Trial run: Litigator gives students taste of courtroom challenges

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 By Sheila Pursglove 

Legal News
 
Standing in a cemetery watching an exhumation, attorney Richard Zecchino may have wished he’d stuck to liberal arts studies.
 
In what sounds like a scene from a novel or movie, Zecchino—then a neophyte attorney in New Jersey—was helping with an inheritance/paternity case. An unmarried farmer had died without a will—leaving a fortune, several siblings, and a woman claiming to be his illegitimate daughter.
 
“There were a number of things this farmer had done for her throughout the years that suggested she was his daughter, but he had never acknowledged paternity to his brothers and sisters,” Zecchino explains.  
 
As the farmer’s only daughter, this woman stood to inherit the entire fortune. The law firm started a probate case for her, while “aunts and uncles” challenged her claim.  
 
The solution was a DNA test. 
 
“Next thing I know, I’m at the cemetery because the parties are having the farmer’s body exhumed,” Zecchino says. “They remove his casket from the ground and take it over to a small shed where a doctor proceeds to remove part of the farmer’s jaw bone and femur bone with a medical saw.  The woman was vindicated—the test confirmed she was his daughter.”
 
Cases are a tad less dramatic nowadays for Zecchino, a partner at Honigman, Miller, Schwartz, and Cohn LLP in Lansing, where he concentrates on general and complex commercial law and litigation.  
 
“I went to law school thinking I would be a corporate/business lawyer and never see the inside of a courtroom,” he says. “Once I graduated and started practicing, everyone seemed to think my skill set was better suited for the courtroom. I resisted for as long as I could, but it just ended up being the natural progression of my career. I specialize in commercial litigation because it fits well with my initial desire to be a corporate/business lawyer and the experiences I had growing up working with the family business.” 
 
Zecchino shares his expertise by teaching Pretrial I and II in the Trial Practice Institute at Michigan State University College of Law. His class is designed to show students first-hand what it’s actually like to litigate.
 
“It’s not about the theory of law at all, it’s entirely about the practical application of law,” he says. “I love being able to show students how rewarding, disappointing, and challenging the practice of law is.”
 
In many ways, Zecchino handles the class as an internship or residency program, and what starts out as a teacher/student relationship becomes more like a mentor/mentee relationship. 
 
“The students appreciate the fact I’m telling them about mistakes I made or that I’ve seen, with the hope they will not make those same mistakes when they start practicing,” he says. 
 
According to Zecchino, the class gives students a huge advantage in the job market.  
 
“I tell my students they should highlight the fact they already know how to draft a complaint, an answer, discovery, motions—things most law students are never exposed to until they’re working in a law firm.”
 
He enjoys staying in touch with former students and many call on him for advice, assistance, and friendship long after classes end. 
 
“If I ever became independently wealthy and didn’t have to work anymore, I would still teach part-time because I truly enjoy it,” he says.
 
In his own student days, Zecchino had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. 
 
“I was a liberal arts major with no real direction,” he says. 
 
After spending his freshman year at Villanova University in Philadelphia, he fell in love with Myrtle Beach on spring break and begged his parents to let him transfer to Coastal Carolina University—selling his father on much lower tuition fees. 
 
Entering as a liberal arts/undeclared major, he took a U.S. history class taught by the department head, who encouraged him to major in the topic.
 
“I particularly enjoyed the research and writing,” Zecchino says. “I thought being able to write and communicate effectively would help me in whatever career I eventually ended up in, so I quickly became an English major as well.”
 
Zecchino was faced with the prospect of trying to become a teacher, trying to get his foot in the door “somewhere doing something,” or going to grad school.
 
His English professor suggested law school.
 
“He thought my writing style and analytical skills would equal success in the legal field,” Zecchino says. “There was no real moment when I ‘knew’ I wanted to become a lawyer, I just knew I didn’t have a lot of options with my degrees. I didn’t want to bartend for the rest of my life—which is what I did in college and law school—and someone I trusted believed I would do well in law school.”
 
Clearly it was the right path. Zecchino earned his J.D., summa cum laude, from Michigan State University College of Law, followed by an LL.M. from New York University School of Law, and a Certificate in Estate Planning from Temple University Beasley School of Law. This year he made the list of Michigan Super Lawyers, and in 2009 and 2010 was recognized as a Rising Star.
 
Zecchino says he feels “blessed” to work at Honigman, where he is one of 12 full time attorneys in the Lansing office.
 
“I have the best of both worlds—I work in a small office of a large, national law firm. On the one hand there’s an intimacy in the Lansing office you can only achieve in a small law firm setting, which I love.  On the other hand, I get to work on all types of interesting, intense, meaty, and important cases one does not often see in a small law firm. The attorneys I work with are incredibly talented and have taught me so much.”
 
Zecchino previously worked as a solo practitioner.
 
“Hanging out your own shingle is tough,” he says.  “For the most part, law school teaches you the theory of law, but not how to practice law—how to draft pleadings, motions, and how to obtain and retain clients.”
 
Handling a case that was somewhat over his head, he approached local firm Pfeiffer, Winegar, Wilhelm & Glynn to take the case—and was invited to join the firm and bring the case with him.
 
“Jim Pfeiffer said, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know your first few years practicing on your own.  Come to work for us for a few years and learn.  At the end of those few years, if you want to go back out on your own, so be it, but get an education here so you don’t make those mistakes.’ Jim was right, I learned a lot from my time there—it was a very busy small office of 6 attorneys and I was exposed to all types of law in my 2 1/2 years there.”
 
To supplement his income, Zecchino worked as a bartender on Saturday nights at the Perryville Inn. 
 
“My parents referred to me as ‘Ed’ after the TV show about a lawyer who owned a bowling alley,” he says with a smile.  
 
A native of Phillipsburg, N.J., Zecchino now calls East Lansing home, with his wife Dana, son R.J., 4, and 1-year-old daughter Lyla.
 
“I know it’s a cliché, but we love being so close to Michigan State University, for the university culture-Big Ten sports, and entertainment,” he says. “The Lansing area is vibrant and growing. The only thing I miss about living in the middle of Michigan is the ocean!”
 
He enjoys golf, baseball, football, basketball, and most anything else sports related; returns to his home state each summer for a family vacation at Cape May, N.J., and he and his family also enjoy summer weekends at their cottage on Clark Lake near Jackson.
 
Zecchino serves on the Red Cross Blood Service Committee and the Habitat for Humanity of Lansing Board of Directors. 
 
“My wife and I try to volunteer for as much as we can,” he says. “We enjoy being part of, and giving back to, the community that has given so much to us.”

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