B. Gerald Johnson: Civic Booster
The co-founder of Pacifica Law Group helped shape Seattle
Published in 2012 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 13, 2012
Updated on June 29, 2012
Q: If you hadn’t gone into law, what would you have done?
A: In college, I was torn between journalism and law. I was the chairman of the daily newspaper at school and was also a stringer for The New York Times. But I also thought I would want to return to Seattle, and the opportunities for journalism, even then, were such that a career path in which I was going to be really serious about that probably led through New York or Washington, D.C., or someplace else. So it was more of a homing instinct.
Q: You’ve been a longtime player in major development in Seattle.
A: Between my junior and senior years in college, and then for a year after I graduated college, I worked at the Seattle City Council. In the 1970s there was a substantial progressive-reform organization in Seattle that was partially responsible for the election of Wes Uhlman as mayor and then focused on bringing new life to the City Council. That led to, in combination with the mayor, a lot of very progressive initiatives in the city. I was a staff member to one of the younger new members of the City Council. It was also an era of a high degree of citizen participation: The Market Initiative that preserved Pike Place Market and other activist causes were going on. A lot of those efforts were led by young lawyers, and those lawyers I saw as potential role models for me. I managed to land a very junior position on the staff of then-senior Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, and worked on his staff while I went to law school at Georgetown. I was coming back to take the bar exam here in Washington state. I also had a clerkship at federal district court lined up for the fall after I graduated law school. Senator Magnuson sat me down and advised me that I was not going to take the clerkship, but I was going to go home and pass the bar, and then come back and be his chief of staff. It was very exciting. I was there at the end of his career, the last years that he was in office, leading up to the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan was elected president and the Democratic majority in the Senate was lost and everything changed.
Q: You’ve always had a soft spot for Seattle.
A: Seattle was just a great place to be a kid. I was a Boy Scout and spent lots of time hiking. We were in the mountains one weekend every month year-round, and [took] long hikes during the summer. I worked at the school newspaper in high school, made lifetime friends. The World’s Fair happened when I was in grade school. It was a time during which Seattle was coming of age and getting the measure of itself.
Q: Where was your first job in the law?
A: Just before the  election, I joined what was then the Wickwire, [Lewis,] Goldmark [& Schorr] firm. My mentor in those years was a person with whom I worked mostly on Seattle stuff over that period of time, my sort of personal and professional mentor, Chuck Goldmark. His murder [in 1985 by a right-wing drifter] was hugely impactful, obviously. I [then] decided to go to what was then Preston Thorgrimson Ellis & Holman, because my practice and Chuck’s practice had a heavy flavor of public/private work even in those days. [I] quite happily spent more than 20 years in what then became, with the merger of the Shidler McBroom & Gates firm, Preston, Gates & Ellis. Then a few years after, the Preston & Gates firm merged with the large East Coast firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. The Preston Thorgrimson firm was the oldest—and I guess, by legacy, still is the oldest—continually practicing law firm in the state; the foundation of it was right around statehood. The big development in that firm’s history was the merger with the Shidler firm—Bill Gates [Sr.]’s firm—in 1990. That was a brilliant merger in those days, because it brought the significant strengths of the business practice of the Shidler Gates firm, which already included Microsoft and Starbucks … with the public and business practice of Preston Thorgrimson.
I was the managing partner at Preston Gates for five years. … We were very successful at growing the firm. We had become a large-sized firm nationally and had very successful offices in Washington and had developed a very significant practice in Asia and up and down the West Coast … obviously an attractive candidate for merger with an East Coast firm that was interested in doing a national, even a global, platform. After the merger, [the] public-finance practice—although very substantial regionally—was an outlier in terms of the core practices of the larger firm. I was kind of tied at the hip to that [public-finance] element of the practice.
Q: That is a big part of the mission at your new firm, Pacifica?
A: The public finance practice, the public/private practice, and sophisticated litigation not exclusively related to the public sector.
Q: Is there a favorite Seattle project that you’ve worked on over the years?
A: It would be impossible to say. I’ve been the general counsel to the public entity that owns and operates the Pike Place Market. The rejuvenation of the retail core with Nordstrom and Pacific Place … was a terrific project and obviously highly impactful. Chuck Goldmark and I worked together on the original downtown Seattle Art Museum project … and I’ve counseled the museum with respect to all of its projects since. The Museum of History and Industry, I’ve just worked with them on moving from Montlake to South Lake Union Park. It’s perfect for that neighborhood and will help that park a lot. And then the baseball stadium in particular was a great project; I represented and was lead counsel for the development of Safeco Field and also did some work for the public stadium authority that owns the football stadium.
Q: Did you have to deal with controversy involving some of these projects?
A: Oh, yeah! All of them. No major project in this town is easy to accomplish. Highly stimulating legal work, but also we have to deal with controversy. For moving Nordstrom into [the old] Frederick & Nelson [building] and building Pacific Place, we had to go to the voters to get them to approve reopening Pine Street through Westlake Park. If that vote had gone the wrong way, that project would not have happened.
Q: Why do things take so long in Seattle?
A: It’s part of the culture. We have a progressive, populist-era state constitution, and aspects of that were reflected in the city charter, so there’s lots of direct democracy. That’s where you get initiatives and referenda. But it’s also a town that people care about, and that has its tremendous benefits. That also brings some challenges because everybody’s really invested, there are plenty of opportunities for people to get involved, and people feel passionate about it. So there’s almost always lots of discussion, not always friendly; occasionally there’s litigation. That’s just part of the path for getting anything done in this town. To some extent it’s enormously frustrating. But when something goes through all of that successfully and emerges to actually get done, I think there’s a decent argument to be made that the project is probably stronger and better as a result.
Q: Tell me about your involvement with Pike Place Market.
A: It started when I was in college; the Market [preservation] initiative was on the ballot and I volunteered for that campaign. They were going to demolish most of the historic buildings and do high-rises. It was really big and bad, and the voters stopped it cold. When I came back to Seattle and started practicing law at the Wickwire firm, they were the lawyers for the Market Preservation & Development Authority, so I did lots of projects in connection with that.
Q: With all your involvement in city projects, do you have any political aspirations?
A: Oh, no. No. Long ago, I passed on the notion of elective office myself. I have been lucky enough to have really great volunteer experiences in which I can make a meaningful contribution to things just as a citizen, and I feel really lucky in that respect. I know, admire and have worked for politicians, but I also understand the sacrifices that they make. I feel terribly that those sacrifices are so undervalued in our culture right now.
Q: What advice do you have for young lawyers?
A: It’s harder and harder to find the time to do pro bono and civic service, but that stuff is really, really important. Although they need to build their hours and learn their trade, those kinds of things are what makes it worthwhile in a lot of respects. They lead to dimensions of one’s practice that often are unanticipated and end up being very fulfilling.