J. Reuben Clark Law Society

AALC Husband-Wife Team, Former Judges Serve Down Under

The JRCLS Media Committee is pleased to include an article interviewing Michael J. and Diane Wilkins, one of two husband-wife attorney couples serving as Associate Area Legal Counsel (AALC) worldwide. Elder and Sister Wilkins serve in the Pacific. The Media Committee thanks them for their time and insight.
General background

(successfully completed the Area’s
15 generations in ’15 challenge)

The Wilkins are a dynamic duo whose lives cannot be adequately summarized in one short article. Their credentials are impressive, but what boggles the mind is that they have achieved such greatness while being married to each other and raising three children. They pursued their legal dreams together from the onset, with both of them attending the University of Utah law school. Elder Wilkins graduated in 1977 and Sister Wilkins in 1978. With a baby in tow, they began an amazing journey of legal accomplishment. Sister Wilkins practiced as a Deputy County Attorney, an Assistant Attorney General, a Deputy Chief of Staff to Utah Governor Governor Norman Bangerter, Judge of the 2nd District Juvenile Court for almost twenty years and Presiding Judge for six, and a term as Chair of the Board of Juvenile Court Judges.  Elder Wilkins practiced civil litigation for 18 years, served six years on the Utah Court of Appeals where he served as Presiding Judge, and ten years on the Utah Supreme Court where he served as Associate Chief Justice. He retired from the bench in 2010, after which he began work as a mediator and arbitrator. Along with their three children, they have six grandchildren. They permanently reside in Washington, Utah. Their full-time service as Associate Area Legal Counsel began in October, 2014, with their current residence in Takapuna, a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand.

JRCLS:  Please tell us about the area over which you have charge?
Sister Wilkins: The Pacific Area has 19 countries. The big ones are Australia and New Zealand.  In addition, the Area includes the Pacific Island countries of Tonga, Samoa, American Samoa, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Nauru, Niue, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati (pronounced “kiribus”), the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The Pacific Area has 10 temples, 17 missions, 110 stakes and 35 districts. We serve approximately 475,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
JRCLS:  What are your duties as AALCs?
Elder Wilkins: Sister Wilkins and I work as a team. Our assigned areas of responsibility change from time to time, depending on the work that comes in, and the available resources in the office.  Currently we are responsible for managing data privacy, family history, Intellectual Property, missionary issues, materials management (purchasing, visas, etc.), human resources, publication services, dispute resolution, litigation-risk management, welfare/self-reliance, Perpetual Education Fund, Seminaries and Institutes, other education programs and initiatives, and a variety of special projects. We also occasionally assist with real estate leases and contracts, construction contracts, and other physical facilities matters.
JRCLS:  How do you and Sister Wilkins divide the work load?
Elder Wilkins: Our Area Legal Counsel, Art Edgson, makes work assignments. He is remarkable in being able to manage our 19 countries and the interesting variety of demands on his time, and our OGC resources. We try to do what he asks.  Diane and I really do work as a team. She tends to handle initial reviews and keeps track of all of the different things for which we have responsibility so that nothing gets lost. I focus on individual projects and correspondence. So far, it works for us.
JRCLS:  What is your typical day like?
Sister Wilkins: We usually get in around 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. We walk to and from the office for exercise. We walk to our flat at noon for lunch, then back to the office until about 4:30 p.m.
Most of our time is at our desks in our shared office sitting at our computers (with two screens each). We try to keep up with the email stream and keep things filed so they can be found. We have two white boards on which we list projects to keep track of priorities. We could work much longer hours (if we were a bit younger) but we don’t. We keep up with the flow most of the time and occasionally actually get a bit ahead.
JRCLS:  What percentage of your time is devoted to each of your responsibilities?
Sister Wilkins: The amount varies greatly from day to day and from week to week. Litigation is probably about 30%, and Human Resources is another 10%. Visas are 10%, materials management is 5%, educational programs and initiatives are about 15%, and data privacy is 5%. That leaves 25% which I would allocate to special projects. The fact that it varies is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.
(arriving in American Samoa)

