Attracted to good worklife balance and familyoriented city
“She thought I made a much more impressive oral presentation than I had in one of my essays,” said Wagner.
“She suggested (becoming a lawyer), and I thought, ‘Well, that might not be so bad.’”
It actually worked out rather well for him. Wagner was recently re-elected for his third two-year term as managing partner for Warner Norcross & Judd LLP. The election took place in November, and Wagner started the new term this month.
But well before joining the legal team at Warner Norcross, Wagner worked at a slew of interesting odd jobs, starting when he was 16. His father was a salesman and the family bounced around somewhat, staying mostly in the Detroit area — where one of his jobs was as a substitute Good Humor Man.
“I was always employed doing something,” he said. “I was a gas station attendant, a mechanic, a hi-lo driver. I sold encyclopedias door-to-door; I sold fire alarms door-to-door. And at one time, I started my own business selling ‘no soliciting’ signs door-to-door.
“I actually made more money doing that than any of my other jobs. I knew where all the neighborhoods were where you would sell encyclopedias and fire alarms, and 90 percent of the people hated your guts. When I went back and told them I’d quit my job and was giving these signs away as a public service, and just asked for a small donation so I could continue in other areas, I was knocking down a buck, two bucks at every house, and had other kids working for me.”
It was jobs like that that helped him save for an education at Albion College, where he earned a degree in economics in 1974. One summer during his early college years, he worked selling swimming pools at the Hudson’s in the Oakland Mall in Troy. That’s where he met Nancy, who also was working there. In 1972, they were married.
Company: Warner Norcross & Judd LLP
His wife was also very busy — raising their sons.
“By that time, I had three sons, so she was taking care of the children. I was working as a clerk in a small law firm in Dearborn, working as many hours a week as I could.
“I couldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t have the stamina,” he said of that period in his life.
“My biggest career break came when my father told me — at my mother’s insistence — that he would pay for my law school tuition. I had worked full time and gone to (college) full time, but I knew I couldn’t go to law school full time and get the sort of grades you need to be sure you were going to get employment and work.”
Wagner received his juris doctorate from Wayne State in 1976, graduating magna cum laude. The economy was experiencing a recession brought on by the oil crisis. Wagner had his hopes set on becoming a prosecutor, but budgets did not permit the hiring of county prosecutors at the time he graduated.
“I entered what was an extremely competitive market for a private job and was lucky enough to be hired by Warner Norcross,” he said. “I’m sure at the time they thought they were taking an incredible gamble.”
Warner Norcross was not the only firm he looked at. Wagner went to the placement office at his law school and read up on various Michigan firms. He interviewed at several Detroit firms, as well as at Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt and Howlett, and at Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith in Lansing.
But Wagner eventually was drawn to Warner Norcross, partially because of its strong emphasis on work/life balance.
“(We’d) never really been to Grand Rapids, except for the interview. It seemed like a terrific community — the kind of place where you could raise a family — and I loved the firm,” he said. “So we packed up and moved.”
When Wagner joined Warner Norcross, he was its 44th lawyer; the firm now has more than 200 attorneys. He worked in several different areas of law at first, but when he connected with Tom McNamara, who became his mentor at Warner Norcross, he knew he wanted to be a litigator.
McNamara had just returned from teaching in London and at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, when Wagner was introduced to him.
“Every trial lawyer age 40 and up held him in high regard,” Wagner said of McNamara.
Under McNamara’s tutorship, Wagner’s passion for litigation grew. “Within a year or two, I was very focused on litigation and trial work,” he said.
“What I like about (litigation) best is you get to understand many different businesses. It’s a lot of fun. Then when you go to court, things happen really fast and there’s a lot at stake, and the competitive juices begin to flow and it’s fun. You don’t sit and watch the clock, that’s for sure.”
During his 33 years at the firm, Wagner has had many cases that made an impact on his career and his life. One of them, Stahl v. Monsanto Co., came in the early 1980s. Wagner was the chief trial counsel defending Monsanto, the developer of AstroTurf, which was used in the Pontiac Silverdome, among other large athletic facilities.
The plaintiff was a national soccer player who claimed product defects in the AstroTurf installation at the Silverdome had caused a career-ending injury during a game. His attorney was a respected Grand Rapids trial lawyer named Grant Gruel. The plaintiff also had a lawyer from San Francisco who represented the NFL Players Association, whose members frequently played on AstroTurf.
At the time, there was considerable discussion about the AstroTurf product and its effect on sports injuries.
“They had picked this case as the test case against Monsanto, because A) they had a golden boy plaintiff, and B) the Silverdome was widely known to be the worst installation in the country,” he said.
The plaintiff’s side had an “in” at Sports Illustrated magazine, and the case became widely covered by the sports media, including three consecutive exposés on the dangers of artificial turf in Sports Illustrated.
“We had the jury in there, and every day the judge told them not to read anything. There was one person on the jury I was worried about. He was a 20-, 21-year-old young man who, when the referee testified, he wouldn’t look at him. Eventually, he just turned and looked at the wall, and the referee is explaining that this guy’s injury had nothing to do with the turf; he did an illegal slide tackle from behind,” said Wagner.
“They (the members of the jury) go out about 11:30, and at noon they send a note asking if they can go to lunch, and it’s signed by the jury foreman — and that kid is the jury foreman. We were scared to death, but it turned out this kid was a great advocate for us. He said the reason he didn’t look at the referee was that, after he testified that it wasn’t the turf, (the juror) thought the case was over, and we were just wasting time at this point.
“You just never know. It’s a lot like going to Las Vegas every time you walk into that courtroom.”
In his third term as managing partner, Wagner hopes to move Warner Norcross & Judd forward in its role as a leading firm in the state of Michigan.
“Warner is different from a lot of firms. It’s really a tight-knit group. Over three decades, we’ve had slow but steady growth. We haven’t had any significant spin-offs, never had a layoff. Revenue has continued to improve even after the last few years in this economy,” he said.
“When I started, it was a Grand Rapids firm. Now it’s widely known as one of the outstanding business firms in the state of Michigan. At its core, it’s built off teamwork and loyalty.”
Though Wagner has had many significant cases and professional experiences, he said, “Obviously, the most important significant event in my life was when Nancy agreed to marry me.”
He and Nancy now have five sons, as well as three grandkids and one more on the way. Family being important to Wagner, he spends his free time with them.
“I’ve always enjoyed athletics. My boys were very athletic, so I always enjoyed watching them play, and now I have grandchildren,” he said.
Wagner also likes to head out either on Lake Michigan or one of the many inland lakes to fish.