From a thirst for intellectual challenge to a passion for mission-driven work, University of Colorado Law alumnus Al Canner knows his priorities and pursues them with purposeful dedication.
Now retired, Canner has followed what some might call an unconventional path on his journey from public school teacher and central administrator to lawyer to nonprofit executive director to professor. He attributes his successful career to overarching themes that have been salient throughout his life: a search for intellectual stimulation, mentorship, and incredible good fortune.
Canner did not start his professional life thinking he would be a lawyer. He began his career as a public school teacher in Boulder before becoming program director for multilingual multicultural education for the Boulder Valley School District.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in the right place at just the right time,” Canner said. “I happened to have that job at an incredible time in the history of Boulder’s schools, with just an amazing influx of Hmong Laotian refugees.”
The refugee children came from mountainous, slash-and-burn farming communities with no history of schooling and a language that had remained unwritten until the 1960s. As Canner put it, it was “an invigorating time.”
Canner’s work in multilingual multicultural education was what eventually led him to law school. He was often involved in writing grants and drafting regulations for ESL and bilingual education. When Canner’s colleagues saw his meticulous skill for regulation writing, they asked him, “Why don’t you go to law school?”
After six years of being a school district administrator, Canner admitted he was ready for a change.
“I must confess in hindsight, leaving the school district to go to law school was sort of a cowardly out,” Canner said with a chuckle. “I was much appreciated in the school district and my colleagues wanted me to stay, but when I said I was leaving to go to law school, they gave me permission to leave for such a good reason.”
In the years leading up to law school, Canner had committed his energies to many nonprofit organizations and progressive causes, including chairing Boulder’s Human Relations Commission at the time he entered Colorado Law.
“I had all these commitments, and I realized soon after I began my 1L year that I was just going to leave all that,” Canner said. “It was so freeing.”
So off Canner went to Colorado Law with the mission of finding a serious intellectual challenge.
“I never thought I was going to practice law,” Canner said. “I never had that ambition. What I really wanted when I came here—and of course I got this in spades—was to be a really serious student.”
At Colorado Law, Canner fully immersed himself in the law school experience and found the intellectual challenge he sought. He served his first year class as president and was the class gift chair in his third year. Later, Canner agreed to chair his class’s 30th reunion committee with the hope of breathing new life into the Class of 1987 Scholarship, which now again has funds to assist Colorado Law students with the purchase of books. Canner also continues to give back to Colorado Law by proofreading (“perhaps my most developed skill”) the alumni magazine, Amicus.
Despite his deep involvement with his law school experience, Canner still went through his three years of academic rigor thinking he would never practice law. But, immediately after graduation, he earned a judicial clerkship with Colorado Supreme Court Justice Joseph Quinn.
“I became a lifelong devotee of the incredible value of judicial clerkships,” Canner said.
Canner was swept up in the interview process with big firms and believes he was just one weekend away from accepting a job with one of those large firms when he had a revelation.
“I had a weekend’s cathartic experience—sleepless, sweating, and just freaking out,” Canner said. “By the end of the weekend, I realized I would be so unhappy doing the work that I would be hired to do. Within a year I would leave, and I would never go back to law, and I just said, ‘Wait a minute, what am I doing?’”
Canner allowed himself to pause and took a step back from his looming career choice. He contacted the firm that he had gotten to know well during his time as a school administrator. Caplan and Earnest LLC was the premier education law firm in Colorado, and soon Canner had accepted an offer with the firm, reuniting him with his pre-law school life in public education.
“Bringing to my law practice my public education sector knowledge and acquaintances, as well as really knowing what it meant to be in the trenches was a benefit to my clients and the firm,” Canner said. “If you do have a prior professional career area and you can bring that substantive knowledge and real experience into your practice, it’s a big advantage.”
Canner loved his practice and represented school districts across the state, including most of the school districts in the San Luis Valley. He enjoyed being able to travel around the state and truly get involved with his clients.
In his seven and a half years at Caplan and Earnest, Canner became a member of the firm and was able to win what he calls his “career case.” He briefed and argued the well-known Bickel v. City of Boulder to the Colorado Supreme Court—the court’s first TABOR (Tax Payer Bill of Rights) Amendment case.
“It was an amazing thrill and honor to get to argue the case to the Supreme Court, and then we won huge,” Canner said, obviously still savoring the victory.
At this point, there were several major changes occurring in Canner’s life. He had just won his career case and had been hired as an adjunct professor at Colorado Law to teach education law. Around the same time, Canner’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he brought her back to Boulder to live her final days in his house, along with his wife and then five-year-old son.
