Global Outreach-- MSU professor views his 'courageous' international law students as 2nd family

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.

"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.

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

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.

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.

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 recalls 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.

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.

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.

Wittner feels like his foreign 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.

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.

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

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: Mon, Sep 26, 2011

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