Three years ago Andrew Kirk walked through the doors of the Weldon Law Building at Dalhousie University. “It was,” he says, “like a homecoming. Being in the school felt right.”
In a Hollywood movie, violin music would have cascaded in the background as Kirk first pushed open the doors to his future career. In real life, there were actual violins. Before taking the plunge into the legal world — a decision a long time in the making — Andrew Kirk spent most of his life as a violin maker.
Kirk, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up in Halifax, initially thought his life path was journalism. But as he progressed through school and adolescence, “Music,” he says, “became more important.” While teaching school in North Carolina, a friend asked for help repairing a violin. “I went, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I want to do,’” remembers Kirk.
And, for two decades, he did. First, he went to school in Boston for three years to learn the art and craft of violin making; then he apprenticed in Maine before moving on to work as a journeyman in Connecticut. Making a violin, notes Kirk, can take upwards of six months, including selection of the wood, consulting with the client, curing the instrument, and varnishing it. “It’s an intensive process,” says Kirk. “Anyone can carve wood in the shape of a violin, but the point is to find something that can suit your palate. That can be very subtle. You’re finding the marriage between what you create and what the person you’re creating it for wants.”
In 1974, Kirk felt the lure of a different kind of marriage. He moved backed to Halifax, “for a girl” (who is now his wife), and hung out his shingle. Business boomed. “You don’t see violin-making signs out, but [the field] is probably busier than ever. I made a living at it for 20 years. My instruments went all over the world.”
As Kirk attended to the business of violin making and to the unrelated joys of raising a family, there was a symphony building in the background. The Tuscarora, Haudenosaunee Six Nations native had always toyed with — and dismissed — the notion of law school. When he was 10 years old he remembers seeing the movie Paper Chase about the struggles of a first-year law student — and loving it. “[But] I didn’t think I had it in me. I thought it would be too difficult,” says Kirk.
The fascination with law never diminished, however, and about 10 years ago, Kirk once more began to consider a career in the legal profession — seriously. He wrote the LSAT and applied to Dalhousie. Three years ago, he walked through the doors with the graduating class of 2008.
Currently (until May) Kirk is finishing his last term of law school at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. There, he is aiding in the development of policy and protocols and is working on land claims. “The traditional council . . . does not consider this to be a reserve,” Kirk says. “In 1924, the Canadian government imposed a system on it. It feels like they’re on the verge of shedding this system.” It’s a moment in time Kirk would like to be part of. “[Aboriginal law] will change the face of Canada. We’re dealing with overarching philosophical ideas but also basic daily living issues. You can’t drink the water. People are living in desperate conditions — in the middle of Ontario, with Hamilton and Brantford nearby.”
Aboriginal law speaks loudest to Kirk, who will article this year with Cox & Palmer in Halifax, but he is also interested in labour and employment law. As well, he’d like to complete his master’s in law and teach. But as with the making of a fine violin, there is no rushing the process. “Things have a way of unfolding as they should. . . . I’m trying not to get ahead of myself,” says Kirk.
Moving forward often means leaving something behind, and for Kirk that will be making violins. However, he notes, “Everything I’ve done informs the present. Violin making is on the back burner, but it taught me about running a business and working with clients.”
It also taught him that creativity can be found in the most unlikely — but essential — places: the shape of a piece of wood, the resonance of a varnish, the exploration of a legal issue. “Law can be very cut-and-dried,” says Kirk, “but it’s also figuring out ways of making an argument in a way that no one has ever done before.”
The impact of that argument, Kirk realizes, can be significant. “Right now my passion is law,” he says. “The things I do now matter on a grander scale.”
Cue violin music.