Class Action

Alumni attorneys open the profession of law to students

by Michael Van Denend ’78
Spring 2013

Alumni attorney Curtis Witte ’79 sized up the classroom of 27 Calvin students listening to his presentation on the particulars of handling a criminal defense.

“If my client is summoned to be in a police lineup, where do I want him in the lineup: the far right, the far left or in the middle?” he asked. “I’ll warn you, it’s kind of a trick question.”

The students murmured softly to one another, wondering what the right answer might be, particularly given Witte’s hint of an unusual answer.

Eventually, hands went up and all three of Witte’s suggested lineup locations were offered.

“Thanks for venturing those guesses,” he said. “I told you it was a trick question. Where do I want my client in the lineup? Nowhere. I’ll try to get a lineup without him in it first or keep him out of it period.”

Witte went on to discuss eyewitness testimony and some challenges it brings to the courtroom, touching on reliability and defense recourses.

‘Pre-law Immersion’

The interaction was part of a 15-day interim experience titled “Pre-law Immersion: Legal Principles and Practice,” co-led by Calvin political science professor (and pre-law adviser) Joel Westra and legal counsel for the college Randy Vogelzang ’74.

In all, 31 alumni attorneys—from numerous fields of law—spent time with the class, interspersed with readings and discussions about the law and the practice of law from a Christian perspective.

The idea materialized in conversations among Westra, Vogelzang and Calvin alumni association board president Perrin Rynders ’82, a local attorney. The men were deliberating on how best to connect alumni to students interested in law and reviewing past attempts at developing meaningful interactions.

“Perrin was involved in our previous attempts at establishing a mentorship program for pre-law students and was aware of the ups and downs of that effort,” said Westra. “As we brainstormed what could be done, he inquired about curriculum, and that jump-started the process.”

“I always thought it would be fun to teach an interim course, but how? I’m too busy,” said Rynders. “When I mentioned the idea to Joel and Randy, they immediately saw an opportunity to involve a host of alumni. In the end, 31 of us were able to share our enthusiasm for the law with Calvin students.”

Alumni participation

Vogelzang came to Calvin in 2011 after a 32-year career in corporate law, including a 14-year stint in Dallas, Texas, as an attorney for Verizon Communications. Two of his immediate interests were to build relationships with other Calvin alumni attorneys and to assist Westra in the nurturing of current students curious about law.

“I love the profession and was eager to enhance Calvin’s offerings. Joel was working very hard on the pre-law program, but doing it alone. We wondered together if there was a way for students to be exposed to the many varieties of calling in the profession of law,” Vogelzang said.

“Our conclusion,” he added, “was to construct a way for students to touch, feel and immerse themselves into the broad arena of the legal profession.”

Westra and Vogelzang found that students had high curiosity about the law but little idea about the profession’s workings and what the action in a courtroom included.

Many young people form their ideas of the legal profession through television or movies—not always the most accurate information source; for a few, they may have experienced the system personally or through a family member’s or friend’s experience. Neither avenue gives a full picture.

“It was a great three weeks,” said Westra. “Our class was quite diverse, with students from the U.S., Canada, Korea, Nigeria and Australia, and they came for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to know if the legal profession was for them; others simply wanted a better understanding of the legal system.”

Laju Evesanare, a first-year student from Lagos, Nigeria, sought guidance about whether to pursue a legal education in the United States or Nigeria.

Saxon Lee, a junior from Chino, Calif., has an interest in international diplomacy and was fascinated by the real-life stories inside the profession, noting that “cases don’t move along as quickly as they do on TV” and that real law was “actually more interesting than most of the television portrayals.”

For Luke Stoep, a political science major from New York with a current internship in Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, the class was eye opening for the impressive careers and positions represented among Calvin graduates.

“Wow, I guess one will be well-qualified for a lot of great jobs after Calvin and a legal education, when you see and hear about what all of these alumni are doing,” he said.

Westra and Vogelzang agree that it was those 31 alumni attorneys who made the class work.