His mother’s illness brought Canner another unexpected epiphany. Canner’s mother received hospice care from Boulder County’s nonprofit hospice organization. Canner was so impressed with the power and compassion of hospice care that he realized his life had a new calling.
“I almost immediately realized that I was going to leave the practice of law,” Canner said. “I needed to be on a much more mission-driven path.”
Canner loved the work he did in education law and felt gratified helping his clients, but he soon found himself executive director—and sole employee—of the Colorado Hospice Organization, a statewide advocacy group.
“It was extraordinary work to get to carry the banner for hospice. Hospices were growing nationwide, and during that time Colorado became the second largest hospice-utilizing state in the country,” Canner said.
After another seven and a half years, Canner was drained and decided to take a year off. He made what he considers the wise choice of not committing to any future positions, no matter how tempting. Then when the right time came after a second year off, he stepped into a position as a legal writing professor at Colorado Law.
“Even though I’ve loved all of my jobs, this job was by far the sweetest,” Canner said, smiling. “I was at a point in my life when I really wanted to mentor, and suddenly there was this breathtaking opportunity to just mentor like crazy.”
Canner was an “extremely demanding” but incredibly invested professor who was able to bring his years of experience to mentor students. His time as a professor topped off his diverse career that had led him on paths not anticipated.
Retired since 2013, Canner spends an immense amount of time hiking and camping, and he has undertaken several volunteer commitments. Principally, however, Canner now devotes himself to his fiber art, a unique form of knotting that has resulted in selection in some international juried shows, including a third-place win last summer. Three of Canner’s works, part of his Public Lands Suite, are on long-term display on the fourth floor of Wolf Law, in honor of Distinguished Professor Charles Wilkinson.
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
I remember sitting in Professor Mimi Wesson’s Criminal Law class early in my 1L year, giggling quietly with pleasure as Professor Wesson guided us along on her razor-sharp Socratic path. Wow! The intellectual challenge was a thrill, and one which catapulted me into my legal career.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
It’s the research and writing that counts. I must confess that I had an inkling back then that the 3L-taught model of the 1980s-era legal writing program was a thin offering. I’m happy to know that Colorado Law now offers one of the country’s most robust legal writing programs, with elective courses spanning all three years.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Think of your preparation for the bar exam as an incredible opportunity, even if imposed, to leave law school with a fresh and intense review of most of the major subject areas. Know that the skills and knowledge that the “JD” soon will convey are coveted by many career sectors, and for good reason. You have invested in yourself these past three years, now go out there and find a workplace that supports the career you want—and if you don’t find it the first time, try again. Consider anew the reasons that brought you to law school in light of all you now know; invigorate those reasons that still appeal to you with all the new powers that you have acquired.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
I’ve had the benefit of some wonderful, generous mentors in my life, but likely the biggest influence was Joseph R. Quinn, who was chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court when I clerked for him immediately after law school in 1987. Justice Quinn was a mentor by example (not, I suspect, a teacher by inclination). For example, during my year drafting opinions, my writing instruction came not directly from the judge but from what I could observe by reading his iterations of my draft. My goodness, I certainly had the opportunity to learn to use words sparingly and concisely and correctly! I observed and participated in the painstaking cycles of editing and rewriting and editing some more that result in precise—and therefore meaningful—language. And there was his level-headedness, his high ethical bar, his straightforwardness, his high expectations, his commitment to the rule of law, his ability to lead softly but powerfully. I was a lucky guy, just about to set out upon a career in law and receiving such a year-long immersion “in chambers.”
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
I’m going to focus my response on a professional accomplishment. Midway through my years representing public school districts, I was asked by a superintendent newly recruited to a very rural, sparsely populated district to assist in the dismissal of a teacher, which involved a hearing before a state hearing officer. As I prepared witnesses, I learned that this teacher had emotionally abused targeted students for years; many of the parents of current students had themselves witnessed or experienced the abuse. But the teacher was of a locally important ranching family, and no previous superintendent or parent had dared face the fallout of attempting the dismissal. The parents were weary of me, a suited outsider from the big city who was asking their children discomforting questions; one dad even grabbed me by the shirtfront and threatened bodily harm if on the stand I subjected his son to anything other than what I had represented. I was convinced, based on my witnesses’ testimony and Colorado case law, that the district would prevail at the hearing, but the teacher’s attorney had no background in teacher dismissals, and sadly and unnecessarily caused the preparations to continue until just minutes before the hearing was to begin. As I drove out of town some hours later, three groupings of several adults stood by the curb of the main intersection in town (there were no traffic lights), applauding me as I returned to the city.