A loss turned to triumph for new head of State Bar

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

When former District Court Judge Don Rockwell lost a 2002 judicial race by just 500 votes, he transformed the loss into an opportunity to become more deeply involved in his community.

At the time, Rockwell was an appointed judge who was hoping to write a new chapter in his long legal career by winning a seat on the 67th District Court in Genesee County. The outcome of the election compelled Rockwell to take stock of his professional life.

“At the time I was very disappointed, but it’s life. It’s not a matter of getting knocked down. We all get knocked down, what’s important is getting back up one more time,” Rockwell said. “As it turned out I’ve done so many things in my career that I never would have had the opportunity to do had I won that election.”

One of those opportunities came to fruition on September 28 when Rockwell, who is also chief legal counsel at Kettering University in Flint, was sworn in as the 83rd president of the SBM in conjunction with the organization’s NEXT Conference at Cobo Center in Detroit.

“Being on the Board of Commissioners for SBM and now president would never have happened if I’d been a judge, and I wouldn’t be university counsel at Kettering University,” Rockwell said of heading the legal affairs department at the college formerly known as General Motors Institute.

Looking back, Rockwell recalled how, post-election, he re-established his private practice after past clients began asking him to represent them and new clients came calling.

“It took me awhile, it really did. It was like all of the air was sucked out of the room, but then a friend said to me, ‘this is hard for you because you really care,’ and I really do,” Rockwell said. “It picked me up when my former clients started calling me and asked me what I was doing, and said ‘we need you.’ I recognized that I had to get on with my life, and I did.”

Now, as president of the State Bar, Rockwell has turned his attention to securing legal counsel to represent low-income citizens in civil actions.

“One of the focuses for me this year is ‘Access to Justice,’ a voluntary effort we ask our attorneys to undertake. We have so many people who are finding it very difficult to afford adequate representation,” Rockwell said. “Our State Bar Foundation is working hard to get our colleagues to contribute so we can provide legal services for the poor. It’s very important.”

The Access to Justice campaign is a collaboration between the State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, and Michigan's nonprofit civil legal aid programs.

“The funding we seek is not in addition to but in support of existing legal services, and I’m hoping attorneys who don’t have time to give their services pro bono will financially contribute, as I do,” Rockwell said. “Even though the SBM does not officially track the pro bono work of its members, it’s more about knowing you’re making a difference than keeping a record of it.”

Also on Rockwell’s agenda are plans to create more dialogue about how technology is changing the legal profession.

“As someone who is fascinated by technology, this is a topic we are and should be talking about. I think younger lawyers today are equally fascinated by technology and eager to incorporate new technologies into their practices,” Rockwell said, adding that technology is not a substitute for the connections that attorneys can make through the SBM and local bar associations.

“Local bar associations offer great programs that should help them in their practice and the SBM has a number of sections that are devoted to specific areas of practice,” Rockwell said. “As a new lawyer one of the first things I wanted to do was communicate with more experienced lawyers. New attorneys who get actively involved in the bar will learn so much from other members.”

After more than four decades in the legal profession, Rockwell said he has never wondered what might have been had he applied his undergraduate degree in physics from University of Michigan-Flint to something other than law.

“There’s no question in my mind that my decision to go to law school was the best decision I ever made,” Rockwell said. “I’ve never second-guessed it. I just love being around people, helping people, and working with the human condition.”

For Rockwell, branching out into diverse areas of the law has given him the chance to “to experience much of what an attorney can do in the 41 years” after he graduated from law school.

“Having tried civil and criminal jury and non-jury trials as an attorney and as a judge, I’ve had the advantage of an eclectic career,” Rockwell said. “I am a patent attorney and have practiced intellectual property, and for the last four years I’ve been in-house university counsel for Kettering University, a tremendous engineering and business university. It’s a great job.”

From now until his term ends next fall, Rockwell said he is looking forward to traveling the state and meeting as many people as he can fit into his packed schedule.

“I’m most excited to meet as many people as I can. As I said after being sworn in, ‘None of this is about me – it is about serving the public.’ To be president of the SBM is an honor and a privilege. I am not sure it’s earned, but it’s appreciated.”


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