Mentoring important to ethics commission chief
After graduating from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in 1990, Paul M. Nick wanted to make more than just a paycheck — he wanted to make a difference.
“When I went to law school, I wanted to do more than just join a profession. I wanted to make a difference, either through changing public policy or my role right now in advising public officials and holding those accountable who violate the public trust,” said Nick. “I feel like I’m doing more than just earning a paycheck, I’m making a contribution.”
Nick now serves as the executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission and a mentor to Columbus students at various levels of education.
He began his career with an intern certificate, allowing him to try cases in Franklin County Municipal Court under the supervision of an attorney before he passed the bar exam. This was valuable experience for Nick and helped him find his focus as a lawyer.
After passing the bar exam, Nick went on to work as a prosecutor for the Columbus City Attorney’s office, handling hundreds of cases each year in the largest municipal court in Ohio. He quickly ended up as a training prosecutor in the criminal division for five years before switching to the civil division.
His work for the Columbus City Attorney led him to a job as the investigative counsel and then chief investigative attorney for the Ohio Ethics Commission. Here, Nick worked on high-profile public corruption cases statewide, serving as a special prosecutor in over 25 cases. He is also cross-designated as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Ohio.
“The Commission has investigated public officials at all levels of state and local government, from state constitutional office holders to county sheriffs to township trustees and employees,” he said.
While these high-profile cases are important to public policy, Nick said the cases in which the accused actually did nothing wrong are just as important.
“That’s one of the satisfying things, professionally, about representing the State of Ohio instead of a private client. When you’re on the prosecution side, if in your professional judgment you believe that the facts do not or no longer support a criminal charge, your ethical obligation is to dismiss the case,” said Nick.
In April 2011, the Ohio Ethics Commission appointed him as its new executive director. Nick said his current administrative role as agency director is a good fit for him, allowing him to combine his undergraduate business education with his professional experiences investigating and prosecuting challenging cases. He encourages students to find what niche of legal practice fits them best through internships, shadowing, and mentoring programs.
“You really have to be more involved in networking than you were 20 years ago,” he said. “My parents weren’t lawyers; I didn’t have any lawyers in my family or family friends to mentor me. I was the first person in my family to obtain a professional degree and had to find my own way as a new lawyer.”
While this did present Nick with some challenges, he said he “got lucky” and found himself in a job and practice area that he really enjoyed. But he doesn’t suggest leaving job placement to chance.
“Try to determine what area of practice appeals to you and your skill set. Not everybody’s a trial lawyer, not everybody’s an advocate,” Nick said. “Some people find they are better at being mediators or counselors.”
For the past three years, Nick has volunteered with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program that helps new lawyers. He believes that this program is an excellent opportunity for new lawyers to find their way as new members of the bar. This year, Nick also started mentoring first-year law students through the Mentoring and More @ Moritz program.
“There are a lot of alumni who want to help students with their careers. We may not be able to give you a job, we may not be able to give you an internship or grant, but we can give you the benefits of our time and experience, and we want to do that. That’s why we’re here,” he said.
In addition to mentoring young professionals, Nick coaches and advises the Thomas Worthington High School mock trial team. He began advising high school mock trial teams in 1996 and received the mock trial Coach of the Year award this year from the board of the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education.
“That is something I’m really proud of, because coaching mock trial has become a passion of mine,” said Nick. “Although high school mock trial is very competitive, it is really about teaching students the importance of civility. The teams that succeed in competition are those who learn that civility and professionalism can be more effective tools for an advocate than sarcasm and gamesmanship.”
Nick encourages students to take advantage of the resources around them and to be driven in their career goals. “Many of the opportunities available to current law students and law graduates did not exist when I was in law school,” Nick noted.
He also encourages alumni to become active in mentoring students and new members of the Bar. “Although we naturally tend to focus on our careers and clients, we also have a professional obligation to share our experiences with others,” Nick said.
This article was written by T.K. Brady.