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WJA 2021: Sandra J. Wirtel

At age 16, Sandra “Sandy” Wirtel began her path to a legal career after being ticketed for failing to stop for a stop sign at the stop line.

wirtel_s2Determined to prove her innocence, she took photos of the intersection to show that the police officer couldn’t have seen where the stop line was from his vantage point. She won her case, but her pursuit of justice didn’t stop there. Today, as the pro bono attorney at Spencer Fane, she works to ensure that everyone has a voice in court.

“I like talking to people and trying to help them,” Wirtel said. “I feel honored to be with them and try to assist them at some of the most difficult points in their lives. Helping them is a meaningful role and quite frankly, I was looking for that in law school and not finding it in most of the classes that I took.”

The 54-year-old UMKC graduate has certainly found it outside the classroom. She won her alma mater’s Decade Award, and is the original director of the school’s Child and Family Services Clinic.

Originally looking to a career in real estate law, she instead ended up working for the juvenile court unit at Legal Aid. After three years, the Wirtel moved into a position within the juvenile court.

Since 1996, the native St. Louisan has been in her present job as of counsel at Spencer Fane. Throughout her career, she’s been involved in more than 1,000 cases as either a juvenile officer, guardian ad litem or counsel for the parents or minor in a given matter.

Regardless of her role, Wirtel has always shown the same tenacity that allowed her to continue her education despite being diagnosed with an unusual form of breast cancer at age 23.

“I thought about dropping out of law school just to attend to that but I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my time?’” she said. “‘Think about cancer?’”

Having been rediagnosed with that illness more recently, she continues to think about the value of her time.

“Everything seems to take on greater meaning right now about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it,” said Wirtel. “When time is of the essence, what you do with that time seems to matter more. That’s a position I’m finding myself in lately. What I do needs to matter.”

For hundreds of kids and parents, it has.

“Most days, something happened that is really important or poignant,” she said. “It might be something great or it might be something terrible but I care. At the end of the day, I care how I’ve spent my time.”

Women's Justice Awards 2021