'The consummate professional'

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Bob Rennell likes the fact that he works at Washtenaw County's oldest continuous law firm, Burke & Rennell.

But even more, he likes what the firm has stood for since the late 1800's.

"If someone walked in the door with a sad story and it was determined they didn't have any money, they'd still be represented," says Rennell, who turns 82 next month and still enjoys working at the office located a block off Michigan Avenue in downtown Saline. "That's the way the Burkes were ...Their goal was not to become rich, and neither was mine."

With a laugh, he adds: "And I'd say I became successful at that!"

The Detroit native - one of seven children of a machinist with an eighth grade education - graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1954 and was then on active duty for six years on various submarines in the Pacific.

"I enjoyed it because I felt we were fulfilling an important role for the country," he says, noting that he's grateful he was never injured.

From 1961 to 1964, Rennell attended the University of Detroit Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Law Review. During those years, he was also a commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Submarine Division in Detroit, recruiting hundreds of young men to serve on submarines during the Cold War.

After law school, he worked two years at the Bodman law firm in Detroit before he joined the Burke Law firm (which eventually became Burke & Rennell) in Ann Arbor.

Early clients of the firm included the University of Michigan, The Ann Arbor Bank and The Ann Arbor News. But nobody was turned away for lack of money, Rennell said.

Rennell never regretted his decision to move to Ann Arbor from Royal Oak.

"At that time there were only about 110 lawyers in Washtenaw County," he said, explaining how everyone knew everybody else at all the bar events. "But it was a lovely place to practice then and I think it still is. We've had a fine judiciary in Washtenaw County over the years in my opinion. You couldn't ask for a more pleasant place to work."

In 1986, Rennell hired attorney Joe Burke, now a 15th Judicial District Court judge.

"The Burkes are addicted to public service," says Rennell. "Joe Burke is the same way."

Burke calls Rennell "the consummate professional."

"He was a great mentor," recalls Burke, who worked at the firm until 1992. "I'd watch what he did and try to do it the same way. He fought really, really hard for his clients."

Burke says that as hard as Rennell fought in the courtroom, he never took things personally. He could engage in intense litigation, and remain civil with the opposing counsel, sticking to the facts of the case.

Burke says that when he started with the firm, he (Burke) was an ultra liberal, and Rennell was an ultra conservative. But after their daily debates about politics and current events-which never became personal-each moved a bit to the center.

"Bob never lacked an opinion on any subject," he says. "But just like with the law, he never made it personal. He doesn't treat you like you're stupid just because he disagrees with you. And that's rare."

Burke and Rennell each have wonderful memories of two of the firm's extremely competent secretaries, a mother, Alta Grostic, and her daughter, Margaret Eichel. Each retired in her early 90's.

Both women were known for their intelligence and legal skills, as well as the way they flaunted neither.

One day, bank examiners called Rennell to give an opinion on an important subject.

"I dictated to Margaret a seven-page opinion as fast as I could talk," he said. "She took it in shorthand and within 25 minutes, she gave me a typed version without a mistake in it. The other lawyers at that time would come and sit in our lobby just to hear her type."

Rennell was 75 and still working fulltime when he decided he didn't want to litigate anymore.

"Trying lawsuits is a physical thing," he says. "If you're prepare for court each day, you have to get up early every day, carry all sorts of exhibits ... You get slower as you get older, and you have to acknowledge that. I think I'm still pretty good, but I don't have to quickly remember 500 names as I might in a courtroom."

The firm has now united with the Saline Legal Group and attorney Jeff Hall, making the name now Burke, Rennell & Hall.

Rennell's first wife, Gloria, died of cancer in 1999, and he remarried Janet, a widow, two years later. Jeff Hall is married to Janet's daughter.

"I'm turning clients over to Jeff but I'm still doing some of the work, and I am trying to help Jeff whenever I can" Rennell says. "He's a wonderful person and has feeling for his clients.  He's an excellent lawyer. That's what I got from the Burkes. I want the firm to continue its work as in the past."

Rennell is proud to say Hall shares his core beliefs about the law.

"You have to be dedicated to the legal profession, and you have to care about your clients," says Rennell, "If you have a case and they're right, you have to be willing to work until midnight to represent them and hopefully get justice for them. I'm very proud of being a member of this firm and owe it a lot."

Karyn Bloch has worked as Rennell's legal assistant since February.

"Bob reminds me of my dad a little bit," she says. "I love his stories."

She especially liked hearing about the time he had a cameo in the 1958 film "Underwater Warrior" where he performed with three other officers doing an escape from a submerged disabled submarine.

The Rennells live in the Turnberry subdivision in southeast Ann Arbor, which they enjoy partly because of its diversity. A 38-year member of Barton Hills Country Club, Rennell still loves to golf, as does his wife.

In fact, golf is a three-generation Rennell family passion. Rennells son, Robert, is a professional golfer, and Robert's daughter, Riley Rennell, who is currently ranked as the No. 5 golfer nationally under the Polo Ranking System for the 2017 Freshman College Class (14-15 year old girls) playing in the American Junior Golf Association. (Her proud grandfather enjoys showing visitors newspaper stories detailing her awards.)

Rennell's daughter, Sharon, is a marketing professional, and son, Brian, practices law for an insurance company.

All in all, Rennell says he has enjoyed a great life serving his country, family and community.

Rennell works part time these days, with a focus on estate planning, and has no intention of giving it up entirely.

"I love it because I'm with people and helping people," he said. "The Burke firm ended up being the perfect place for me."

Published: Thu, Aug 29, 2013

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