My Lawyer, the Rocket Scientist

How Neil Armstrong drove Michael Corso from aeronautics to the law

Published in 2012 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2012

When Michael J. Corso answered the phone at his Fort Meyers office last year and the caller inquired: “Michael Corso, Purdue Class of ’71?” the attorney assumed he was being solicited for donations to the school.

But the reserved voice went on: “This is Neil Armstrong, Purdue Class of ’55.” Corso couldn’t answer for a few seconds. The Neil Armstrong? “I’m thinking, well, surely this guy’s not calling for a donation,”  Corso says.

Armstrong, in his 80s, was calling to congratulate the attorney on receiving the 2011 Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Award from their alma mater. Corso had earned a degree in aerospace engineering—yes, the rocket scientist degree—before landing a J.D. and eventually entering private practice as a litigator at Henderson Franklin. Professor Tom I-P. Shih, head of the Purdue School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says Corso exemplifies the value of an aerospace degree. “Though he practiced law instead of engineering for the rest of his career, his engineering education helped him in his law profession, where he [has] served with distinction,” Shih says.

On the phone, Armstrong didn’t let Corso off the hook so easily. “He said, ‘It looked like you were all lined up for [an aerospace] career. What the heck happened?’” Corso says with a laugh. “He razzed me a good bit.”

Ironically, Armstrong’s achievement is partly to blame for Corso’s career shift. Corso had followed his father, a mechanical engineer for Boeing, into the study of aircraft. But after graduation, and after Armstrong walked on the moon in ’69, hiring in the aeronautical industry dissolved. “Space contracts had been canceled or re-evaluated; the war was toning down in Vietnam,” Corso says. “I thought I’d better get into something that is independent of war and government contracts.”

An ROTC-commissioned officer, Corso deferred service and enrolled at Villanova University’s law school. He continued engineering work during breaks, and today, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning aircraft still use Corso-designed principles in their ejection seats.

After law school, Corso entered active duty and became a JAG special prosecutor, assigned to the Air Force’s most serious cases in Southeast Asia.

A few years later, when he applied to Henderson Franklin, he recalls, “Two of the partners here, when I interviewed, remembered seeing me on TV for a case I prosecuted that had some notoriety.” In ’75, Capt. Corso was interviewed by David Brinkley about the prosecution of nearly 200 servicemen and civilians for smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia, at one point in cadavers. Writer Tom Clancy even interviewed Corso about the salacious case while doing research for his book Without Remorse.

At Henderson Franklin, Corso chose to practice civil litigation. “I didn’t really want to do criminal law, having been in it, in the pinnacle of it in a certain way,” he says. His technical background suited him for products liability defense. Clients such as Michelin, Merck & Co., and Kawasaki value Corso’s technical sense. “I may not have designed a jet ski, but I can appreciate some of the principles and the concepts and the methodology,” says Corso. Currently, he’s defending Philip Morris USA Inc. in 120—of 8,000—lawsuits against the tobacco giant.

Corso has also represented engineering firms that have done work for the aviation and aerospace industry. But most of his time is spent defending professionals in liability cases: some engineers, but these days, mostly lawyers.

“Unfortunately, with lawyers, people have an attitude about them,” says Corso. “You have to show that, yes, they have expertise in a particular area, [but] they’re not infallible. … If they make mistakes, they’re in an area where, unlike [engineering]—where two plus two equals four—in the law world it might be four, four and a half, five tomorrow. There is so much gray.”

But Corso thrives on making structure of that haze. “In a legal malpractice case, you have the phenomenon of what’s called a case within a case. You have to go back into that lawyer’s mind, that case he was handling, and unravel it and understand what it was all about; figure out what is it that he or she did or did not do that supposedly caused these people damages.”

He takes pride in knowing that lawyers don’t place their trust in just anyone. “Of course, there are times,” he says, “when they’ll want to tell me what to do, and I have to politely … say, ‘Now wait a minute, you’re the client—I’m the lawyer.’”

And the rocket scientist.

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