Former Students Remember Tom Singer

Author: Dean Nell Jessup Newton

By Nell Jessup Newton, Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law

I am very sorry to report that Tom Singer, a superb trial lawyer, colleague, and instructor in Notre Dame’s trial advocacy program, died Saturday, March 4.

Tom was a South Bend attorney and proud of it. A 1952 graduate of South Bend Central High School, he began his career with the South Bend law firm of Crumpacker, May, Beamer, Levy & Searer. Later, he formed a partnership with Alexander Lysohir and finished his career serving as Of Counsel to the firm of Nickle & Piasecki of South Bend until he retired in 2012.

Tom was a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, but his ties to NDLS ran deep. His wife, Carmen Piasecki, is a 1973 NDLS grad and his daughter, Kate Singer, is a 1997 grad who has been an adjunct professor here since 2000. In addition to teaching in the Intensive Trial Advocacy (ITA) program, Kate teaches a moot court trial class and serves as co-coach of the Barristers and American Association of Justice trial teams (along with her husband, adjunct professor Joel Williams). Kate told me that her dad loved teaching, and that in a sense he continued teaching her right up until two days before he died: “I was helping by writing a thank-you card for him. It took three tries before he finally said, ‘Just say this. …’ It was a one-line, perfect thank-you note. He was always teaching me how to be an advocate; it was just one way of showing his love.”

During his 40 years as an NDLS adjunct professor Tom mentored generations of trial lawyers, many of whom credit him for their professional success. Timothy Rooney, a 1982 law school graduate and partner at Winston & Strawn, was a student in Tom’s 1982 trial advocacy class before going on to a career as a litigator. Later, he returned to NDLS to teach in the trial ad program along with Tom. Like many of Tom’s former students, Tim stressed that Tom’s influence continued during his entire career: “I frequently told the ITA students that they should pay very close attention when Tom Singer lectured, because if they looked around, they would see all of the faculty members — experienced and very accomplished litigators — doing that very thing. We took every opportunity we could to hear Tom lecture. Even as I grew to be a senior litigator at a major firm, I truly looked forward to teaching with Tom, because I learned something from him every time I did. He was a special talent, and a very special man. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had my path cross with his.”

Tom’s warm and charismatic personality left an indelible impression on colleagues and students alike. Jim Seckinger, the Notre Dame professor who first hired Tom to teach in the program, described him as “my closest friend — personally and professionally — since I arrived in South Bend and started working with him in 1975. He has been a tremendous gift to me personally and professionally, and has touched so many lives throughout the U.S. and Canada. From 1975, Notre Dame law students have been the special beneficiaries of Tom Singer and he will live on at NDLS beyond my years at the Law School.” One of those Canadian connections is Jim’s wife, Sheila Block, an attorney with Torys LLP in Toronto. She says that Tom, who was well known for his deep love of Shakespeare, poetry, and the Bible, “was the ultimate Renaissance man and a great human being. There really was no one like him.”

Colleagues recount how their professional relationships with Tom quickly bloomed into warm friendships.

Karen McCartan DeSantis, a 1986 NDLS grad and a partner with Kirkland & Ellis, reports that Tom was “a master teacher, a generous and insightful mentor, and a wonderful friend, whose incomparable skill, influence, perspective, and wisdom immeasurably enriched my practice in our profession.”

Robert Byman, a partner at Jenner & Block and former president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, recalls that Tom commanded respect “simply by walking into a room. And when he spoke, his baritone filled the room like a symphony. But it wasn’t the voice, nor his ability to quote poetry, nor his knowledge of the law and procedure, that made him so effective. It was that he exuded his humanity. You just, well, you simply liked Tom the moment you first saw him, and he never let you down from that first impression. Twice a year for the past 15 years or so I listened to Tom give the same lectures, and I never tired of hearing them, because I never could get enough of Tom. I will miss those lectures as I will miss Tom. We were all lucky to have known him.”

Jim Moran, a partner at Mulherin, Rehfeldt & Varchetto, P.C., in Wheaton, Ill., recalls that “when I first started with the ITA class, it was in the old law school. My wife, Linda, would also travel to Notre Dame with me to visit our daughter who was an undergrad. Linda started joining us for lunch in the basement each day. Each day, then, Linda made a beeline for Tom. I asked her why she always sought out Tom (thinking she just wanted to listen to Tom’s voice). Linda related, ‘I look for Tom because he always makes me feel like I belong.’ That is, simply, Tom Singer.”

His former students note that the lessons Tom imparted and the example he set have always remained with them.

Timothy G. Nickels, NDLS grad and managing partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP, says that Tom was “a true master of the art of trial advocacy, and he instilled a desire for excellence in his students. He knew the legal theory and reasoning behind the rules of trial advocacy, and he taught us the technique in a way that has stayed with me to this day. Whenever I try a case and get up to address the jury, I remember to first button my suit jacket — a way of ‘looking the part’ of a trial lawyer, and something Tom Singer taught us.”

Tim, like so many of his ITA colleagues, also notes the remarkable professional respect accorded Tom by his fellow teachers, saying he might on occasion miss out on a lecture or demonstration of another ITA colleague — but never Tom’s. “I continued to learn from him as recently as January, when we played the video of Tom’s lecture on direct examination. He was learned and demanding, yet humorous and inspiring. There will not be another Tom Singer.” 

Jeanne Jourdan, a 1975 Notre Dame grad and retired St. Joseph Superior Court judge, recalls that Tom looked and sounded “like a Midwestern Atticus Finch” and that he “prepared each class, lecture and demonstration of a trial skill as if he was at trial. “When his lecture featured an exhibit or phrase from a closing argument, he quoted ‘a lawyer’ without taking credit for something he had used or said at trial. His only exception to no ‘war stories’ happened when Tom talked about his own mistakes. His passion for excellence was unparalleled in the classroom and the courtroom.”

NDLS Professor Gerard Bradley first met Tom when Gerry arrived at Notre Dame in 1992. He says that it was immediately apparent that Tom had “the bearing and presence of a cracker-jack trial lawyer, and a voice which even the greatest orator would envy. He was a gentleman in every good sense of that word. Tom also possessed an understated but profound integrity. I recommended Tom from time to time to acquaintances who asked for the name of a ‘really good lawyer but someone they could trust.’ It was an easy call for me to make. I also attended many of Tom’s lectures in the Trial Advocacy class. He was knowledgeable and nearly mesmerizing. Tom Singer will be sorely missed by his colleagues, friends, and two generations’ worth of Notre Dame law students.”

Since 2009, when I came to Notre Dame, I have been struck by how many graduates from far and wide come at their own expense to volunteer in the Intensive Trial Advocacy program every semester. Jim Seckinger created this innovative program, but would be the first to say that Tom Singer was its heart and soul. Tom was truly a legend in the law and will be missed by so many who learned from him and now, in turn, teach the current generation of Notre Dame students.

Obituary in South Bend Tribune