LawTalk Article dated 23 May 2014 on Sandy Van Den Heuvel

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Published on 26/05/2014
Growing up Sandy Van Den Heuvel never considered one day she would go to university.  “It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t something my family had done,” she says.  So, when, after two decades as a legal executive Ms Van Den Heuvel decided to embark on a law degree “it was a bit out of the ordinary”.

It was Rotorua rural lawyer Ian Blackman who urged Ms Van Den Heuvel to go to law school.  After employing her for 15 years, he recognised her “talent and ability” and along with legal secretary Rachel Petterson decided to offer them the opportunity to go to law school.  “They had the personal qualities, commitment to the job, hardworking, and bright enough to get a law degree,” Mr Blackman says.  “But they had just not been given the opportunity, or hadn’t seen the opportunity, when most young people go to graduate school.”

For Ms Van Den Heuvel, a mother of three, the decision to do a law degree meant commuting 1.5 hours each way to attend lectures at Waikato University, working full-time, all on top of the usual parenting rigmarole.  But, not only did she finish in four years, she got first class honours.  Ms Van Den Heuvel says her children were a huge part of her decision to become a lawyer.  “My children were at high school and thinking about their careers, so I thought I would be an example to them and show them they can do what they put their minds to.”

Currently two of her children are at university – tertiary education appears to now be something Ms Van Den Heuvel’s family does.  However, she wouldn’t have embarked on the LLB without the support of her bosses at BlackmanSpargo.

“I remember as a legal executive, clients would say: ‘Are you going to be a lawyer one day?’ And I would say: ‘Oh no, there’s no real point.’  But then I got to the stage when I thought I do want to go further and there is a point,” Ms Van Den Heuvel says.

At law school Ms Van Den Heuvel learnt the “why” behind a lot of the work she had been doing as a legal executive.  But said, on the whole, a background as a legal executive did not help very much with the legal theory of her degree.  “I have been working in the one area and [during her LLB] there were all these other areas in the law,” Ms Van Den Heuvel says.  “So from that point of view it didn’t help. But I understood how the office worked and how the process was, so that was more of an advantage.”

Now a lawyer in the same firm where she worked as a legal executive, Ms Van Den Heuvel says the pressure and responsibility has noticeably increased.  “There is certainly a difference. I have more responsibility now.  The pressure’s on to build the client base,” she says.

Ms Van Den Heuvel would encourage interested legal executives to pursue a career as a lawyer.  However, she says to do it you have to be committed, and ensure you have the support and resources to finish.

“At the start of the degree think of the end result.  Where do you want to be?  You need to understand what the expectations will be from your employer,” she says.  “You have to be aware there will be higher expectations of you.”

For Mr Blackman the decision to support Ms Van Den Heuvel was just common sense.  “Why wouldn’t you give a hardworking and an intelligent young woman the opportunity to study law- if she’s prepared to put the effort?”  “As a firm we need to grow. We work hard on succession within the firm.  Rachel and Sandy will inevitably become owners one day.  They are people that we trust.”


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