Buchanan Makes A Difference

September 11, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — How many lawyers does it take to turn the profession's attention back to the industry's moral code, and then convince the public that not all attorneys had abandoned it?

Just one. And that's no lawyer joke.

But it was the how-many-lawyers-does-it-take jokes from late-night comedians, along with bashings by publicity-seeking politicians who were trying to cover up their own foibles, that inspired John C. Buchanan 15 years ago to start the International Society of Primerus Law Firms. Buchanan said there were attorneys in the early 1990s whose conduct wasn't up to code and who weren't representing clients in a proper manner. They were few, but those few were damaging what he always saw as a noble profession with deep roots in the founding of this nation.

So, through a series of advertisements — some of which won the Dignity in Advertising Award from the American Bar Association — Buchanan stressed integrity, honor, community service and other traits ingrained in the vocation, and began signing up small and medium-sized law firms that pledged to uphold those characteristics.

Primerus drew national attention. The Wall Street Journal described the society as the legal world's version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and wrote that choosing a Primerus firm meant a client was choosing integrity.

Today, the society has 100 independent firms and 1,200 attorneys as members. Its nine employees operate the society like a very large law firm that provides a selection of services to a number of practice groups.

"We say that Primerus lawyers are good people who just happen to be good lawyers. We also say that Primerus' role is dual. One is we help good lawyers and law firms find good clients, and two, we help good clients find good lawyers," he said.

"So, really, Primerus' role is to help good law firms that meet high standards get known in the community and help people in the community find good lawyers."

Buchanan has been a good one since 1962. He owns Buchanan & Beckering PLC with his son, Rob Buchanan, and daughter, Jane Beckering. All three attorneys were inducted into the Woodward/White Inc. "Best Lawyers in America" listing for 2006, an honor that may be repeated next year, as Buchanan recently took a sneak peek at the 2007 listing.

"They've only got six law firms there in Grand Rapids that they rated. Of the six law firms, five of them were large law firms in multiple cities and states, and the only law firm that was solely local and small was Buchanan & Beckering," he said.

"Seeing our small boutique firm that primarily represents individuals in major litigation, and to see our law firm be recognized in that way was tremendous. I'm very proud of that."

After graduating from University of Michigan's law school, he joined his father at a local firm, spending 15 years there as a trial attorney defending the firm's clients, which were largely insurance companies. But then he moved from the defense table to the plaintiff desk, representing a client in a personal injury suit that turned out to be a groundbreaker when he was a partner with Carole Bos.

The 1977 lawsuit is best known as the "lawnmower case." The plaintiff was severely injured mowing his lawn when he was hit by a coat hanger that was buried in the grass. The mower threw the wire hanger back into the young man's chest. Buchanan broke from tradition in arguing the case, setting a few trends that are now routinely followed in court.

He presented the jury with "a day in the life" of his client, which the jurors could identify with as similar to their own — and did so by using video, long before it became commonplace in the courtroom.

"But you could really illustrate with these kinds of video tools," he said. "You have two responsibilities when you're working with juries: to educate and persuade. You've got to take the complicated and make it simple."

Buchanan did keep it simple and ended up educating and persuading the jury like no other attorney previously had, and the decision made banner headlines.

"We ended up getting the largest settlement — what happened at that time to be the largest settlement in any type of injury case in western Michigan — $775,000, back in 1977. There were no verdicts or settlements anywhere near that. Detroit had a few at that time, but not this side of the state, which has always been conservative," he said.

"If there was any single thing that really did a lot to boost my career, that was it. I became well known. After that, the University of Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education asked me to get on its speaking circuit and lecture lawyers on trial concepts."

John and his wife, Sheila, reside in CascadeTownship and have three children. In addition to Rob and Jane, who followed in their father's footsteps, son Jack chose commercial real estate and is CEO of Blue Bridge Ventures LLC. John, who has dabbled in real estate, has joined Jack in redeveloping the former Lear plant on Alpine Avenue in Walker. It's the first time father and son have worked together on a project.

In his spare time, Buchanan flies his Beechcraft Bonanza and sails as often as he can with his family. He and Rob are classic car collectors. A 1949 maroon and tan Ford convertible is Buchanan's favorite in his collection, a car he fell in love with as a kid. And the Buchanan family recently got some very exciting news.

"Gov. (Jennifer) Granholm and the whole Democratic Party asked Jane to run for the Michigan Supreme Court. Jane is 41 and a tremendous lawyer. Her chances of winning are going to be tough, running against an incumbent. But Granholm personally asked her to run for the Supreme Court. So that is kind of a neat thing," he said.

Buchanan doesn't see any startling changes in his immediate future, except maybe getting to see his daughter move behind the bench. He plans to remain active with the law firm and the Primerus society, continue to fly and sail, and keep developing properties and restoring classic cars.

"I have no intention of retiring. I want to keep working as long as I possibly can. I think what keeps you young and healthy are work passions — being part of life and contributing," he said.

"Retirement is unemployment to me. You're no longer out there helping people. You're no longer making a difference in the world. And I can't do that. I can't sit and say, 'Well, I play golf and I travel.'"    

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