Attorney takes over reins of Detroit Bar Association

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By Brian Cox
Legal News

There is likely a photograph in the archives of the Cadillac Evening News that documents the moment Joanne Geha Swanson decided to switch career paths and become a lawyer.

It was 5 a.m. on a family farm in Hersey, Michigan, in the late 1970s. Swanson was there as a young new reporter with camera in hand to cover a farmer who planned to slaughter his herd of dairy cows at sunrise. The cattle were sick with PBB, polybrominated biphenyls, a toxic chemical manufactured as a fire retardant. In 1973, some of the chemical was accidentally mixed with livestock feed and distributed by the Michigan Farm Bureau. Over the next few years, thousands of cattle and poultry died and more than 500 farms were quarantined.

Swanson was witnessing and reporting on one of the worst agricultural disasters in the state’s history.

It was then that the Michigan State University grad realized that while she loved being a journalist, she was more passionate about being an advocate.

So she moved back to Detroit to attend Wayne State University Law School, graduating with her juris doctorate in 1981.

While in law school and following graduation, Swanson worked at Detroit’s Corporation Counsel Office before joining one of Detroit’s oldest law firms, Kerr Russell, in 1982, where she has built her law practice ever since.

Her civil litigation practice involves complex commercial disputes, antitrust, class actions, business torts and other related matters. Swanson also devotes a significant percentage of her time to state and federal appellate practice. Swanson loves the work and is as enthusiastic about it today, as she was when she first began.

“I love the fact that, inherent in law, you are learning something new all the time,” she says.

She describes her career as “fun” and a “joy.” She says she feels lucky and privileged to practice law.

“It’s never the same day twice,” she says. “Just these past few weeks I’ve had unique, convoluted, complex issues that have required a lot of thought and analysis. It’s so interesting.”

Swanson now brings her boundless energy and enthusiasm for her profession to her new role as president of the Detroit Bar Association, taking over from Past President Brian Summerfield.

As president, Swanson hopes to continue to enhance the association’s programs and raise their profile. She is particularly interested in increasing the participation of lawyers in bar activities,
including the Detroit Bar Foundation’s pro bono service opportunities. “I believe the gavel doesn’t just pass to the new president each year,” says Swanson. “It passes to all of us. It’s a collaborative effort. We’re more successful when we embrace as many ideas as possible.”

Swanson sees the DBA as instrumental in providing members an opportunity to get to know and collaborate with colleagues, to develop professional relationships, and to make new friends. In addition, it offers a valuable “bar-bench experience.”

“I’d like this to be the premier organization for lawyers in Detroit,” says Swanson, who grew up in Detroit until she was 11, when her family moved to Grosse Pointe.

She is optimistic about Detroit’s future and the prospects for the legal community.

“Lawyers are contributing to the resurgence and may possibly help solve issues that still have to be tackled,” she says. “It’s really gratifying for those of us who lived through Detroit’s tough times.”

As a member of Kerr Russell’s Recruiting Committee, Swanson has noticed an uptick in inquiries from lawyers in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., who want to return to their roots to raise families and develop their practices.

“We’ve had a lot of law firms that left the city that have come back,” she says. “I think the Detroit resurgence plays a big role in the legal community. It’s an exciting place to be.”

In addition to her role as DBA president, Swanson employs her journalism background by chairing the editorial board of the association’s “Detroit Lawyer” magazine.

She has authored numerous articles related to her areas of practice and has lectured on topics related to litigation and the appeals process. She contributed the Michigan chapter to the recently published “Practitioner’s Guide to Class Actions,” 2nd edition from the ABA’s Tort Insurance and Trial Practice Section. She also served on the editorial board for the book. Swanson is a former chair of the State Bar of Michigan’s Antitrust, Franchise & Trade Regulation Section and is a former chair and current council member of the Appellate Practice Section of the State Bar of Michigan. She has received numerous professional awards and distinctions, including being named in Best Lawyers for 10 years, as a “Super Lawyer,” by Corporate Counsel Magazine, a “Michigan Super Lawyer,” by Thomson Reuters and a DBusiness Magazine “Top Lawyer.” She also received the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Distinguished Brief Award. Last year she was honored as the 2018 Best Lawyers Litigation – Antitrust “Lawyer of the Year” for Metro Detroit. The previous year she was recognized by Crain’s Detroit Business as one of their Notable Women Lawyers in Michigan.

Away from the office and her professional pursuits, Swanson enjoys being outdoors, walking, biking and gardening.

“I’m not yet a proficient gardener, but I love it and I’m learning,” she says.

She also enjoys reading about theology and collecting dictionaries.

Swanson has four children, one of whom is a lawyer in New York. The other three remain in the Detroit area and work as a writer, a musician and a senior investment analyst.