thomas Van Flein’s life changed when he took on a client named Sarah Palin
Published in 2009 Alaska Super Lawyers magazine
on September 1, 2009
Updated on August 8, 2022
Last summer, Thomas Van Flein became privy to one of politics’ best-kept secrets: the identity of Sen. John McCain’s soon-to-be-announced running mate. He knew the same day she did.
Van Flein was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s lawyer, hired to represent her against accusations of letting her personal life spill into state business by firing the state public safety commissioner. Van Flein, a partner with Clapp, Peterson, Van Flein, Tiemessen & Thorsness in Anchorage, has a strong reputation in the areas of professional liability, employment law and ethics.
Born in Fairbanks, Van Flein traveled to warmer climes to get his law degree and launch his career. At the University of Arizona, he was editor-in-chief of the Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, then worked in Los Angeles for Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. Though he loved being at a big firm and representing large companies, he decided L.A. was no place to raise a family. So it was back to his native Alaska, where—in addition to his law practice—he edits the Alaska Bar Rag, contributes to the Alaska Law Review, sits on the Alaska Supreme Court Civil Rules Committee, and is a past president of the Anchorage American Inn of Court.
The McCain-Palin team gave Van Flein the responsibility to tell the world about the young governor from the north, and about that tawdry little scandal—dubbed “Troopergate”—which he contends turned into a “political weapon.”
“When we go to court there are rules, and I know what the game is,” he says. “And I can predict more easily what’s going to happen.” In politics however, and with a 24-hour news cycle, rules are fluid. “It definitely was eye-opening,” he says. Though he had some experience with cases that attracted media attention, there had been nothing like this.
Van Flein handled it with characteristic calm. He is, in a word, unpretentious, perhaps the single trait Palin fans mention most often about her.
Part of this has to do with growing up in Fairbanks. That’s interior country, 60-below-zero country, a place full of quirky intellects and cabin-dwellers with beards down to there. In Fairbanks, putting on airs doesn’t get you anywhere, but practical know-how does. Van Flein’s first and only foray into elected office was when he ran successfully for student body president at the University of Fairbanks. His campaign motto was “We get things done.” He and his running mate had built an apartment building, constructed partly with modules from old worker camps that had to be driven down from the oil fields.
The motto stuck. Van Flein keeps a full caseload, even though being Palin’s lawyer keeps him plenty busy. He jumped into the media foray again in July, when the former governor announced she would resign as governor. Van Flein was again called on to defend Palin’s actions, denouncing rumors that she was under criminal investigation and threatening legal action against those who published such rumors.
Too few good people run for office, says Van Flein. He thinks Palin is one of those good people. “She’s a very decent person and a true feminist,” he says. “It’s nice working for decent people.”