Guiding light: Appellate judge gained her inspiration from a 'Finch'


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

With three generations of lawyers in her family, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane Beckering appeared destined for a career in the legal profession as she mulled her job options as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in the mid-‘80s.

In reality, it would take her awhile to warm up to the idea even if her father and grandfather had carved out reputations as two of the finest trial attorneys in the state and her older brother was showing early signs that he would be following suit.

“Even with all that legal blood in the family, I really wasn’t planning to be a lawyer until one summer during college I recognized my desire to serve others, to make a difference in their lives,” Beckering recalled. “That’s when it struck me that becoming a lawyer would be one of the best ways to fulfill that desire.”

Now, some 30 years after earning her juris doctor from the University of Wisconsin Law School, Beckering can be confident in the fact that she has indeed made a difference, first as a personal injury lawyer and then as one of the state’s most respected appellate judges over the past 13 years.

Jon March, who has practiced law for more than 50 years and now serves Of Counsel with the Miller Johnson firm in Grand Rapids, can testify to the fact.

He first met Beckering while serving as a mediator in a personal injury case that she was handling for a plaintiff.

“Jane was/is an outstanding attorney,” said March. “Her cases were always thoroughly prepared, legally and factually. Her advocacy skills were excellent, never over-reaching and always managing to hit the sweet spot of the argument. Her demeanor and comportment with opposing counsel was always friendly and civil, even in cases where the advocacy was, in the word of the rules of professional conduct, ‘zealous.’

“Most significantly, Jane never forgot that her mission in the mediation was to reach a settlement, both advantageous to her client but ‘doable’ by the other side.”

Those legal skills, said March, have earned Beckering a spot in “my personal ‘Hall of Fame’ of top lawyers.”

Added March: “Jane was such a good lawyer that I was somewhat surprised that she left private practice for the appellate bench, but I knew that she would be an excellent jurist because of these ingredients — intellectual ability, common sense, and a feel for humanity. Her heart is in the right place, and her mind knows how to get there.”

At Beckering’s investiture ceremony in October 2007, March was among the speakers, applying even more luster to her reputation.

“Jane had asked me to speak at her installation ceremony,” March related. “In my speech, I compared her to one of my fictional legal heroes, Atticus Finch (of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ fame). Not surprisingly, in her speech she said Atticus was one of her inspirations in becoming a lawyer. As long as our legal system is populated by people like Judge Jane Beckering, we have nothing to fear.”

And, evidently, fear is not a word that belongs in Beckering’s lexicon. In her life outside the courtroom, the Grand Rapids native is a bit of a daredevil, tempting fate while parachuting, bungee jumping, tandem sky diving, scuba diving, and mountain biking in the Rockies. In 2003, she even crossed marathoning off her “bucket list,” completing the Chicago version of the 26.2-mile test of endurance.

That adventure came at a time when Beckering already was being tested, juggling her responsibilities as a busy trial attorney with the demands of raising three young children.

“There are times when you’re trying to strike that balance that you feel like your head is going to explode,” Beckering admitted. “Which is why I have such admiration for today’s parents who are balancing work and raising young children with the added stresses of COVID.”

She began her legal career in Chicago, spending two years as a litigator with one of the premier firms in the city, McDermott Will & Emery. While she was given the opportunity to shine on a big legal stage in Chicago, Beckering also had an itch to return to her roots and to practice law with one of the most acclaimed attorneys in Michigan.

Her father, John Buchanan.

He remembers the homecoming well. It began somewhat innocently enough when Buchanan opened a letter in late December 1991 from an attorney seeking a job with his Grand Rapids firm. In it, the job-seeker wrote: “I come from a very strong bloodline of trial lawyers and feel that I would be an asset to your present team. I have enclosed a resume for your review.”

Then, the signature on the letter caught Buchanan’s eye. Jane M. Beckering.

Well, needless to say, it wasn’t long after that letter was written that Jane and I became partners and started practicing law together,” Buchanan reminisced.

With Beckering’s special skillset, the firm continued to prosper, representing clients in medical negligence, catastrophic personal injury cases, and wrongful death claims.

The firm’s success ultimately led to another homecoming of sorts when older brother Rob Buchanan joined the practice.

Rob, who recently was sworn in as the new president of the State Bar of Michigan, had spent the first six years of his legal career with Warner Norcross in Grand Rapids as a commercial litigator and was on the verge of becoming a partner when he joined forces with his father and sister. It was a bold move and displayed his own commitment to “making a difference” in the lives of the firm’s clients.

The new Buchanan & Beckering firm had a certain “synergy” as sister and brother “worked up cases together” and further cemented their friendship bond, according to Beckering.

“It was a special time, rewarding and exciting as we built the practice,” said Beckering. “Rob is an extremely talented lawyer, deeply committed to the cause of justice. He truly is a force for good.”

They, of course, learned from one of the legal masters, growing up in a home that was “steeped in law,” according to Beckering.

“My grandfather was one of the finest trial lawyers in the world, as is my father,” Beckering told those gathered for her investiture in 2007. “I fondly remember as a child listening to their war stories, often humorous, about experts breaking down on the stand or different episodes in court, and I loved those memories. My father and my grandfather loved the American legal system.”

Not surprisingly, that love was passed down to Beckering, who in 2006 made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the state Supreme Court. A year later, she would see her judicial dreams fulfilled when she was appointed by then Governor Jennifer Granholm to an opening on the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In a sense, it was a bittersweet time for Beckering, leaving one love for another.

“As much as I love being a courtroom lawyer, I love our justice system more,” Beckering explained at her investiture.

Her brother, who had his own career epiphany, was one to understand.

“Jane is an incredible person and has been my best friend for my entire life,” said Buchanan. “As a human being, she builds deep and meaningful relationships with everyone, and rises above politics and prejudices.

“She works harder than anyone at everything she does, epitomizing what constitutes the right stuff to be a judge at the highest level,” he added. “Jane is a legal scholar with little regard for partisan politics and is able to find grounds for unanimity among her colleagues in controversial cases.”

Such a skill undoubtedly was developed with the help of her parents, Sheila and John.

“As role models, they didn’t have to tell us what to do, we just watched what they did,” Beckering said. “The examples they set said it all.”

She also may have absorbed a lesson or two from her husband, Ray, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan. The couple met while Beckering was clerking during law school and they will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next June.

Husband and wife are both U-M grads and share a “marital philosophy of being one another’s biggest fan,” Judge Beckering said.

Equally important, they have shared a special joy in raising their three children – Marlee, Katie, and Ray, ages 26, 24, and 22, respectively. Their two daughters also are U-M alums, while their son is scheduled to earn his Michigan degree next year.

“As parents, we couldn’t be more proud of them,” Beckering said.

And for good reason.

Marlee works in a human resources capacity for a major construction company in Chicago. Her sister, Katie, is a psychometrist for a hospital in Charlotte, N.C. and plans to pursue graduate school in neuropsychology. Their brother Ray is a senior at U-M and plans to apply to law school following graduation. In his spare time, he has served as a student equipment manager for the U-M football team the past two seasons, literally rubbing elbows with Wolverine players and coaches during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

“He loves sports and may focus on Title IX work if he goes into the law as planned,” Beckering said.

That would make his parents doubly proud.


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