There are few things that are worth what we pay. A good whiskey. A good cigar. A good lawyer. Chris Van Vechten may be able to give you suggestions for the first two, but for the last one, he does not have to because he embodies it.
I first encountered Chris Van Vechten when I read a Facebook post of his that I completely related to. It turns out that we have many similar sensibilities. I asked him if he would be willing to join me for Five Question Friday. Turns out he had a lot to say.
1. What attracted you to practicing law?
For most of my life, the people around me said I would be a lawyer because “you like to argue” but I rejected that interpretation of myself and initially branched into other worlds.
My father was a professor of physics and electrical engineering who had once been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physics. He was also a one-term county councilmember, and a small business owner. He had many admirers among the intellectual elite, and I grew up in his shadow, just as he had with his father and grandfather etc. I felt a lot of pressure growing up to do something “big” with my life. Seven years of higher education to wage war in a local courtroom doesn’t feel like much when your dad was head of research and development for IBM back in the 1970s.
So after graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2007, I went to go work in the State Legislature, before trying to land a job as a lobbyist and ultimately assuming a role as a field organizer for the Democratic Party during Obama’s big wave in 2008. After our victories, the recession was on full bore and I was extremely frustrated with myself for lack of opportunities, so I started an online newspaper with podcasts modeled after my old college radio show and started interviewing and debating interesting people like Tim Eyman and Krist Novoselic. I thought I could make money off this by selling advertising. I thought wrong.
By this point, I was pretty pissed off, so I decided to run for Tacoma Public School Board despite the fact that I didn’t go to school here, wasn’t a parent, wasn’t a teacher, and was only 24 years old. I did a lot better as a candidate than one would think. I raised more money than my 5 opponents combined, was endorsed by the teachers union and State Auditor Brian Sonntag, and finished 800+ votes ahead of the incumbent. But I still lost.
Shortly thereafter I got married and my father-in-law was pressuring me to move out to Idaho to manage one of the three assisted living communities he had inherited, which was a dream opportunity for my new wife Jen. So, long story short, I found myself living in an Alzheimer ward of my father-in-law’s memory care community in Twin Falls, Idaho….I had to get out.
Law School was my out, and I enrolled in the summer of 2010. I enrolled in Seattle University because it was the closest law school to Tacoma, where I still plotted a school board run at the time.
2. Who is a typical client for you?
My clients seem to represent every cross-section of our community. I’ve represented: professional athletes; politicians and elected officials; the homeless and the addicted; business owners and working class heroes; soldiers who serve our country, and immigrants – documented or otherwise – who seek to join it; high school drop-outs, college students, and fellow attorneys; people as young as 15 and as old as 81; residents of countless communities; the famous, the infamous and a lot of people who wish to remain unknown; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
But if you look at the statistics, the typical criminal defendant is poor – very poor. And while that might suggest there is a connection between poverty and crime, I can assure you that drug addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault and theft are just as common in Gig Harbor as it is in Tacoma. Go to divorce court if you don’t believe me.
The statistics reflect a conscious choice to prioritize prosecution of a certain socioeconomic demographic. That’s not any one individual’s fault by the way. We are all guilty of being complicit in this social arrangement.
3. What is the biggest misconception you feel people have about the legal system?
Boy, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure I can say what is the “biggest misconception” out there among the public, but one thing that is gnawing at me at this moment is the word “treatment.” Both the Left and the Right seem to be advocating treatment these days over punishment without actually articulating what “treatment” is or how it would work.
It has to be understood that at various times in our history, torture has been called “treatment” (aka, the burning of witches and heretics in the name of purifying their souls for the afterlife). So while the sentiment might sound progressive, in practice, it would often times be more humane to take some of my clients out into the street and whip them rather than to force them into classes that don’t work and which they can’t afford, and then to periodically sanction them with jail for failing to make payments in these classes until jurisdiction runs out.
