Former reporter, newscaster finds calling in courtroom

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

The great-grandfather of Lansing attorney Mike Nichols was cursed by itinerants when - as an alderman in Pennsylvania - he evicted them from the county.

"I often wonder if the curse came down a few generations and made me a trial lawyer," Nichols says.

He's kidding, of course. He loves his career as one of Michigan's leading criminal defense attorneys and all-around litigators, and a specialist in Michigan drunk-driving laws.

It's a long way from his childhood dream of playing Major League baseball, but now he goes to bat for his clients.

"One of the greatest days in my life was standing in front of Judge Giddings, raising my right hand, and taking the oath," he says. "It's so important to remember that oath - it separates our democracy from so many others. No person should be without a lawyer in a free society. I take that so seriously. We pay it forward to the next generation of Americans when we uphold democratic principles."

A good trial lawyer has to be a bit of a showman, he says. And that comes easily, since he spent more than a decade in broadcast journalism.

"I felt broadcasting was one of the few areas where I had any skills. My role models were Edward R. Murrow, for his courage; and Mike Wallace for his backbone. He would take on anybody."

In the late 1980s, Nichols was the main news/sports anchor and reporter for WWSJ Radio 1580 AM in St. Johns, Mich., before spending 6 years as morning anchor/editor at the Michigan News Network in Lansing. Next came four years as a reporter/anchor with WILX TV-10 in Lansing, three years as a contributing reporter to the Michigan Radio Network, and a stint as a writer, reporter and assignment editor with WWJ AM 950 in Detroit.

His beats primarily entailed government/politics and law, something that held in him good stead in his law career - and tied in with his bachelor's degree in political science and pre-law, with honors, from Michigan State University.

"I wanted to focus my career on covering government and politics and law - and make myself more marketable and well-rounded, perhaps work for a big-city newspaper like The Washington Post," he says. "I realized pretty quickly that in broadcasting, political reporting is a formula, anybody can do it. I often had to go through things that were distasteful, and cover stories that weren't newsworthy - the way newscasts cover stories appeals to baser instincts."

One of his most memorable events was covering the 1990 Michigan gubernatorial election when John Engler pulled a stunning upset of incumbent Jim Blanchard.

"I was at Blanchard's headquarters, staying up all night and watching things unfold," he says. "It was an incredible example of how much one vote can count - Engler won by three votes per precinct. They had a bitter rivalry, and it was very hard for Blanchard to lose. He acted with a lot of grace."

Would Nichols ever entertain the thought of entering politics?

"Politics, yes - being a politician, no," he says. "Representing people who want to go to trial - that's my calling, at least right now."

Nichols, who was awarded his law degree in 1999 from Cooley Law School in Lansing, where he was on the dean's list three semesters and won the Society of Irish-American Lawyers Scholarship, started his new career with Knot and Associates - which became Knot, Nichols and Meade. He was a partner and vice president of The Reynolds Law Firm before becoming Of Counsel at The Gallagher Law Firm.

He and his wife Wendy founded The Nichols Law Firm in 2006, where he specializes in OWI/OWID (Operating While Intoxicated/Operating While Intoxicated by Drugs) and complex criminal cases.

In 11 years of practice, he has taken more than 100 cases to trial before a jury. While he represents all cases aggressively, he finds extra motivation and additional commitment to results for clients charged with drinking and driving.

"Drinking and driving was made criminal a century ago but society's view has done more than make citizens who are charged with 'drunk driving' criminals," he says. "Now it seems as if defendants in drunk driving cases don't get the same rights many other criminal defendants are afforded.

"Often, judges and prosecutors are more likely to make the case go to trial - if the defendant is found not guilty, it's the jury's fault. Then groups like MADD - Mothers Against Drunk Driving - can't blame them, they can blame the result on the jury who listen to the silver-tongued defense attorney. There's so much more to a drinking and driving case than a 'silver-tongue.' Every person is different. Every case is different."

Michigan has three ways to convict someone of drinking and driving. One is to prove the driver's bodily alcohol content was .08 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath or blood was .08 grams of alcohol per 100 liters of blood.

"Every person is entitled to the right that you cannot be found guilty of a crime without proof. That proof must rise to the level that exceeds reasonable doubt," Nichols says. "Many lawyers do not want to challenge - or even review - evidence, and look at a drunk driving case as an opportunity to charge fees and then hold their client's hand through a plea and sentence."

"Don't get me wrong, sometimes aggressive representation means negotiating a plea and/or sentence agreement aggressively and guiding the client through the right steps toward rehabilitation with expertise and compassion. However, many cases warrant not only a thorough examination of the evidence but a challenge to the evidence or even a trial - challenging the police officer's arrest, the science behind the blood evidence or the mechanics of the instrument used to measure breath alcohol content."

He has been qualified as an expert witness in DUI defense and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) and DUI investigation; is certified by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in SFSTs and DUI investigation; and has been trained as a faculty member for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan Trial College.

All this training was time-consuming and expensive, but "education is its own reward," he says.

"As attorneys, we learn every hour of every day. One of the things I love and that motivates me is that I have to cross-examine experts who have had so much knowledge for so long."

Nichols has taken on many high-profile cases, including the successful defense of one of the Michigan State University students charged in a major assault in the so-called "Welcome Week" fight in 2005; his client was found not guilty of felony assault with intent to commit great bodily harm.

He defended in federal court in Grand Rapids the girlfriend of the biggest drug dealers in Lansing history; and was co-counsel in the biggest criminal case in Ingham County in recent history, People v. Holland, in which he served as co-counsel in the defense of the mother of a 7-year-old boy, whose remains were found in southern Ingham County in January, 2006, after the largest search in county history.

Nichols also is one of the first criminal defense attorneys in the country to go to trial in a so-called "black box" case - People v. Wood - where his teenage client was found not guilty of negligent homicide even though the black box in his vehicle showed he was nearly 20 miles an hour over the speed limit.

"On the second day of the week-long trial, my client turned 18," he says. "He was obviously very nervous, having been charged with a felony death, but he believed he had done nothing wrong, and his parents invested a lot of money in his defense. He was offered a plea bargain that was very attractive, but he didn't want to compromise."

Nichols' writing and reporting skills are still very much in evidence: he wrote the Michigan OWI Handbook for Thomson West Publishing; has written countless published articles about legal issues for lawyers and legal guides for non-lawyers, including "Glitz, profit, drives TV coverage" an editorial in The Lansing State Journal; and articles in Michigan Lawyers Weekly, BRIEFS, Right to Counsel, and other publications. He is a member of the Fellows of the State Bar of Michigan and Scribes. He also is the author of several fiction and non-fiction short stories.

"It's my third career," he jokes. "Of course, there are some attorneys who say I write fiction every day in the courtroom. But seriously, it's important for a trial lawyer to be able to tell his client's story to a judge and jury."

Nichols, who has chaired the Ingham County Bar Association Criminal Law Section for six years, is a member of the Ingham County Bench-Bar committee. He is a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; National College of DUI Defense; State Bar of Michigan Criminal Law Section; State Bar of Michigan Business Law Section; Michigan State University College of Law Chapter; and legislative workgroup for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan legislative committee.

He is generous in sharing his experiences and expertise, lecturing at Michigan State University; Thomas M. Cooley Law School; the Ingham County Bar Association; the Michigan Association for Justice, East Lansing Citizens Police Academy; Williamston School District; Grand Ledge School District; Okemos School District; and mentoring new attorneys through the Ingham County Bar Association program.

"If I hadn't had someone mentoring me, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. "I want to inspire others to be foot soldiers of the Constitution."

Published: Mon, Aug 16, 2010

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