Attorney Nikole Canute on Overcoming Fear and Giving Back
Sep 10, 2019 02:11PM
words and photography by Elyse Wild
The first time Nikole Canute entered a courtroom, she was six-year-old. She was attending the naturalization ceremony for her little brother, who was adopted from Guatemala. During the proceedings, the judge asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I want your job,” she replied.
That day, her parents snapped a photo of her sitting behind the judge’s bench. Today, Canute keeps that photo in her office at Mika Meyers where she has worked as an attorney for 14 years.
A Strong-Willed Child
Canute always knew that her path in life would lead her to practice law.
“I was 100 percent going to be a lawyer,” Canute laughed.
Canute hails from McBain, MI, the population of which currently hovers around 650.
“There are no lawyers in my family,” she said. “and I didn’t know any lawyers. The only thing I can guess is that I argued a lot as a child, and my family said, ‘You will become a lawyer someday,’ and it just became ingrained.”
Canute’s mother, Viki, confirms that her daughter was always a skilled debater.
“You couldn’t win an argument,” Viki said. “I had a couple copies of The Strong-Willed Child.”
Canute says her family didn’t shy away from talking about topics of the day, and her opinions on current events were respected by the adults around her. For instance, when Canute was 11, she and her grandfather debated the death penalty— so much so that, at the challenge of her opponent, she wrote a contract stating that if she changed her mind at any point in her life, she was indebted to her grandfather. Both parties signed the contract, which today is proudly displayed at the Canute’s family cottage.
Canute attended Alma College for her undergrad. In what she describes as the only one time in her life she wavered from law, she spent a semester as foreign services major and interned at the State Department at The United States Mission to the United Nations in New York City.
“I wanted to do exciting things that no one in my family had done,” she said. “I wanted to get out of Michigan — I loved Michigan, and I knew I would come back to Michigan, but I needed to experience someplace else.”
Canute obtained her law degree from Notre Dame and describes law school as intense — an experience through which her parents supported her.
“You’re in a class all semester, and your grade for the class is based on one exam,” she said. “I worked really hard. I called my mom that first semester going through exams — and my mom knows how to do this with me — and we went through what would happen if I fail.”
While in law school, Canute interviewed for clerkships at firms across the Midwest. She received 11 callbacks — Mika Meyers among them.
“My interviews with them were more like conversations,” she recalled. “We talked about my interests and hobbies.”
The Greatest Feeling
Today, Canute practices employment law at Mika Meyers. Employment law covers everything involved with an employee/employer relationship — from overtime to family medical leave to working conditions and more.
“I was drawn to it initially because it involved civil rights,” Canute said. “I haven’t regretted a case that I have taken. Lawsuits have two sides, and you have to dig into the facts. “
Canute says she still experiences the fear she felt during her exams in law school, but she enjoys the thrill of overcoming it.
“If the primary reason that I am not doing something is that I am scared, I am going to make myself do it,” Canute said. “I like scary things — sky diving, ziplining, white water rafting. I like defeating the fear.”
"The fact that fear is a part of my professional life will not prevent me from doing the job that I love ... "
This, Canute says, is why she loves litigation.
“The night before a trial, I will be scared,” she said. “The fact that fear is a part of my professional life will not prevent me from doing the job that I love ... when you’re in the courtroom, and you’re arguing it and you realize that you know the case file better than anyone in the room — that is the greatest feeling.”
Canute emphasizes that in employment law, she loves walking alongside employers as they examine their policies and procedures to make the best decisions.
“I feel really fulfilled when I help people make decisions for the betterment of the business and their employees,” she expressed. “I feel like that way, I am able to have a tangible and positive impact on people’s daily lives.”
The nature of practicing law fulfills her apparent drive and curiosity.
“I am never bored,” Canute smiled. “I get to learn about my clients and their industries and different issues every day.”
She laughed and added, “In the context of one case, I am learning all about blueberry growth patterns and gravel mining.”
In addition to practicing at Mika Meyers, Canute serves as Chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee and Vice-Chair of its Labor and Employment Practice Group. She is involved in the planning of the long-time running
Women Lawyers v. Judges Softball Game, which raises money for the YWCA domestic violence shelter. She also sits on the board of Family Promise, a local nonprofit that provides dynamic support for families experiencing homelessness. Canute says that giving back to the community is important to her, and, she feels, essential for anyone in a position to do so.
“I have been privileged to get to this position,” she said. “It is important for me to help others. I don’t know how I would live with myself, having reached this position of privilege if I weren’t doing that.”