Her Own Way
Judy Snyder tells how the Civil Rights Act of 1991 transformed the nation—and her practice
Published in 2012 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on July 10, 2012
Updated on August 21, 2012
Q: Are there any funny or interesting stories you like to share?
A: When I was in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office—you have to keep in mind I’m 5-foot-2; I’m not a large woman—I remember one case [where] I was prosecuting a young man who had broken into one of the offices of City Hall. He had smashed one of the street-side windows, entered the office through the window and had removed, among other things, a typewriter.
Now, you have to think back to the old-fashioned, heavy Selectric typewriters. His defense was: How could it possibly have been me? Look at me: I’m only 5-foot-7; I only weigh 140 pounds. How could I possibly have carried this typewriter? I’m thinking, oh, come on. I saved it for my rebuttal argument after the defense had pointed out how slight the client was. I did my entire rebuttal-closing argument standing in front of the jury holding the typewriter, from time to time walking around the room with it. I remember the jury snickering and having trouble keeping a straight face, because I never said a thing about the fact that I was holding it. It was a very quick guilty verdict.
Q: Great story.
A: We don’t have very many opportunities to have great humor in civil cases. I usually don’t want it in civil cases.
But I think the one case that most sticks in my mind—it must have been 20, 25 years ago—I represented a woman who had been divorced and her [ex-]husband had the opportunity for visitation with their children. On one of the visitations, he failed to return. It was ultimately determined that the woman he had been dating was also missing, as was her child. Both my client and the father of the other family were involved in a very aggressive search. They ultimately learned that they were in Belize. My client—the mother—and the father of the other child flew down to Belize, and they actually were in sight of their children and of the home in Belize where their ex-spouses were residing when the spouses saw them and raised such a fuss that [my client and the father] were afraid they would be arrested. So my client fled Belize, back to the United States to try and figure out a lawful way of getting her children out of Belize. [Her ex-husband] and the woman and all of the children got into a boat and began motoring north up the coast of Belize in the way of making their escape. They had engine trouble and ended up having to go ashore in an isolated jungle area [and] were stranded for several days. The father ultimately walked out, found people and was able to rescue the family, got a car … and was ultimately apprehended trying to enter Canada.
He was criminally prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to jail; and through that process, we learned that his mother had funded this escapade of kidnapping. I was determined to help [my client], who not only had had months not knowing where her children were but [had spent] every penny she could scrape together. [I] pursued a civil claim against the grandmother, which was hotly contested because it involved lots of conflicting legal issues. [But when] the case indeed was going to go to trial, the grandmother decided it was in her best interest to come up with the money to settle the case.
Q: What did your family think of your decision to go into law?
A: My mother was extremely supportive because, when she graduated from high school, she had opportunities to go on to study, but because of her family’s financial circumstances they could not afford to send her to college. My father was supportive but mystified. [Laughs] He might have been considered to have more traditional values for what women were expected to do, but he never did anything to present any obstacles. Although I was very grateful that I got a full scholarship to go to the University of Notre Dame School of Law, my parents also provided financial support to the extent that they were able to. It was greatly appreciated, because then I got out of law school without the burden of debt, and I was able to plot my own course.
Q: In 1973 it was still relatively rare for a woman to become an attorney. What was that like?
A: It was unusual in terms of just the raw numbers of women in the practice of law. There were some examples [of role models], but there also were significant obstacles, because it really was still a very unique role for a woman. When I was clerking for [U.S. District] Judge [Otto] Skopil and was out looking for my first position, I had assumed that I would go to a traditional medium- to large-size law firm, and those opportunities were not offered to me when I was focusing on a litigation practice. But the district attorney’s office for Multnomah County at that point was [undergoing] a lot of growth, a lot of hiring. The district attorney was Harl Haas. He was very committed to hiring women, and he had single-handedly been responsible for hiring many, many women who went on to develop litigation careers as a result of decisions he made in the early- to mid-’70s. Many of the fine women litigators we now recognize as litigators, or who are now judges, were as a result of Harl Haas’ decision to hire. I ended up going to the district attorney’s office because it gave me that opportunity to do litigation that was not offered to me in private practice.
Q: You started your own firm in 1978.
A: I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to go through that process again [of] trying to persuade people to offer me a job as a litigator. [So] I went out on my own when I left the district attorney’s office. I had a solo practice from March of 1978 until approximately 1981, when I hired my first associate. She was fresh out of law school. Eve [Miller] ultimately became a partner in the firm [after I went into] partnership with Ron Hoevet. Ron and I became law partners in approximately 1983. And now she is a judge.
Q: What was it like having your own firm as a young woman?
A: When I left the district attorney’s office with absolutely no client base, I went into an office-share arrangement with two attorneys, one of whom primarily did business and the other primarily did real estate. They were looking for someone who would litigate the cases on behalf of their clients, so that was very valuable. The other thing I did is I accepted a part-time contract at juvenile court; I just did that for about six months in order to have some cash coming in. I, at that point in time, had been a litigator in the district attorney’s office for about four years, so I was fairly well-known because I’d been pretty aggressive and active, particularly doing felony litigation. So clients were referred to me. Initially, it was largely referrals in the family law area, which was not an area of law that I’d planned on practicing in.
