Mutual Assent Attorney's goal is to promote a 'meeting of the minds'

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

A partner with one of the Detroit area's leading law firms, Mark Rubenfire is somewhat of a stranger to courtroom appearances.

"I've probably been to court five times in my career, twice as a juror and once as an expert witness," admitted Rubenfire, coordinator of the Real Estate Practice Group for Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Southfield. "I will be quite content to never appear in court again."

Consider it a goal of his. After all, it is his job to keep clients out of court. Otherwise it's a sure sign of a deal gone bad, a contractual arrangement that somehow splintered with hard feelings, broken or unfulfilled promises, and economic casualties scattered along the way.

Rubenfire, who joined Jaffe in the fall of 1987 after graduating from Wayne State University Law School, has served as the legal architect of hundreds of real estate deals, paving the way for projects big and small, for business dreams grand and not so.

He remembers well helping a client attempt to buy a Southfield apartment complex in the mid-'90s. The apartment complex was being sold through a foreclosure sale and Rubenfire's client finished in the dreaded runner-up spot in the bidding. Within short order, the sale process proved to be defective and Rubenfire's client was given a second chance in the bidding, an opportunity to make good on an expressed desire to become a player in local leasing circles.

"The second time around, he won," Rubenfire recalled. "The only hitch was raising the required equity within 30 days. Fortunately, he had the contacts and the wherewithal to do it, attracting investors who believed in him and his project."

Now, some 15 years later, the client owns numerous apartment complexes both locally and nationally, and Rubenfire can take pride in the legal role he played in the success story.

Such outcomes make Rubenfire glad he overcame his initial dislike of law school, which nearly derailed his plans to become a lawyer before his career track barely started.

"I absolutely hated law school the first year," Rubenfire said. "It seemed to go against the grain about how I had been taught and how I learned up to that point. In the business program at U-M, the approach was a very practical application of concepts to real world situations. Numerous classes taught us about how to treat people, how to motivate and inspire them. That all made sense to me. Not too much about law school made sense at first. In many cases, there was no right answer. I really couldn't relate to the Socratic Method of teaching."

A Cranbrook grad, Rubenfire earned his bachelor of business administration degree in advertising and marketing from the University of Michigan in 1987. While at U-M, he decided to explore the career possibilities in the law.

"I was encouraged to give it a try based on the rationale that a legal education would be useful in whatever business career I eventually chose," Rubenfire recalled.

It ran counter to a family pattern of working in the medical profession. Rubenfire's father, Melvyn, a well-known cardiologist, is on the faculty at the U-M Medical School and formerly was the chief of medicine at Sinai Hospital. His grandfather and uncle also served as physicians.

"It was clear that we had the medical field nicely covered," Rubenfire said with a wry smile.

Rubenfire was admitted to other law schools, but opted to enroll at Wayne State due largely to his family ties to the metro area. He was accepted as a summer associate at Jaffe while at Wayne State and made the firm his home despite many other offers following graduation from law school.

"It is the only place I've ever worked and I hope that it is the only place I ever work," said Rubenfire, who graduated magna cum laude from Wayne State. "It is a wonderful firm that has always had a vision and a strong purpose.

"I knew from the start that I didn't want to be a litigator," Rubenfire added. "They seem to be concerned with winning and losing. My role is to assist people to come to a meeting of the minds, to find their common ground in working out agreements. If that is not possible, we move on to the next deal."

During nearly a quarter century with the firm, Rubenfire has served on Jaffe's Board of Directors and is former chairman of its Recruiting Committee. He also is one of the firm's leading voices in stressing the importance of volunteer service.

Earlier this year, Rubenfire was appointed to the Board of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, a nonprofit organization with facilities in West Bloomfield and Oak Park. The JCC of Metropolitan Detroit, reportedly the largest center of its type in North America, offers a wide range of cultural, social, educational, and recreational services for the public.

"It has been a mainstay in Jewish community life for decades and it is a privilege to be involved as a board member," Rubenfire said of the JCC. "We want to especially make this a vibrant place for today's youth, a spot where they can gather regularly to develop strong ties to this community. It's important that we stem the tide of our young people leaving this area for opportunities in other states. We need them to be a part of and to be invested in our state's turnaround."

Rubenfire also serves on the board of the Hospitality House, another nonprofit that provides food items for the needy in the Walled Lake school district and West Bloomfield Township. Since its opening in 2002, the food pantry has grown to a point where it now distributes more than 30,000 pounds of food to approximately 650 households every month, according to Rubenfire.

"My kids were volunteering there and that's how I initially became involved," he said. "I've been on the board and have helped with some of their legal issues, and I've enjoyed volunteering there on Saturdays, distributing food. It's been very heartening to extend a hand to families who need the help. It's a place where you can really see the tangible benefits of helping out."

For good measure, Rubenfire also has contributed his time and talents to the Gary Burnstein Free Health Clinic in Pontiac, assisting with its mission to provide free medical and dental care to the disadvantaged in the community.

"The clinic was started by a physician who was trained by my father," Rubenfire explained. "Shortly after he started the clinic, he died, but his family has kept it operating under his name. It does a world of good each year for people who need basic medical and dental care."

Rubenfire's wife, Shelly, a physical therapist, also is accustomed to long hours, juggling her professional responsibilities with her role as a mother to their three sons. Their twins, Jason and Adam, graduated from West Bloomfield High School and now are sophomores at U-M. Jason is interested in film and English, while Adam is likely a political science major who doubles as a reporter for The Michigan Daily, the student-run newspaper. The couple's youngest son, Brett, is a sophomore at West Bloomfield High, where he is a math whiz and a member of the JV soccer team.

When he was a student at U-M, Rubenfire toyed with the idea of becoming a sportscaster. His appetite for that was whetted while faithfully attending Lion games at venerable Tiger Stadium.

"I was there the game that (Detroit receiver) Chuck Hughes died on the field," Rubenfire remembered. "I also can recall going to a game by myself when I had six tickets. Yes, six tickets, five of them that went unused. Nobody was interested in watching the Lions but me. I have been with them through their darkest days and it's now nice to see some hope for them again."

Published: Fri, Oct 14, 2011