Member Spotlight: Phil Van Liew

Phil Van Liew

Tell us about yourself
I am an Assistant Public Defender in the Polk County Adult Division. I was born and raised in Des Moines, IA, and I am a graduate of Marquette University (2007) and the University of Iowa College of Law (2013). My wife (Julia) and I have been married for eight years, and we live in Beaverdale with our eccentric dog, Freamon. During the first five years of my legal career, I practiced a mixture of criminal law and family law. As an Assistant Public Defender, I practice exclusively criminal law.

What are some of your notable achievements?
In 2018, my previous employer was kind enough to allow me to take 10 weeks of unpaid leave in order to attempt my long held dream of bicycling across the USA from one ocean to the other. Over the span of 49 days, I pedaled my 90-pound bike from Yorktown, Virginia to San Francisco, California, hauling along with me all of the necessary camping equipment, clothing, and bike tools/parts. During the 4,000-mile journey, I crossed 9 states and climbed my way through the Appalachians, Ozarks, Rockies, and Sierra Nevadas. I spent many nights sleeping under the stars in places like city parks, baseball fields, courthouse lawns, and the occasional campground. When weather was iffy, I typically had good luck finding a floor to sleep on inside of a church or fire station. I enjoyed countless conversations with strangers along the way and consumed more calories than I’d care to admit.

Why did you choose to practice law?
The short answer is I grew up the son of a prosecutor and, as a result, became interested in practicing criminal law at a very young age. The long answer is my basketball career peaked in 8th grade, and I never quite made it to the NBA.

What do you like about being a government attorney for the State Public Defender’s Office?
Practicing criminal law means there’s never a boring day at work. Our office is filled with extremely compassionate, skilled attorneys, and I’m very proud to call them my colleagues. As a government attorney with a high volume caseload, I appreciate that I get to focus on the challenge of helping people out of a crisis without having to worry about my clients’ ability to pay for services.

What do you do to get away from work?
I bike. The last day I failed to bike outdoors was sometime in November of 2016. I have found that I can best handle the stressors of life as a litigator if I begin my day with at least 90 minutes of cardio. I commute to work every day by bike, and I typically turn what should be a 6-mile morning commute from my house to the office into a 30-mile meander around the Des Moines metro. I am also an avid Chicago Cubs fan, which certainly provides a distraction from work, but likely creates more stress than it’s worth.

What is the best thing about the Polk County Bar Association?
The opportunity to meet many interesting and intelligent people.

Best place to visit in Polk County?
Confluence Brewery, especially when they have live music on Thursday nights. As an added bonus to the brewery’s incredible lineup of beers, the brewery is connected to Des Moines’ extensive bike trail system.

If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor and why?
My dad. He instilled in me the values of compassion, integrity, playing the long game, and living simply.

What is your favorite book?
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

What songs would you include on the soundtrack to your life?
“Second Chances” by Gregory Alan Izakov (Lyric: “If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.” I make a lot of mistakes, and I’m a big fan of forgiveness and redemption.) “Remember the Mountain Bed” by Billy Bragg and Wilco. For me, this song captures the focus of my frequent daydreaming – the open road, being in nature, living simply – while recognizing the necessity of work and the importance of home.

Words to live by?
Take comfort in daily rituals.