Pam VanderWiel graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2000 and for several years now has been a partner in a three-lawyer law firm with two offices doing litigation and counseling for public entities in Minnesota (that is, Minnesota towns, cities, agencies, and other public bodies). In speaking with Pam, I was struck by the relative specialization of her practice, the depth of her expertise, and her thoughtfulness and humility — qualities that I am certain are greatly appreciated by her colleagues, clients, and even, I expect, her worthy if often out-matched adversaries.
Question: What is your practice like today and how did you get to where you are?
Pam VanderWiel: We’re a three attorney firm with two offices, one in Buffalo and one in Rosemount. My partner, Bill Everett works in the Buffalo Office and I’m in Rosemount with my colleague, Anna Yunker. We provide a wide variety of services, mostly to government entities. I spend about three-quarters of my time in litigation—I’ve defended claims involving constitutional law, employment, defamation, excessive force, contracts, et cetera. I also perform employment investigations. Bill does the same kind of work, but he has a law enforcement background, so a lot of his cases involve police issues. He even lectures and teaches on law enforcement-related topics.
Question: How did you find yourself making a firm with someone in a different place geographically?
Pam VanderWiel: Bill Everett and I previously worked in the same law firm, Greene Espel. In 2009, I joined him. We’re in different offices because he lives in Buffalo and I live in Rosemount and neither of us enjoy commuting.
Question: For someone who has no public sector client experience (like me), what would be the differences between having clients in the public sector and private clients?
Pam VanderWiel: I don’t even know where to start. The main difference is that public entities are governed by the Constitution. There are constitutional implications to almost everything they do. Also, a lot of their data are classified under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which is a complicated statute.
Question: You recently completed a trial, a bench trial in front of Chief Judge Michael Davis of U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. (See previous Minnesota Litigator post covering the trial here (“Abuse of Power or Abuse of Mower”))
Pam VanderWiel: Yes.
Question: How frequently do you go to trial, have you gone to trial?
Pam VanderWiel: Very infrequently.
Question: Some people lament how few things go to trial in this day and age in civil litigation, do you?
Pam VanderWiel: No. I think that many cases go to trial because one or both of the attorneys, or even the judge has failed. Often litigation does more harm than good, and by the time the case gets to trial, both parties have been harmed. I try to work things out before that happens. But if you can’t, you can’t.
Question: What are some of the “occupational benefits” of practicing law?
Pam VanderWiel: There are many, especially when it comes to parenting. For example, you learn patience and negotiation skills, and you develop a thick skin. For example, my teen-aged son can get pretty abrasive. I can let it roll right off me but it can lead to problems with his other relatives, who aren’t lawyers.
Question: What advice do you give to someone who’s graduating from law school right now?
Pam VanderWiel: Don’t take everything personally. Not everything needs to be a fight. Some attorneys view compromise as a sign of weakness and they won’t do it. But that’s a mistake. The most effective and most confident attorneys I’ve worked with try to be reasonable. They’ll fight when they need to, but they know that you have to pick your battles. Who wants to live their life fighting over everything?
Question: What has been the biggest surprise to you between your expectations of being a lawyer and the actual practice of being a lawyer?
Pam VanderWiel: I’ve seen that attorneys who you’ve interviewed have talked about the surprise of realizing that you’re a counselor to your client. I spend a lot of time talking with my client, explaining things. I thought being a lawyer would be sitting behind a desk writing briefs and then going and arguing cases. I would say that that’s maybe a quarter of what I do.
Question: So the other seventy-five percent is counseling, or “hand-holding” as lawyers sometimes say?
Pam VanderWiel: Yes. Both plaintiff and defense attorneys spend a lot of time being a shoulder to cry on or someone to yell at. You have to build up that trust because sometimes you have to explain to your clients that maybe they didn’t make the best decisions, and you have to help them so that they don’t do it again. Attorneys on both sides do this for their clients. At least, I think this applies to better lawyers….Actually, never mind, I don’t want to say that.
Question: Without getting personal or naming names, you can be critical of other lawyers, can’t you?
