banquet during the SBM Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids.