Work, Life, Balance
Diane Polscer launched a small law firm when her daughter was three days old
Published in 2014 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on July 9, 2014
Updated on July 16, 2014
Q: How did you get into the insurance-defense business?
A: I originally got involved by being a member of the Defense Research Institute in the late ‘80s, an organization that consists of defense lawyers from all over the country.
In the late ‘80s, particularly, environmental insurance coverage became an issue, and my involvement with insurance law started with a few cases involving environmental insurance coverage. Environmental laws were becoming stricter, and large and small corporations were being investigated by environmental regulatory agencies. These corporations then turned to their insurance companies and said, ‘Will you indemnify me? … I should be covered by my insurance.’ You can think of it like a breach of contract claim. We would deny coverage based on the pollution exclusion or some other provision of the insurance policy. And the insured would often sue the insurance company and I’d be retained to defend them.
So I spent many years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s litigating against companies like Boeing, Georgia-Pacific, Alcoa. I had a case up at the Washington Supreme Court involving Alcoa Aluminum. I call it “dirty dirt” insurance coverage: polluted water, asbestos. I was arguing for pollution exclusions that seemed pretty cut-and-dried. But as in any area of the law, even if something seems cut-and-dried, it often isn’t.
Now I litigate cases in a lot of states. Mainly the Northwest.
Q: But your practice now extends beyond environmental insurance coverage, yes?
A: Yes, many other areas of insurance law burgeoned. For instance I was involved in the Archdiocese of Portland and the Archdiocese of Spokane sex abuse cases. Hundreds of claimants against priests. I think we even had a nun accused. So there’s a large amount of money. That case involved bankruptcy, it involved insurance law, it involved canon law, religious law.
Q: Did you win?
A: We settled.
Q: How old were you when you decided to enter law practice?
A: I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was in first grade. I went to the courthouse on a field trip, and I came back and I told my grandmother, “I think I want to be a lawyer. I think that looks really cool.” And that really never wavered. I was pretty focused all through college and law school; and then I clerked for a judge in the Eastern District of Washington, and that solidified it. His name was Robert J. McNichols. He was really influential. He really taught me a lot about the law and about trial practice and it just solidified after I graduated from law school. You never know, because, you know, school is not like reality.
I witnessed trial lawyers in practice every day and what’s it’s like, and the judge’s perspective behind the scenes. We’d have lunch every day and he’d talk about the cases. After that I practiced for a while in a large firm in Portland.
Q: There must be times you are compelled to give the insurance companies a reality check, to tell them they need to pay. Can you talk about that?
A: The companies I deal with are pretty major companies in the world of insurance. Or cases with hundreds and hundreds of claimants and multiple carriers, multiple lawyers involved.
I represent the insurance company who says, “No, we don’t think the insurance policy covers this kind of behavior.” They settle more than 98 percent of the time.
It’s all usually handled on legal motions, motions for summary judgment. So that means legal motions before the judge saying, “Here’s what the insurance policy says,” and the other side says, you know, “Here’s what we think it says,” and then the judge looks and says, “No, here’s what the law says.” And then there’s a summary judgment, an opinion by the judge on what the policy means.
Q: Talk about your role founding Oregon Women Lawyers.
A: When I started out in 1984, in Spokane, the very first time I went before a judge, he looked over his glasses at me, and he said, “Young lady, are you an attorney?” He was about 75 years old, and I said, “Yes, your honor, I am.” And at the very first deposition I went to, the lawyer on the other side said to me, “Wait a minute, you can’t talk. Aren’t you my ex-senior partner’s paralegal?”
When I came to Oregon in 1989, there was no equivalent of a women lawyers’ organization like they had in Washington state, so I talked to an older, more senior woman lawyer, Katherine O’Neil, and we co-founded Oregon Women Lawyers, and it still exists today, and it’s still a vibrant organization.
I’m also the second Oregon woman lawyer to be admitted to the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel … and interestingly last May I was asked to be on the board of an insurance company. It’s the United Heritage Mutual Holding Company board. That company has been in business for 100 years, and I’m the second woman ever on that board.
In Oregon there are maybe a handful of women who are managing partners of law firms. But I also think things are changing. Yet I think we still need to keep working at diversity.
Q: There are not a lot of women in your particular field. Have you found women tend to gravitate to certain practice areas?
A: Yes: Trusts and estates, wills, family law, employment law. Women tend to gravitate to employment law because corporations like to hire women when they have sex discrimination claims. I’m in an unusually male-dominated area.
Q: It seems intellectual property rights has almost no women, either.
A: True. But a recent ABA article was about women in intellectual property law. Here, I have it on my desk, it says, “Women are squarely in the picture where law and technology combine.” But you know, these women [in the article], you look at them, and they look 23.
Q: Looking at these young women do you think: “You don’t know what I went through”?
A: Yes. But I want to be a mentor. I’m passionate about that. You can’t just pull up the ladder.
Q: What case do you consider a game-changer or a landmark case for you?
A: The case I mentioned against Alcoa Aluminum. Our small firm at that point in time—I think we were about, oh, maybe 14 lawyers—we litigated against, I want to say, at least 50 lawyers from a very large law firm in Pennsylvania, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. That case went on for years.
Q: What was the substance of it?
A: It was the environmental insurance coverage case brought by Alcoa. And I eventually prevailed at the Washington Supreme Court. Alcoa had five sites around the country that were polluted.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in your day-to-day practice?
A: Balancing family and career. I have had this unusual situation where I have dropped my daughters off at school every day. I try to pick up my 10-year-old when sports or after school activities get done. It’s been a struggle to balance that.
Q: But it was a commitment that you made to yourself?
A: Frankly, that’s the reason I left the large law firm. I started this firm January 1st of 1994, and my oldest daughter was born December 29th, 1993. She was three days old. When she was five weeks old I was on a plane, because I was representing an insurance company against Georgia-Pacific. My husband came along, and [the baby] came along, and I took a deposition when she was five weeks old in Atlanta, Georgia because that’s when I was breastfeeding her and everybody had to come.
Q: What made you decide to be openly feminist? Many feminist attorneys I talk to don’t want to talk about gender.
A: Oh, is there really a choice? I think probably the influence of my mother and grandmother, really strong women who taught me to be open, honest and authentic. And to try to develop a women’s network. My mother had three sisters; I had two sisters. There’s a lot of estrogen in our family. I think it helps you be a strong woman when you’re surrounded by strong women.
Q: Maybe some female attorneys want to be one of the guys.
A: Yes and just blend in with the boys. But you can’t stop being who you are.
This interview was edited and condensed.