President's Page

President's Page--Thomas J. Ryan—Solo Practitioner

by Thomas J. Ryan

My brothers and sisters of the bench and bar and members of the State Bar of Michigan, I bring you greetings.

To an organization that has over 33,000 members, it probably comes as a surprise to maybe 32,000 of you, whom I have not had the privilege or opportunity to meet, that a solo practitioner is taking the helm of the organization.

Each of my monthly columns will attempt to address the compelling matters of interest to our profession and what the bar association intends to accomplish in the coming year. So, as a part of my introduction to you here, I want to discuss the importance of the role and perspective of solo practitioners in the organized bar. Solo practitioners and members of very small firms are both production and management, lawyer and office administrator, chief financial officer, personnel director, information technology director, and librarian, as well as rainmaker. This makes it a daunting task that is not for the weak of heart or spirit. And it would seem to leave little time for participation in the organized bar.

Yet, since I began serving on the State Bar Board of Commissioners in 1992, there has been an influx of solo practitioners and attorneys from small firms into Bar leadership, including immediate past president Al Butzbaugh of St. Joseph, Paul Purcell of Saginaw, and Stuart Dunnings of Lansing. In my view, this is as it should be. Fully 85 percent of the lawyers in this state practice in firms of five lawyers or less. Except for our immediate past president, Al Butzbaugh, for the last 20 years or more our State Bar presidents have been from medium-sized or large firms. This may be nothing more than the result of large firms providing the support for individual lawyers that allows them the luxury of participation in bar governance. By the very nature of their practices, small and especially solo practitioners face different issues from those of the larger firms. So it is, in my view, important that all perspectives have a voice in the leadership of the organized bar.

In many respects it was the nature of my practice that led me to participation in the governing of our profession. As a municipal lawyer, I have attended council and commission meetings on a weekly basis for years. This has given me the opportunity to observe first-hand the miracle of self-government carried out by dedicated men and women who are working to make their communities a better place.

This opportunity was a result of my fortune in meeting and associating with Thomas J. Dillon, Jr. in July of 1978. Tom was an eminent municipal lawyer in Oakland County and served as my mentor, teaching me the interesting and challenging practice area of municipal law. When Tom retired in January 1982, he provided me with a legacy of three municipalities as clients: the township of Bloomfield, the village of Beverly Hills, and the city of Keego Harbor.

Later, I also came to represent the city of the village of Clarkston.

Early on, I learned that a solo practitioner depends in a very singular fashion on his individual reputation and his ability to deal with other attorneys, court personnel, and judges. These same attributes are vital to the solo practitioner in obtaining and retaining clients. This is particularly true in the competitive legal community of Oakland County. Although in this noble profession of ours we are each responsible for the manner in which we represent our clients, the small firm attorney often faces these challenges alone. However, these special challenges and the time constraints on a small firm attorney are not sufficient reason to abdicate the responsibility of participation in bar leadership to one particular segment of our profession. Rather, particularly when the vast majority of attorneys practice in small firms, these lawyers have a special responsibility to participate.

For all these reasons, I particularly look forward to the next year as president of the State Bar of Michigan. I will be a member of a "law firm" with extremely talented individuals determined to take a team approach to the governance of the Bar. On the masthead of the State Bar leadership you will find distinguished attorneys Bruce Neckers, Reginald Turner, Jr., Scott Brinkmeyer, and Nancy Diehl. In addition, the Executive Committee, the Board of Commissioners, the officers of the Representative Assembly, and all the committee and section heads of your bar association, as well as the special and local bars in the state, are committed to working as a team to provide the best possible service to our members, the system of justice, the profession, and the citizens of this state.

I look forward to serving as your State Bar president and pledge that this team will work hard to take an efficient and effective approach to all the issues that lie before us.

On a personal note, I am fortunate enough to be a husband and father as well as being an attorney. My wife, Colleen V. Ronayne, is a distinguished lawyer in her own right who is able to provide the love and assistance our children need when I am engaged in my bar activities. Colleen has a deep and abiding respect for our profession and, as a solo practitioner herself, is fully supportive of my attempts at leadership of our bar association.

My five wonderful children are Meghan, who recently graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame; Brendan, who is a junior at Marquette University in the business school; Molly, who is a 7th grader; Maureen, who is a 4th grader; and our youngest, Daniel Seamus, who is starting all-day kindergarten this year. As well as having an active practice, I am blessed to have an active family life and, as might be apparent from our names, we are proud of our Irish American heritage.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity, on behalf of all the members of the State Bar of Michigan, to thank our president, Alfred M. Butzbaugh, for his exemplary service on behalf of the profession in his Bar year. Al has worked tirelessly for the betterment of our profession and he has set a standard for his leadership and dedication in the area of Access to Justice that has perhaps been equaled by one other person in our history, Mr. John Cummiskey of Grand Rapids.

Al has dealt with many difficult issues during his presidency that brought his incomparable skills in policy, strategy, and implementation to the forefront. He has been a steady hand at the helm of leadership of our State Bar and through his efforts we have engaged in a search process for a new executive director and remain true to our core values as a profession.

On behalf of all the officers, Board of Commissioners, and all members of the State Bar of Michigan, I thank Al for his excellent service to our profession.

I would also like to thank our State Bar staff for their efforts on behalf of our members during this past year, which has brought physical changes to the State Bar building and leadership change to our executive director position.

Dan Kim has done an admirable job in filling the role as interim director. He and his staff deserve our thanks and gratitude for a job well done.

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