Reflections on the Bar

Tom Cranmer tells what he’s learned as president of the Michigan Bar Association

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine — September 2006

Early in his career, Thomas W. Cranmer faced a fashion emergency. While working with the federal prosecutor’s office on a high-profile case involving allegations of corruption in a Detroit-area police department, an urgent family matter prevented the senior attorney handling the case from attending the rest of the trial — and Cranmer had to step in. The young attorney did not yet own many suits, and he rotated the few he had. During the federal prosecutor’s case, his nervousness sped up the rotation.

“I had to try the case myself against a group of very experienced and well-known criminal defense lawyers,” says Cranmer. “At the end of every trial day I had perspired so much that it soaked through my shirt and suit coat as well.”

The 71st president of the Michigan State Bar Association — the confident, impeccably dressed lawyer with a gaze that easily switches from warmly welcoming to piercingly intimidating — seems worlds apart from the sweaty novice he once was. As though to hold onto a part of his past, however, he totes a battered leather attaché, which despite its long life, complements his stylish attire.

September marks the end of his term as president of the Michigan Bar Association, an experience Cranmer describes as enlightening. “It has allowed me to get out and meet people from all over the state that I wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to meet,” he says. And, he adds, the presidency has given him an opportunity to see his profession through a wider lens: “Most days you’re looking at your own cases and your docket, and that’s important, but as the president you see things in a broader perspective. I’ve gotten to hear so many wonderful stories about things lawyers and judges are doing that more often than not get swept under the carpet. There are many, many more good stories than bad stories about lawyers, and I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear [the good stories] firsthand.”

While he’s worked some high-profile cases — among them the successful defense of former Detroit Police Chief William Hart — Cranmer is also concerned with the plight of people who can’t afford legal assistance and he’s particularly proud of the Michigan Bar Association’s Access to Justice campaign. When civil legal aid programs — which provide legal assistance to low-income people involved in non-criminal legal matters — began losing federal aid due to budget cuts, Michigan attorneys stepped in and mostly funded the program. “The bar association raised over $6 million in six years,” he says, “and funneled it back into civil justice programs in Michigan. So, in addition to the countless pro bono hours they’ve put in, the lawyers in this state have put their money where their mouth is and [have] been very generous with their funding.”

Life-Altering Decision

Cranmer’s career began more than 30 years ago at the Oakland County prosecutor’s office, where he worked for three years before moving on to a four-year stint at the federal prosecutor’s office as a U.S. attorney. He thrived in these positions, but his heart was elsewhere. “Deep inside me there was always the defense side,” he says.

So in 1982, Cranmer moved from prosecutor to defender, joining the firm of Miro, Weiner and Kramer, where he practiced until 2004. In 2005 he moved to Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone in Troy, where he specializes in white-collar criminal defense.

Cranmer says the role of a defense attorney is vital to our justice system, even when the weight of evidence against his defendant is overwhelming. “I think in general there’s a misconception that the role of a criminal defense lawyer is to obfuscate and make up defenses,” he says. “But the defense counsel is really there to make sure the system operates the way it was intended to, and that means there has to be a balance on each side.

“It’s helpful to the system in general to make sure the cases are investigated thoroughly, and that the prosecutor has the quantum of evidence — proof beyond a reasonable doubt — that the law requires.” The vast majority of the time, he admits, the prosecutor does have enough evidence to convict. In those instances, it’s the defense’s job to make sure the court knows all the facts — not only about the crime, but also about his client’s entire life. Only then, Cranmer believes, can the court impose an appropriate sentence. “That’s where I think that a good criminal defense lawyer can have the most effect,” he says, “by making sure that the court sees the defendant as an individual.”

For many, the words “white-collar crime” immediately call up high-profile, corporate-wide cases of greed and corruption, like the Enron scandal, but though Cranmer says he expects an increasing number of high-profile Enron-like cases in which entire corporations are investigated, white-collar crimes also include tax evasion, health-insurance fraud and more mundane offenses not usually committed by career criminals.

Teacher and Learner

As a board member of The Generation of Promise, an organization that promotes diversity and teaches leadership skills to high school students, Cranmer also fulfills his desire to pass along knowledge to others. He’s also been on the board of commissioners since 1997, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the International Society of Barristers, and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Cranmer's Secrets to Success

  1. Be decisive.
  2. Accept responsibility for your decisions—both good and bad.
  3. Develop the art of listening.
  4. Communicate effectively.
  5. Stay humble, stay focused and have stamina.

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