Few professions can impact society like the practice of law. From the judicial jousting of a criminal courtroom to providing advice on a range of issues to navigating the somewhat arcane details of corporate finance and government, lawyers influence much of how our world functions.
That importance is reflected in the challenges that it takes to even enter the profession – admissions standards for law schools require, but are not limited to exceptional grades, the content is demanding, the training is rigorous. Even after they are called to the bar, lawyers are constantly working to understand how new laws and regulations affect their profession and their clients.
Yet for many Redeemer alumni who practice law, it is also rewarding. It is a profession that challenges them but also allows them to use the gifts they have developed to impact the communities and individuals they serve. It also offers a unique opportunity to advance justice in many different, if unseen, ways.
The breadth and scope of law is one of the most appealing aspects of the field for alumni. Even within the somewhat narrowly defined areas of her practice, “Every transaction I work on is unique and has its own intricacies and issues that need to be defined,” says Maria Vanderspek Kinkel ’03. For lawyers who practice outside a law firm, the diversity of work can be even broader. As assistant solicitor for the City of Brantford, Heidi Ellens de Vries ’05 loves the variety of files that come across her desk. “On one day recently,” she recounts, “I provided advice on a site plan for a commercial development, reviewed a commercial lease and agreement of purchase and sale, discussed litigation strategy for a potential claim, and advised on the disinterment of human remains at the cemetery.”
With so much of daily life governed by the laws, regulations and guidelines of the legal system, many lawyers see themselves as service providers, finding solutions to problems in an increasingly multi-faceted and technical field. “My job is helping people in complex situations – that is what I love about it,” notes corporate law specialist Edgar Hielema. “I like to think I make a difference because I understand people and situations. This means I can help people get to a solution that works.”
Identifying those solutions can be a balancing act between competing or dissimilar interests. “Finding common ground in these situations can be challenging, but it is always rewarding,” notes Kinkel. “Helping clients find resolutions to the issues they are facing helps them focus on what is really important in life.” In de Vries’ work, potential solutions can have far-ranging–and very public–consequences. “It isn’t sufficient to simply provide legal solutions to problems that arise: I also have to ensure that the advice I give won’t lead to decisions that cause political problems for the municipality or its council.”
It’s that ability to impact people’s lives, and the interests of organizations and corporations, that alumni find so rewarding. In his private practice, Stephen Witteveen ’95 assists clients “in many of their major life decisions,” such as buying a home and planning or administering estates. Outside of his formal practice, he and his firm also provide expertise to boards, committees and non-profits (he currently is serving on Redeemer’s Board of Governors). For de Vries, the advice that she and her colleagues–”trusted advisors” of the City’s council–often leads to tangible change for the city.
For many, the practice of law is a dramatic public struggle for justice played out in a courtroom. As this piece was written, for example, local and national media made sure the names of the of the crown attorneys and defence lawyers in the Tim Bosma murder trial became well known. Another popular perception is of the lawyer as passionate advocate for the oppressed. In reality, however, very few lawyers ever enter a courtroom, and Hielema, for one, cautions that working for an NGO is “not always the answer” for those seeking to pursue justice.
But there are opportunities to seek justice even in the most administrative types of law. “In my work, I am indirectly supporting the democratic process by drafting by-laws that are equitable,” notes de Vries. “That gives an acute awareness of the need for fairness in our work.” In her practice, Kinkel often works with clients, including families, to protect those who are vulnerable through the estate planning process. And Witteveen is able to give business owners the advice they need not just to avoid running afoul of the law, but to thrive, creating equitable opportunities for all to develop their gifts and talents.
Micah’s Biblical call to justice should not be so narrowly defined as to be applicable only to those lawyers who carry out their calling in the courtroom or in the fight to resolve some great wrong. For many lawyers, justice is practised in the minutia of day-to-day life, and our lives and society as a whole are richer for it. For we depend on their work in adopting, interpreting and implementing the just laws and regulations that help guide how we interact with one another, with governments and other organizations.
“In law school,” concludes de Vries, “a professor of mine said that the law must at all times be fair, efficient and predictable. I measure both the drafting and interpretation of our by-laws by that standard. That is how I advance justice.”
All the opinions expressed by the lawyers in this story are solely their own, and not necessarily those of their employer.