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?