Between Two Wrongs


Kettwick and her father, Don Nichols, outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kettwick's father moved for her admission to the Supreme Court, and this motion was his very last court appearance of his career.

by Nicole Kettwick

2023-2024 HCBA President

As attorneys, we swear to a professional code of ethics before being admitted to the practice of law. We promise to conduct ourselves in an upright and courteous manner to the best of our abilities with all good fidelity to the court and our client. Our profession has recognized and even put into rules some of these more obvious standards for right and wrong. We have rules when it comes to client finances, and we know we must show up to court on time and prepared. 

Recently, I’ve found myself reflecting on some of the other choices we are faced with in this busy, sometimes all-consuming profession. What about our own morals and code of ethics? I know I have certainly found myself thinking about right and wrong or when to speak up and when to let things go. While reflecting, I decided to turn to another legal professional whom I deeply respect, my dad Don Nichols, for a conversation on moral decisions he has faced in his life and in this profession.

My dad had an interesting upbringing. He was raised in a large family with limited financial resources in central Florida. He was one of nine children living in a 50 by 20 square foot tar paper shack with no indoor plumbing and an outhouse. The house had no inside walls and holes in the roof. He recalls how those breaks in the roof let in the stars at night and leaked chilly water when it rained. One of his brothers was sick with polio and he remembers that his mom stayed home and did her best to care for him and the other children. They lived in a small community where his dad had multiple jobs, including police chief, fire chief, and doing maintenance at the local ballpark. They may not have had much, but they were a close hardworking family. 

He also recalls the strong divide between the poor and wealthy folks in the town. Poor people, many of whom were people of color, were looked down upon and made to feel ashamed. Because my father’s father was the chief of police, their family car was a 1954 Ford with a siren placed delicately on top and a limited radio with just one channel. That radio allowed him to receive emergency notification and communicate with people in positions of power. He recalls that around this time, the city had a widespread prohibition on gambling. Despite this prohibition, many people in powerful positions—including the mayor, judges, and city counselors—got together weekly to play poker. Similarly, many Black people in the community would wind down together after busy days by playing craps. While both groups were violating the law, my grandfather heard over his radio that they were planning a raid of the Black community for violating the gambling law, while the White and wealthy continued their poker games. My dad recalls his father driving through the community an hour or so before the planned raid and hollering out that the police were coming, to allow folks time to get away. That was his way of dealing with intolerance and trying his best to do right. My dad said he has always been so proud of his father for having that sense of justice. 

As my dad grew up, his parents encouraged him to go off on his own and become a preacher. He agreed to go to bible school but after a year, realized that was not his life’s path. Although no one in his family had gone before, he decided to apply for college and was shocked to get in. I asked how college went for him and he laughed and said, “I screwed that up and flunked out.” At the time, he was humiliated and unsure of what to do. So by the mid-1960s Dad joined the Navy as an electronic technician during the Vietnam War. After a few years of service to our country, the nation’s perception of the war had changed, and he decided he wanted to go back to school. After his service, he finished college while on academic probation (from flunking out previously) and earned academic honors for his performance. He set his sights on law school. After doing well on the LSATs, he met with the dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he found himself being laughed at and told to “try applying somewhere else.” No one on academic probation was likely to get in. So, he went back to improve a few grades and tried once again to get into law school. This time he was successful, although he thinks he was the last possible student to be accepted. He took law school seriously and graduated with offers all over the country from major law firms. 

He accepted a job at the fourth-largest firm in the country at that time, but that didn’t last too long. The firm was throwing a party at an “old fashioned” country club—the kind that excluded pretty much everyone but white men. That did not sit well with him, so he decided he would simply not go. But word quickly got around the firm about his decision and a partner told him bluntly that he was expected to go. He did not go to the party and, shortly after, left the firm. When I asked dad about this decision he stated, “It was one of the better decisions of my life.” 

He became a public defender for a while before opening his own law firm (now known as Nichols Kaster) where he represented thousands of clients. He became "the DWI guy" and found himself making a decent living. He wrote books on DWI law and was one of the best defense attorneys in the state. Despite his success, he decided to quit criminal defense and shift to employment law. A few years into his practice, he found out his father had liver cancer, and was dying. He flew down to Florida to see his father one weekend, as it had been some time since he had last visited. While he was there, he could see that his father would not live much longer. Dad fought the urge to stay; he had a hearing the following Monday and knew he was obligated to his client. He said goodbye to his father for the last time and went back to Minnesota. That week he lost his dad and lost on all issues at the hearing. He later appealed the case to the court of appeals where it is still a landmark case in Minnesota: United Wild Rice v. Nelson, 318 N.W.2d 628 (Minn. 1982). He reflected on the decision to come back to Minnesota for the hearing, knowing he likely would not see his father again. “As a lawyer, those calls come up all the time and you have to choose,” he said. “I knew I needed to be there for my client, and it was what my dad would have wanted, too.” 

As we continued to talk about choices in the practice of law, I asked my dad if he had any advice for new lawyers out there who might face ethical dilemmas in their practice. He stated that lawyers should learn the danger signs of getting themselves in trouble, especially when it comes to finances. He saw a few promising attorneys get into serious trouble when financially desperate. He also said that young lawyers should get advice from others, but in the end, need to rely on themselves, their research, and their abilities to advocate for clients and make the right decisions. He then chuckled and said, “You know, you get a law license, and everyone expects you to know everything. The truth is, you have to figure it out—how to think, how to decide. Sometimes, between two wrongs.”

Nicole Kettwick is the current president of the Hennepin County Bar Association. She is a criminal defense attorney, serving as a partner at Brandt Kettwick Defense and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. She is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the American Bar Association. She also serves as a board member of the local nonprofit, H2O for Life.  

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