“The alumni speakers had to carry the conversation,” said Westra. “We didn’t know for sure going into this how they would interact with the students, but they were, to a person, well prepared, honest and open, aware of what we were trying to accomplish and fit their presentations into our curriculum.”

Vogelzang added: “It is a daunting task to bring in 31 different presenters, and I wondered how this would fit together, but these alumni professionals were eager to come—they were thrilled to be asked—and were interesting and informative.”

Robust discussions

After each alum attorney would complete a presentation—a mixture of their career experiences and explanations of the terms, procedures and realities in their niches—students’ hands would shoot up, with the question-and-answer period often going well beyond the appointed time.

“The students were very engaged,” said Rynders. “The discussion was robust.”

The course began with an overview of the American legal system (civil and criminal law, legal procedures and court proceedings) and moved to legal practice areas (business, family, medical and property law) and legal careers (working at a large or small firm, in-house attorneys, and government and public interest law).

Most of the sessions were on Calvin’s campus, but there were trips to a law school classroom, the U.S. attorney’s office and the federal courthouse.

Alumni lawyers explained the nuances of their corner of the legal system, told “war stories,” showed clips of procedures that could lead to medical malpractice lawsuits and one—alumna Rachel Raap Bouman ’98, an attorney for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—let students see her ATF badge, allowing her confidential clearance.

Three alumni judges—Rick Bandstra ’72, Joel Hoekstra ’70 and Robert Jonker ’82—addressed the class from the other side of the bench.

Alumni speakers were gratified by the experience and the interest of Calvin students.

“Teaching a pre-law class to such vibrant and determined Calvin students is a tremendous blessing. It’s a privilege to be an instrument in the Potter’s hand for molding and shaping this generation of future professionals,” said Mary Meindertsma Bonnema ’90, an intellectual property attorney.

Vogelzang noted that “the course was not just substantive; you could really see the person and his or her character. Personalities came through.”

Alumnus Craig Lubben ’78 explained the detailed research that went into his work in civil litigation with businesses and large organizations, describing to students why many cases take a year or more to prepare for the courtroom, including filing a complaint, discovery, depositions and trial preparation.

On the other hand, alumna Pamela Hoekwater ’98, who works for Legal Aid of West Michigan, described her day, which might include a client who walks in on a Thursday and mentions they are due in court the next Monday and needs help because they don’t understand the charges.

“Sometimes,” she told the class, “you have to fly by the seat of your pants. You never know what will come out of someone’s mouth.” And then she quickly added: “I’ll never quit. This is the best job ever.”

Promoting the profession

Westra noted that the pre-law numbers at Calvin are trending downward, which mirrors national statistics. The interim course is part of a strategy to promote the profession.

“We had about 30 seniors and recent alums apply every year; now that number’s about 20 annually,” said Westra. “What hasn’t changed is that we continue to see good success for our grads. Virtually all get into law school, and a good number of them in the top 25 law schools in the country.”

Vogelzang said the class also shows that reclaiming the world for Christ includes the practice of law, and it is vital to have more Christians in the field. Westra added that the class works to rebuff some of the “harmful stereotypes” of attorneys and shows how Christian lawyers can demonstrate a better way to think of faith and the law.

The duo is pondering whether to reprise the class next January and if so, what nuances they might add to the course, such as viewing television and film depictions of the courtroom and having alumni attorneys describing and commenting on the accuracy of the actions on screen.

Rynders is hopeful that the idea of connecting so many alumni to current students in the classroom setting continues, in the profession of law and in other professions.

“The three pillars of the alumni association’s strategic plan are ‘connect, strengthen and inspire.’ Randy and Joel designed an interim class that is exactly what the alumni association board wants to promote,” said Rynders. “Alumni from around the country and from all walks of professional life connected with students and with each other, strengthening the academic offerings of the college and hopefully inspiring students to faithfully serve God personally and professionally. What I’m wondering now is who wants to do the same thing in another area.”

Michael Van Denend is the editor of Spark.