Global Outreach Product liability lawyer finds second calling in classroom

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Some teens go to rock concerts. Some teens play video games.

Nicholas Wittner went to trials.

"I knew while I was still an embryo that I wanted to be a lawyer," he says. "As a 16-year-old, I would go with a friend to downtown Detroit to see trials in the federal courthouse. I was glued to books like 'For the Defense' by F. Lee Bailey. I loved the courtroom, the drama, and most of all, seeing justice done."

In eighth grade, he and his best buddy vowed to become lawyers -- and both achieved that goal.

His teen dream led Wittner, now a visiting professor at Michigan State University College of Law, to a law degree from Wayne State University, followed by an 11-year career with the General Motors Legal Department in Detroit and a 20-year career in Los Angeles as assistant general counsel with Nissan North America.

"I'm from an auto family," he says. "My dad worked at GM where he supervised part of prototype development. My brother was with Chrysler. I grew up handing wrenches to him as he souped up his cars.

"Living in Detroit, cars are the lifeblood of the city. Who wouldn't want to work as a lawyer at an auto company if they had the chance? I jumped at it and am fabulously happy that I did. I've seen the world because of it and met incredible people."

His travels, including some 70 trips to Tokyo, racked up more than two million miles.

"The mainspring in my body clock is irreparably broken from all the jet-lag," he says.

International travel isn't glamorous like some people think it is, Wittner says. He recalls a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Paris -- flying over Siberia looking for hours at vast snow-covered mountains and terrain -- then Paris to Barcelona, Barcelona to London, then to New York, and back to Los Angeles.

"But, a virus I caught along the way made me think I would meet my maker alone in a small village hotel room in Woburn, England," he says. "I remember learning that a 'surgery' in England meant the doctor's office. I didn't know that when the hotel folks said I needed to go to surgery as soon as possible. It startled me, to say the least."

He missed the recent turmoil in Egypt by a whisker.

"I was supposed to be in Cairo two days before it all blew up," he says. "Fortunately we diverted to Istanbul."

He was also two blocks away from the subway station when the Sarin gas attacks hit Tokyo, and other times when earthquakes struck.

"I remember being strip-searched in Belfast during the height of the attacks there."

Viruses, earthquakes, and strip-searches notwithstanding -- Wittner relishes his travels.

"I loved working with people all over the world, immersing myself in their cultures and, whenever I could, their languages, too. I had clients and colleagues around the world who will be friends forever."

His responsibilities ranged "from cradle to grave" -- advising engineers as they developed cars and trucks.

"That was the most gratifying -- to be part of a process that helped advance safety features and know that collisions and injuries could be reduced because of them.

Other responsibilities included managing the defense of product liability, class actions, and involvement with recalls, as well as environmental matters about the end and recycling of a vehicle.

"I'm a product liability lawyer at heart -- I did my best to help prevent injuries through my advice and then when claims are made, mounting an aggressive defense against meritless claims," he says. "We had an outstanding record winning trials. The best part was working with the world's leading expert witnesses, learning from them about accident reconstruction, biomechanics. It was fascinating. Seeing them do full-scale crash tests with instrumented crash dummies that proved your case. Incredible stuff."

Wittner's change of career started three years ago. A member of the American Law Institute, he worked closely with Professors Aaron Twerski and James Henderson Jr. during ALI's eight-year effort to craft the Restatement Third of Products Liability.

In November 2008, Brooklyn Law School held a symposium - "Ten Years Later: Was the Restatement a Success or Failure."

"Professor Twerski wanted the harshest critics and some of the strongest supporters as speakers. I was privileged that he asked me to be a moderator and speaker," Wittner says.

He played to a packed house. A horseshoe staircase was lined with Twerski's students. Leading academics filled the main floor.

"I was in awe," he says. "I also quickly realized that I was the lone practicing product liability from a corporation."

At the end of his presentation, he was asked, "When you sit in that room with the engineers and business folks, do they weigh the costs of a recall against the costs of lives or the loss of arms?"

Wittner's answer was a firm 'No".

"Our families ride or drive in those vehicles. Cutting through the legalese, it comes down to 'Would you be comfortable putting your family member in that car or truck if you don't do a recall?' It's that simple."

