Wayne C. Witkowski, BS ’68, BSE ’68, JD ’72
Wayne Witkowski couldn’t forget the faces. Sad faces, angry faces, frustrated, teary, hopeless faces. Faces of candidates for admission to the District of Columbia bar—who, because of student loan defaults, risked failing the fitness review and losing
out on bar membership.
Witkowski saw many such faces when he served on the D.C. Court of Appeals Committee on Admissions. He wanted to help, and he saw his law school as a place to make a difference. Through a bequest of the bulk of his estate, he has endowed
a fund that ultimately will provide financial support, including student loan repayment assistance, for Michigan Law graduates who work in government service.
“I realized that the Law School had only so many resources,” says Witkowski, of Fairfax, Virginia, “and I figured if I could pitch in with my resources, I wanted to do that.”
Witkowski was working toward a PhD in engineering when he decided to pursue law instead, inspired by the social ferment of the 1960s. “I felt like I could do more to contribute to society by being a lawyer than by being an engineer,” he recalls.
Even before he set foot in the Law Quad, Witkowski had set his sights on doing civil rights work. His first job offer came from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and he seized the opportunity. In this first stint at the Justice Department, he handled voting rights and employment discrimination suits, developing particular expertise in school desegregation cases. Knowing he had an impact on young lives was especially
“I have always said that after my last breath, when I am at the gates, if I’m asked why I should be admitted, I will point to that work,” he says.
The native Detroiter grew increasingly interested in municipal law, viewing the school desegregation work as part of a larger and more complex fabric of needs. Witkowski joined the District of Columbia’s law office as a civil litigator, where a career highlight was his solo defense in a three-month trial of a case brought by the contractor for part of the Mall Tunnel near the U.S. Capitol.
“At that time, there was a lot of talking about our declining central cities,” says Witkowski, reflecting on what drew him to the work. “The city is like a big civil rights engine, trying to help its people. Working as a lawyer, I was contributing to that.”
In 1994, after more than 20 years of civil trial work, Witkowski transferred to the D.C. government’s Legal Counsel Division, where he served as the division’s deputy attorney general and also as the government’s legal ethics officer—a role he says he
“Initially, I was not very self-confident and somewhat intimidated by what I knew I did not know,” he says. “Midway into my career, I started growing in confidence, and became more finely tuned to and aware of the ethical responsibilities I had as a government lawyer.”
Recently retired, Witkowski is enjoying leisurely mornings, travel, and lots of culture. Believing law schools should offer more training in professional responsibility, he’d also like to teach ethics.
“It’s how you won a case that’s important,” he says firmly, “not just that you did.”