Drywaller swaps toolbelt for lawyer’s briefcase

Legal Aid Alberta's first Indigenous Summer Student Program placement a unique milestone in law student's journey.

Communications and Public Relations
September 01, 2020

38-year-old Justin Hjlesvold knows a thing or two about hard work.

Hjlesvold, a self-proclaimed family man from Edmonton and first-year law student at the University of Alberta, is pursuing his dream to become a lawyer after running his own drywalling company for 15 years.

The first student to complete the Indigenous Summer Student Program at Legal Aid Alberta, Hjlesvold got the chance to experience how the legal system has changed in response to COVID-19 through the Alberta Law Society’s Indigenous Summer Student Program.

“I’d say this has been one of the best learning experiences,” he explained. He got to see first-hand how client-lawyer relationships develop and learn how the legal system has navigated uncharted waters in the global pandemic – from court closures to online hearings.

The journey that led to LAA

Hjlesvold kept his subcontracting business going for several years while he went back to school. In 2013, he made the dean’s list as an undergrad at Grant MacEwan. A few years later he got into law school at U of A and chose to give up drywalling altogether to focus on his new career full-time.

The strategy paid off. Hjlesvold is deeply involved in student affairs on campus and earlier this year, he was selected for the Alberta Law Society’s Indigenous Summer Student Program. That’s where his journey to LAA began.

As soon as Hjlesvold was accepted, he applied specifically to be placed at Legal Aid Alberta and made an immediate impression. He was a shoo-in.

“I appreciate that you (LAA) took a chance on me and you didn’t have to. You saw an opportunity to help an Indigenous law student figure out what the legal field was like and really made the most out of it under difficult circumstances.”

Program for law students encourages two-way learning

The Indigenous Summer Student Program is important for two key reasons: it connects Indigenous law students early in their careers with experienced lawyers, and it helps the legal professional gain insight into Indigenous culture and issues.

“I am Métis and my wife and two young children are First Nations,” he said. “I see a career in the law as a way to both improve the quality of life for my family and also give back to my community in a meaningful way.”

Working alongside experienced legal aid lawyers and learning about different fields of law has led Hjlesvold to a fork in the road earlier in his legal career. He’s now leaning toward criminal and family law instead of corporate.

“Finding a way to connect with people and see things from their point of view was something I really learned a lot about and I’ll take with me wherever I go,” he said.

The LAA team thanks Hjlesvold and wishes him the best as he finishes his studies.

“Justin worked a lot with youth justice and also helped out our family law duty counsel in Edmonton,” said LAA Senior Advisory Counsel for Family and Immigration Law Andrea Doyle. “We’ve all been incredibly impressed.”

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