Civil Discourse

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Every time Christopher Hastings stands in front of a new group of law students, he is excited for them.

"They're embarking upon a journey that will challenge them as they've never been challenged before -- that will change the very core of how they think and who they are."

To be a part of that journey is a great privilege, says Hastings, a professor of Civil Procedure at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids.

"Any good trial lawyer is a teacher and a storyteller. But in the classroom I don't have to follow the Rules of Evidence, and there's no judge telling me to shut up and go back behind the podium."

While students have a basis for all their other courses from their experiences, they have no context for Civil Procedure.

"They already knew that if they order the grilled cheese at Denny's they have to pay the $2.99; now they're learning that's an implied contract," Hastings says. "Everything in their substantive courses pins on their existing experience. Civil Procedure isn't like that. It pins onto itself, and until you understand everything about it, you really can't understand much of anything about it.

"It can be frustrating for students, but when the light comes on and stays on, they know they've really learned something."

Hastings' own student journey started with a liberal arts degree in philosophy and English from Kalamazoo College. A prolific reader as a child, he fell into an English major because it was so much fun to earn college credit reading fiction.

"What a scam," he says with a smile. "When I'd earned my English major, I did the math and realized I could get a philosophy major too. I wanted to be steeped in Western culture and ideas."

Jobs for philosophers were as rare as hen's teeth. But a lucrative law career held allure.

"I was interested in law because I thought it paid well," he says. "My idealism had become somewhat jaded, and I figured if I was going to be disappointed with the way the world works, I might as well make a lot of money."

Dipping a toe in legal waters before starting law school, Hastings spent a year on the Agent Orange litigation as a paralegal, and another year working on litigation surrounding the South Texas Project, a nuclear power plant.

"I was enchanted by the prospects of working on high-stakes litigation," Hastings says.

Armed with a degree from the University of Michigan Law School, he became an associate with Miller Canfield in Grand Rapids, before moving to Drew Cooper & Anding, also in Grand Rapids, as an associate, then as a partner. His expertise included complex class action and commercial litigation, consumer class action, business torts, land finance, commercial and retail lending, RICO litigation, construction litigation, enterprise dissolution, and agency sales disputes. He also served as a mediator for the Kent County Circuit Court.

"My career followed the path I charted before law school," he says. "I had some unique experience in large scale litigation at the dawn of computerized litigation support, and I just followed that where it took me.

"What I liked best ended up having little to do with why I got involved with law," Hastings says. "The cases I remember most fondly are those where I helped ordinary individuals. Cases where someone took my hand at the end of the litigation, and said, 'Thank you - I wasn't ok, but now I am.' I got into law to make a lot of money, and ended up loving it because it allowed me to serve."

That passion to serve includes involvement in several community activities. He currently serves as vice president of the Legal Assistance Center of Kent County, Chair of the State Bar Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, and as a judge for the "We the People" high school constitutional debate program.

He has thrown himself into various roles with the Girl Scouts of Michigan Trails Council and currently serves on the organization's Shore-to-Shore Council Board of Directors. He got involved with Girl Scouting - celebrating its centennial this year - when his wife Patricia became a troop leader for their two daughters.

"I figured I would have to go native or be left out," he says. "It's been a great experience. The organization teaches leadership and confidence, and it really works. The U.S. has never had a female senator that was not a Girl Scout -- how's that for credibility?"

He has also discovered a new avian interest.

"I've become an avid birdwatcher in my dotage," he says. "My friends are quite dismayed. All my stories any more are about encounters with pileated woodpeckers and barred owls. Between bird watching and Civil Procedure, I may be the most boring person who ever lived."

Published: Wed, Apr 4, 2012