Twerski -- a Hasidic rabbi with a long flowing beard and deep booming voice that Wittner fondly calls "the Voice of God" -- called Wittner two weeks later on Thanksgiving to say that Wittner's presentation and forthright answer had left an indelible impression on the students. He urged him to enter the academic arena and take on the responsibility to model ethical behavior of a corporate counsel for the next generation of lawyers.

"He didn't beat around the bush," Wittner says. "He got straight to the point -- 'Nick, you need to go out and teach.'

"It made every hair on my body stand on end. I had not really thought about teaching. But when the 'Voice of God' tells you to go teach, it's a command you can't refuse."

Wittner, an MSU alumnus "who bleeds Green and White," became an adjunct professor at MSU in 2009, teaching product liability law.

"I realized what a profound responsibility it was to help mold that next generation of lawyers like Professor Twerski had impelled me to do," he says. "I hadn't actually taught all that much about ethics, I focused on the law and practice. When the student evaluation sheets came back, though, I saw that what the students took away from the course was much more about ethical practice than substantive law."

At the end of class, Wittner's students gave him a standing ovation. "It was a life-changing moment, one I will never forget and always treasure. I knew then that my heart belonged to teaching"

When the opportunity to teach full-time arose, it was a dream come true, he says.

"Sometimes I feel like 'Pinch me. Did this really happen?'"

Wittner teaches products liability law in the J.D. program and Civil Litigation in the Law College's LL.M Program for Foreign-Educated Lawyers.

"That's the icing on the cake," he says. "To continue working with lawyers from around the world, to have students from cultures that are totally new to me, like Turkey, Russia, Cameroon, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, a virtual United Nations, well, there would have been a void in my life without them."

Wittner feels like his students are a "second family." He often helps them with adjusting to law school and campus life, not just being their professor. He's also quickly converted them into Spartans. At a welcome reception, Wittner -- who knew that MSU mascot "Sparty" would visit - divided the room for a class exercise.

"When Sparty entered, the students were ready. One half of the room chanted "Go Green", and the other "Go White", and then in unison, "Fight team fight!"

"Last year, it was amazing as the students who knew virtually nothing about American football became engrossed so that at the beginning of class they wanted to talk about the football game results! They were all so endearing and enthusiastic to learn United States law and culture, including our crazed sports tailgates and games."

By the end of the semester, almost all the students were decked in Green and White, and Wittner received notes that everywhere in the world there would be Spartans forever.

"They told me that being a Spartan meant a sense of belonging to an entity greater than themselves, having a sense of belonging, a special feeling of a tight-knit family. They didn't want to leave their new home and its members. They're enthralled to be members of the Spartan Nation and disappointed to leave their colleagues," he says.

"I envision Spartans as courageous warriors, and our Spartan lawyers as warriors who will fight -- with honor -- on behalf of their clients."

His international students were certainly courageous. Some had saved for years and left a practice behind to come to MSU, and some had never before left their homelands. Some were from countries where it is out of the ordinary for a woman to be a lawyer, much less aspire to an even higher degree and learn a new culture as well as law.

"But they did it and I was so, so proud of them. They were far more accomplished than I was at their age."

Wittner was a recipient of the College of Law's Distinguished Faculty Member Award for 2010-11.

"When I received the award, I almost fell over," he says.

He also enjoys research and writing. He has just finished a 600-page Aspen Custom Book for his LL.M students, has published several articles, spoken at or co-chaired legal conferences, and been quoted numerous times in newspapers and legal journals about the Supreme Court's landmark decisions this term in product liability law and civil procedure.

In his leisure time, Wittner is an experienced scuba divemaster, diving in underwater caverns, and exploring shipwrecks, and recently returned from some shark-diving off the coast of Honduras.

"My wife made me promise not to go on shark dives until the kids grew up, but now all bets are off."

Married to a fellow Spartan for 38 years, he has two grown children.

"There's some rivalry in the family," he says. "I'm a die-hard football fan with seats in the middle of the hardest core Spartan fans but my daughter and son-in law are graduates of Notre Dame. We were all at last year's game when MSU won in overtime with the fake field goal -- the 'Little Giants' play. My daughter swears that there was no time left on the clock when the ball was snapped but she's wrong."

Published: Tue, Aug 16, 2011

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