Alumni Focus

Legal Ease

Lawyer Scott Leist, ’99 JD, shifts from life in the prosecutor’s office to life-changing legal work in Kenya

by Tina Potterf2009_fall_legal_main

Scott Leist, ’99 JD, talks with a young girl who was one of 61 children rescued from two separate youth homes by the Kenya Children’s Department and IJM.

Photo courtesy of Scott Leist


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From an early age Scott Leist was mapping in his mind his future career.

Call it sheer determination or serendipity, but Leist knew he would one day become a lawyer. As a child he dreamt of the day where he would plead a case before a jury and make arguments so convincing they could right an injustice.

“I have always had a very strong sense of right and wrong and of the need for justice to prevail,” says Leist, who graduated from the School of Law in 1999. “I am one of those people who get frustrated with movies where the bad guys win or the corrupt don’t get punished or the mighty continue to trod on the weak with no consequences. I love being a lawyer because as a group we get to ensure that justice does, in fact, prevail.”

Enforcing the law or serving as an advocate for it has defined Leist’s professional life. He worked for nearly seven years as a Seattle police officer, much of that time overlapping with his law studies. He then went to work for a large private firm and in 2003 was hired by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Over five and a half years there he handled cases that ran the gamut, from misdemeanors in district court to crimes involving drugs and property to violent offenses including robbery, assault and murder. He also prosecuted sex crime cases. Although the work was rewarding, Leist says he was feeling a pull to do more.

“I started wondering if God wasn’t calling me and my family to think about ways to serve beyond our neighborhood in Seattle,” Leist says. “God just continued to open doors and, once they opened, things moved quickly.”

I love being a lawyer because as a group we get to ensure that justice does, in fact, prevail.
—Scott Leist, ’99 JD

An opportunity presented itself that would tap into his work in the legal community and invoke Leist’s interest in a more service-oriented, faith-inspired role. In August 2008, Leist, his wife Sally and his two young girls, Maggie and Anna, left their comfortable life in Seattle for Kenya, where Leist worked for the past year as field office director for International Justice Mission (IJM), a pro-bono law firm and human rights agency that represents victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and oppression, including individuals who are the victims of police abuse and illegal detention. International Justice Mission serves what Leist calls “a fourfold purpose”: it helps victims of violent abuse escape their situations and get justice; prosecutes offenders; helps victims of violence to be healthy and self-sufficient following their abuse; and strives for systemic changes to address obstacles and remove them for future victims.

“We try to make existing justice systems work for everyone, particularly the poor,” Leist says.

Recently Leist shared the details of his work in Africa and the meaningful impact it has had on his life with Seattle University Magazine. Here’s what he had to say.

How did the opportunity to work for IJM come about?
I have known about IJM for several years. My wife, Sally, met the founder (Gary Haugen) even before he started the organization more than 10 years ago. Sally and I have always been involved in various ministries and community service opportunities. But unlike doctors, engineers or agricultural scientists, there isn't a huge call for former cop-lawyer-prosecutors in the mission field. When I first heard about IJM, I was excited because it seemed like a vehicle for service that I could actually contribute to, given my background.

… The time I started getting interested, the Kenya Field Office Director was looking to step out of that role, at least for a while, and that position opened up with miraculous timing.

When you were given the job, what was your initial reaction?
There was a lot of excitement, then a real sense of, "good Lord, what did I just agree to do?" There was no regret or buyer's remorse, but moving a family of four to Africa is a big deal.

Plus, life in Africa is hard, on many levels. We weren't terribly worried about safety, security or stuff like that, but there is just a lot that we took for granted in the United States that we knew would not be part of our lives in Kenya. I also knew that the work would be hard and demanding, that changing schools and cultures would be hard for all of us, that we would be leaving family and friends. As a family, we really tried to "count the cost" but there were moments of doubt for all of us.

What was it like when you first arrived there?
Overwhelming. You try to prepare for arriving in and living in a different culture, but nothing can prepare you properly. The people are wonderful, my staff are as skilled as any professionals I have ever worked with and the work is incredibly compelling, but it is tremendously difficult work. The justice system in Kenya, at times, works very well but in some ways, it is profoundly broken. Working within that system is often exhausting, broken up with moments of unbelievable triumph and joy.

Personally and for my family, I think we spent the first one to two months just kind of looking around with our mouths hanging open, at least that is what it felt like we were doing. We tried to jump into our world with school, sports, work, church, our neighborhood and participate right away, but there were lots of moments when we would just look at each other and say, “Can you even believe that we are here? We live in Kenya. How crazy is that.”

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