Pam VanderWiel: I guess. I don’t like slamming my fellow attorneys. I think that I can be critical of the profession. I find it difficult to be critical of other individual attorneys because I think we’re all doing the best we can with our limited resources.
Question: What are the greatest challenges to you in your practice area in your mind?
Pam VanderWiel: Managing the expectations of the client. Especially in the public sector a lot of our cases aren’t about money, they’re more about … think about the bench trial that I just did, that wasn’t about money. There are underlying things that people don’t see that drive these cases. A lot of times it is about principle…my clients are ultimately answerable to the public. They don’t want to compromise or lose on what they view to be a key issue, so that’s difficult. Everything you do is public. It ends up being public and sometimes with a lot of media scrutiny.
Question: If you could change any rules about civil litigation, are there any you would change, whether statutory or rule or anything?
Pam VanderWiel: Plaintiffs can recover attorneys’ fees if they prevail in lawsuits involving the United States Constitution, or various civil rights statutes. Defendants rarely, if ever, recover theirs. I can see why that makes sense. But sometimes the litigation is just plain abusive, and fewer of those cases would be brought if plaintiffs realized that they bear some risk of paying the defendant’s attorneys’ fees if they abuse the system too much.
Question: You’d talked about the fact that, in your representation of municipalities, there’s a disparity between the parties, a very clear disparity between a governmental entity and a plaintiff who thinks they’ve been wronged by the state.
On its face, it has sort of a David versus Goliath kind of feel to it, in that you have a large governmental entity which has resources, then you have the little guy. I understand from what you said that sometimes you think, correct me if I’m wrong, that there might be a sense of bias or preference for the little guy just like we all cheer for the underdog. I wonder if you ever find yourself or have ever found yourself in a position where a plaintiff actually has a claim, but you have superior resources, both in terms of your legal skills and your financial backing, and that that plaintiff is disadvantaged by the disparity.
Pam VanderWiel: That’s rarely the case because plaintiffs often have contingent fee agreements with their attorneys, and many of the lawsuits involve a statute with attorney fee shifting provisions. Besides, it’s not as David and Goliath as you might think. The lawsuit is against a public body, but it’s usually an individual on the other side who is accused of having done something wrong. Imagine how it would feel if you were a police officer who is publicly accused of excessive force.
Question: You ever run into a circumstance where a plaintiff’s lawyer is so missing the mark that you’re going to win the case even though the plaintiff actually has a claim, but she doesn’t even know it?
Pam VanderWiel: Not really. Public bodies have some immunities that plaintiffs do not consider, and often that will trip them up. And sometimes the plaintiff does not use the correct procedure for bringing the claim and loses it that way. I can’t think of a time, though, that anyone has had a meritorious claim they’ve overlooked.
Question: Earlier I asked if you wanted to get on the soap box and give any advice to Minnesota lawyers and you asked for time to think on that. I’ll bring it up again. Anything coming to your mind?
Pam VanderWiel: Not really. I’m not a very soap boxy person so I don’t really know. I don’t want to say that I have any greater wisdom or knowledge than anybody else. I think we’re all learning every time we pick up a case, every single time. So how can I tell a person, “Do this”?[Editor’s post-script: A faithrful reader has directed me to a coincidence. Back-to-back Minnesota Litigator posts on seemingly unrelated topics overlap: VanderWiel’s firm defended the City of Medina and police officers of that town against claims of constitutional violations made by Mark Alan Greenman, the subject of the previous day’s Minnesota Litigator post.] [Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Christina Snow, lender/servicer real estate and foreclosure lawyer, Clayton Halunen, plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, consumer rights lawyer, Stephen L. Smith, straddling a civil and a criminal litigation practice, Kevin Dunlevy, Minnesota real property authority, Vildan Teske, consumer rights class action litigation and service members class actions, Jim Behrenbrinker, civil rights/excessive force cases, Eric Cooperstein, “ethics maven“, Mike Flom, Gray Plant’s General Counsel, Phil Gainsley, veteran solo civil litigator, John Halpern, collections, Elliot Olsen, foodborne illness litigation, Dave Potter, railroad industry litigator, Katherine Mackinnon, ERISA plaintiff’s lawyer, Kristine Boylan, international IP/Complex Litigation lawyer.]