I had a client earlier this year who was released from jail and told to get (1) a domestic violence evaluation and comply with treatment (which no insurance or government agency will pay for and which was going to run him more than $1200); (2) a chemical dependency evaluation and comply with treatment (for his drinking and heroin problems); (3) a mental health evaluation and comply with treatment (for his PTSD, the result of having been shot in Iraq); (4) to abide by a no contact order that forced him to shoulder the expense of renting alone; and (5) to not drive without an ignition interlock device and accompanying license and insurance (for the DUI he had picked up) which meant that his attendance at all these treatment hearings was contingent on him living on and securing treatment at facilities with access to the bus line.
For someone with so many problems and stuck in a system that doesn’t really provide the resources for this ordered “treatment” – the results were predictable. He is now stuck in the cycle of being released from custody only to be arrested again and again for failure to “comply” with the court’s impossible orders.
However, in the broader sense, I don’t think people realize that the legal system is not designed to result in “all out” wins for one side or the other. It’s designed to create so much pain and risk for both sides involved that a compromised settlement naturally ensues. That frustrates a lot of people involved.
4. What common mistakes do you see clients making before talking to you?
They wait to their detriment. They don’t understand that law enforcement is actively destroying evidence related to their case as the days go by, like video and 911 recordings that they are not required to keep if not requested within a certain period of time (click here to see a warning from Puyallup Municipal Court). They don’t realize that memories are fading and witnesses are disappearing. They’re hopeful the State will forget about them or not file charges and as the weeks and months go by that seems realistic until suddenly the prosecutor’s office decides to dig up something from the previous year and files charges.
There was a car salesman where I grew up whose slogan was “If you don’t come see me today, I can’t save you any money.” Same is true for me. If you don’t come see me today, I may not be able to save your freedom, future, or long-term finances.
5. You’re from Portland. You went to school in Seattle. Why did you choose to live and work here in Tacoma?
I never wanted to leave Oregon, but my father was third-generation University of Chicago and my mom attended Northwestern in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, so there was a lot of pressure for me to go to school in the Windy City. I gave it a try for a year and hated it. The Midwest didn’t agree with me.
My dad was a professor at Oregon State University and I could have gone there for $20 a credit, but I was stupid and fell for Princeton Review Rankings and so in the process of applying to come back to the Pacific Northwest, I only applied to “well ranked” and expensive schools like Reed College in Oregon. The University of Puget Sound – which at the time was ranked on par with Harvard for academics – offered me a scholarship. Honestly, I had never even heard of Tacoma before but I needed to get out of the Midwest, so I moved here in 2004 because it was close enough to Oregon to make feel “at home.”
My first year here was kind of a blur. I had fallen in love with my best friend in high school and my affections were not reciprocated and combined with other problems I didn’t handle rejection as gracefully as I wish I could have. So my first year in Tacoma I didn’t do much but try to rebuild myself.
My second year here, I attended a campus meeting of the Young Republicans (cuz why not) and listened to State minority leader Richard DeBolt ask the audience if they knew who their state representative was. None of us knew. He told us to go home and google it, find out and send them an email introducing ourselves. And if they did not respond, run against them.
I went home, learned that Dennis Flannigan was my state representative, sent him an email introducing myself, and warned him I would file to run against him if he did not respond. I think I was 20 years old then.
I got an email the following day telling me that Representative Flannigan “needed to see me” in his office immediately. I was scared shitless. I showed up in a three piece suit. Dennis was wearing blue jeans and had a robot at the front door of his office named after a colleague in the legislature. Turned out Dennis was a civil rights activist of historical significance who was familiar with the work of my great, great uncle Carl – who was a civil rights activist as well, though of a different sort. “Now that I don’t need to worry about you running against me, how would you like to be my intern in Olympia?” he offered.
The internship changed my life. It taught me the importance of community – something I didn’t really have in Oregon. It introduced me to a fellow intern who three years later became my wife. And it gave me a lot of confidence in myself. It also rooted me in this community. I went to Law School in Seattle, but commuted on the bus from Tacoma every day to do it. I considered running for mayor of Seattle earlier this year, but decided it was better to stay in Tacoma. I would rather serve in heaven than rule in hell.
I want to thank Chris Van Vechten for joining me for Five Question Friday. You can find Chris online at http://www.soundlawyering.com/.
If you think you or someone you know would be a good person for Five Question Friday, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Jack Cameron