Under Contract

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

The Internet has changed the economic landscape for attorneys, says Heather Garretson, who teaches first- and second-year courses in the Contracts Department at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids.

"Law students face a new economic reality where simple contracts are available online and many websites offer a basic contract for a flat fee," she says. "While this is not always a great place to get a contract, many potential clients are using these services. Small businesses are turning away from the old model of paying lawyers an hourly rate and law students need to be creative about staying relevant in a new business model."

But it's still a good field for attorneys -- contracts are entered into, renegotiated, and breached daily.

"Lawyers are often required to interpret and enforce contracts," Garretson says. "Also, students can use the basic tenets of contract law throughout their professional life. Everyone deals with contracts -- leases, purchasing a car, downloading a song from iTunes. Understanding your rights in a contract as a consumer is very empowering -- so is knowing how to draft a good contract."

Garretson, who sits on the State Bar of Michigan Criminal Issues Initiative and the Criminal Law Section Council, finds her Cooley students to be interesting, eager to learn, and diverse, with traditional and non-traditional students from varied backgrounds and different academic and life experiences.

"The mix makes for an outstanding learning environment," she says. "The best is when a student's commitment and dedication to learn produces results - whether that be understanding a difficult issue, receiving a good grade or getting a job offer. Sharing in those victories is rewarding. I also really enjoy going to school so sometimes I can't believe that someone pays me to go to class."

She also works with Cooley's Center for Instructional Support.

"It provides some great teaching tools for professors," she says. "Their resources help improve teaching and expose professors to innovative teaching methods."

After earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Calvin College with a minor in environmental studies, Garretson earned her law degree from Creighton University School of Law.

"I'd been involved in political campaigns growing up, and my wonderful uncle was an attorney," she says. "While I was unsure of how I would potentially use a law degree, I knew it would give me many options for an interesting and challenging career."

One of those challenges was as a Special Assistant United States Attorney (SAUSA) for the Western District of Missouri, where she facilitated joint local and federal law enforcement investigations, prosecuted violations of federal narcotics law, and successfully argued before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I was able to practice in front of a fantastic bench and to do a lot of interesting courtroom work. Trial work is exciting and I worked with some wonderful people."

She received a Drug Enforcement Agency Award after working with two DEA agents on a Ecstasy importation case, with drugs coming from the Netherlands on the back of stickers.

"The sticker sheets were hidden in comic books and delivered to a post office box. Putting the case together with agents eager to stop the flow of Ecstasy to kids was very rewarding," Garretson says.

Her litigation practice in Kansas City included white-collar criminal defense work and commercial litigation for a large international firm where she represented businesses and individuals in commercial disputes and investigations, and employers in complex commercial and employment matters.

"The attorneys I worked with doing criminal defense work were impressive," she says. "They were very dedicated to representing their clients and worked a case from every imaginable angle."

In her first trial as a criminal defense attorney, Garretson was in front of the judge she had clerked for and against prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office, which she had recently left.

"It made for an interesting climate," she says. "The result was 11 not guilty counts for our client but waiting on that jury was harrowing. Whether litigating for the government or on behalf of a private citizen, real people are affected by your work as an attorney and that's significant."

She calls herself an advocate at heart, in the courtroom, boardroom, and even family room.

"Litigation is advocacy in all of its forms - it requires logic, passion, and a certain amount of fearlessness," she says. "No matter how much you prepare, something will always surprise you and dealing with the surprises -- adverse rulings, rogue witnesses -- are all exciting aspects of litigation. The total immersion in a case that litigation requires is also very captivating."

Garretson is the author of "Federal Criminal Forfeiture: A Royal Pain in the Assets," the result of learning, when she practiced criminal defense, that the application of federal asset forfeiture rules depend on each state's property laws - which could result in vastly different outcomes depending on the location of property.

"This seemed crazy to me, so at Cooley I researched it and wrote about how it needs to be corrected in order to have a uniform federal criminal forfeiture system," Garretson says.

A Michigan native, Garretson and her husband moved to Kansas City for her clerkship, and ended up staying for nine years.

"Kansas City is a great place and it was hard to leave. We have great friends and memories from our time there, but the Midwest is my home and I was happy to return."

She serves as a trustee for the Loutit Library in Grand Haven and on the Promotions Committee for Grand Haven Christian School.

"This year my husband and I developed a Mandarin after-school program at the school and we're thrilled to see that take off in our community."

She also volunteers at Degage Ministries providing legal services to the homeless.

"I really appreciate the client interaction and services I can give."

After completing her first half-marathon this spring, she signed up right away for another one. She and her family are avid readers, with Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, and Lisa Genova among current favorites.

When her 9-year-old son recently announced a desire to become a zookeeper and wondered about salaries, Garretson didn't know the answer.

"Well, whatever. I think it's just important to do what I like to do," her son replied.

"I agree with him," she says. "I feel very fortunate to have a job I love. It's incredibly important to do what you like to do and I'm blessed to not only do what I enjoy, but to have the honor of helping students prepare for a rewarding career."

Published: Wed, Jul 11, 2012