JRCLS:  Do you travel?      
Elder Wilkins: We have had to travel by car within New Zealand a couple of times to attend settlement conferences or meet with local legal counsel. We have traveled out of country three times: twice to Australia for JRCLS-related conferences and once to Samoa and American Samoa to meet with local legal counsel and meet with Church representatives.
JRCLS:  How often do your responsibilities require you to learn local law?
Sister Wilkins: We only learn “local law” by accident. We manage legal affairs, not practice law.  Our task is primarily evaluating issues that present themselves and deciding when to hire outside local legal counsel to advise or resolve matters. The laws of the 19 countries we deal with in the Pacific Area vary greatly. Laws relating to real property are particularly interesting for two U.S. lawyers. Title to real property is not established anywhere in the Pacific Area the same way it is in the U.S. Much of our litigation involves late claims to title on property we acquired years ago.
On the other hand, the experience of practicing law in the U.S. is more than sufficient to understand what we need to do here as AALCs. Knowing what question to ask is usually the most important part of solving any problem. It is also useful to have a healthy respect for the power of sovereign governments. Each of the Pacific nations has its own form of government, and its own national law. Our primary task as AALCs is to keep the Church well within the legal boundaries of each country.
JRCLS:  Do you interface with government officials?
Elder Wilkins: As AALCs with an 18 month “life span” here, we don’t have much opportunity to form meaningful relationships with governmental officials. It happens, but usually because we are working through a problem, not by design. The ALC carries most of the burden of governmental relations.
JRCLS:  I know English is the predominate language for most of your area, but have you had any experience learning other languages?
Elder Wilkins: Ah, foreign language: Was it Winston Churchill that referred to the Americans and the British as “two great peoples divided by a common language?” Well, the Kiwis and Aussies both purport to speak the same English we do, but it takes a while to develop the necessary ear to understand it. We have been accused on more than one occasion of having a “cute” accent ourselves.
The other languages of the South Pacific are mostly Polynesian. We have had little success in learning any. Papua New Guinea, for example, has something over 600 languages spoken. So we deal in English.
JRCLS:  What has been your greatest reward as AALC?
Sister Wilkins: Probably the greatest reward is being here together and feeling like we are making a small contribution to the work of the Lord. Everything else goes on the back burner for these 18 months, and we can focus on trying to do something with the talents and experiences with which we have been blessed.
JRCLS: What has been your greatest challenge as AALC? What do you do to manage or overcome it?
Elder Wilkins: Keeping up with the incoming work is probably the biggest challenge. Our ALC insists that we not work nights and weekends. He does, however. We try to be well organized, and to sort through the various conflicting time demands to devote the appropriate amount of time on the more critical or consequential matters as they arise. Sometimes, we just all go out for ice cream. That seems to help.
JRCLS: Describe an experience(s) when you felt Heavenly Fathers hand in your work as AALC.
Sister Wilkins: When we deal with missionaries, especially visa problems, we see Heavenly Father’s influence most clearly. For example, a missionary was about to be deported from one country (to which he had been called) through no fault of his own. Instead, he was reassigned to another country where his language ability, experience, talents, dedication, and unique personality and skills were very badly needed by the new mission. In another instance, a sister missionary had to leave her country of call because she had applied for and received the wrong form of visa. When asked how long it would take for her to reapply and be readmitted to that country, it was discovered that her name had “inadvertently” already been approved for reapplication before the problem was even discovered. This saved months in the reapplication process.
JRCLS: What do you love about the people whom you serve?
(with Elder Gifford Nielson of the Area Presidency)  

Sister Wilkins: Our “clients” are mostly Church officers and employees spread throughout the South Pacific. They are, to a person, kind and generous of spirit and eager to do the right thing. They are especially kind to the senior missionaries, despite the fact that we rotate in and out with uncomfortable speed. Even when we have to tell them that what they wish to do will cause unexpected legal consequences, they are understanding and willing to adjust as we jointly search for an acceptable solution.
Our other “client” base here is the Auckland First Young Single Adult Ward, where we are presently assigned by the mission president within whose mission we live. He invited us to attend the new YSA ward to assist as we could. We love the young people here. They are all open and eager. Elder Wilkins is in charge of identifying a place to sit during meetings. I am in charge of hugs. It is working out quite well so far.
JRCLS:  What have you learned from the people you serve?
Elder Wilkins: The gospel of Jesus Christ is true. The people of the South Pacific are good people. New Zealand is a land inhabited with Saints who are eager to see the Kingdom grow and prosper. And the opportunity to shake hands with an Apostle of the Lord is a rare one to be cherished.
JRCLS:  What is your biggest culture shock?
Sister Wilkins: That one is easy—driving on the other side of the road. It takes time to relearn your instinctual reactions so that in times of extreme stress you don’t go the wrong way. For the first six months, it was literally a two person job to drive safely.
JRCLS:  Do you have any favorite dish/food typical to the region?
Elder Wilkins: All of it. Really. The variety of cultures and foods from country to country is surprisingly vast. Of course, seafood is plentiful, but so are fruits and vegetables that we have never tasted before, but are learning to love.
JRCLS:  Favorite places to visit in the region?
Elder Wilkins: Our “area” is huge and all beautiful. We have tried to see as much of New Zealand as Saturdays and budget will permit. This is a truly breathtakingly beautiful country. We have seen just a bit of Sydney and Brisbane in Australia. Both are charming and unique. American Samoa and Samoa are our only “Pacific Island” experiences to date. Again, both are gorgeous and unique. We hope to find time to visit more of the other island countries before we go home. Our favorite place is truly anywhere we have not yet been. So far, we have not been disappointed with any experience here.
JRCLS:  What do you do in your leisure time?
Sister Wilkins: If you mean at the end of the work day, we go home and collapse. If you mean Saturdays or holidays, we try to go somewhere we have not been. This is an island, but a big one. There are beaches to comb with shells to find, outdoor markets to visit, trails to walk, and museums to visit in every direction.
By Julie Smith, Media Committee

Posted: November 16, 2015