And then in 1992 I stopped taking domestic relations cases, in part because my civil litigation practice was so large that it was incompatible with the day-to-day needs of the domestic relations practice. I was having to travel to other states, fly to other locations to do investigations, to conduct depositions, perhaps being gone for the better part of a week, and that was not compatible with the needs of a domestic relations practice.
I also gave up that practice because, in the fall of 1991, when the 1991 Civil Rights Act was adopted, we had the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and of course the whole nation was riveted to Anita Hill’s testimony. I have a very vivid memory of that weekend, after there’d been several days of testimony about Clarence Thomas’ appointment. I was at a family get-together with people of all different ages and generations from my husband’s side of the family. And I heard the women, [ranging from] young women all the way up to the older women in the family, talking about their own personal experiences being sexually harassed in their working lives. That was on a Sunday, and I walked into the firm the next day and I said, “I’m taking no more domestic relations cases.” My partner said, “Why?” I said, “Because we are about to do a lot of sexual harassment litigation.”
That proved to be true. In the ’80s, I’d had a lot of women come to me who had had sexual harassment experiences in the workplace, but the 1968 Civil Rights Act had not provided effective remedies because the conservative courts of that era, particularly the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, had basically eroded the remedies. When the Civil Rights Act was amended in 1991 and remedies were finally built back into the system, I just knew we would be hearing from a lot of women who had sat there through the Anita Hill testimony and said, “She’s right; we should not put up with this.” And that, in fact, is what happened.
Q: Were you also doing employment law at that time?
A: I had been doing employment law, [but] the remedies were not as effective, so I had to be much more cautious about what cases we accepted. [In 1991], the doors opened to people being able to now seek to resolve claims of discrimination in a variety of different fields. Plus, keep in mind the ADA had been adopted. Most—not all, but most—of the federal statutes were turning to the amendment of the Civil Rights Act to address what would be appropriate remedies. So it really was a time in which there was an explosion of litigation in that area. But I kept all the other traditional aspects of my practice going: wrongful death, professional negligence, traditional PI work.
Q: Tell me more about the professional negligence work.
A: I have really enjoyed, probably on a growing basis over the last 20 years, representing professionals before their state licensing boards. That would be doctors, dentists, psychologists, nurses—a lot of people in the medical community—in part because I’ve always enjoyed medicine. I think, if my family’s financial circumstances had been different, I would have gone on to get a medical degree or found a way to get a combined degree. I’ve served on some state boards and commissions where I’ve had a lot of exposure to medical and psychological issues.
Q: Is it unusual for an attorney to represent plaintiffs in most civil work, but also represent providers?
A: I guess the unusual part is that the providers trust me to do it, considering that perhaps I am one of those trial attorneys, who they would be likely to denigrate if there was a general discussion about professional negligence cases. But the other part of it is, I have also—on occasion but not regularly—defended doctors even in civil cases where there have been claims of negligence or some issue that took place within their workplace. Clearly, I’m not the person the insurance companies would normally turn to, so there are occasions where the corporate attorney—the [medical] clinic’s attorney—has said we need to get someone on board to represent this doctor.
Q: Have you always lived in Portland?
A: I’m originally from Pennsylvania. After law school, I moved out here for a federal clerkship and absolutely loved living in Oregon, and couldn’t imagine living anyplace else. I had a phenomenal experience clerking for Judge Skopil on the district court [in 1973-1974]. The other thing I liked, on a very personal level, was the size of the city, the amenities in terms of proximity to the mountains for skiing, to the high desert, to the ocean—just the diversity geographically.
Q: Were you specifically looking for an opening out West?
A: In my second year of law school, I decided I wanted to move to the West Coast. I’m basically a small-town girl, and of course Seattle and San Francisco were very large cities, which I know in some respects offer many more opportunities, but I felt really comfortable with Portland. I had never been west of Chicago by the time I graduated from law school, so this was completely new. I think it probably horrified my parents that I was going so far away.
Q: You’ve been awarded several major honors.
A: I received the professionalism award from the Oregon State Bar Association—from their civil litigation section—in March of 2001, so I was very honored. … I was absolutely flabbergasted when I received [the award] from the Multnomah Bar in 2009. Having been president of that organization, I really honored and respected the people who had received the award before me and [have] since. … Litigation can promote a lot of acrimony. There are a lot of opportunities for confrontation: disputes over discovery, disputes during deposition, disagreements leading up to trial. There are a lot of opportunities to have “the evil twin” come out, who doesn’t have professionalism as their mantra. I think getting an award like this actually is as much of a burden as a blessing. … You’ve got to really ask yourself, are you acting in a way which is consistent with this award that you’ve received?
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
A: Certainly my favorite parts are working with the clients. I really enjoy the process of getting to know them and to understand how they find themselves in the situation that now requires my services. My ultimate favorite part is being in trial. My least favorite part is all the paperwork.