Drawing on Experience
A little humor never hurts—just ask Kennewick litigator Jay Flynn
Published in 2018 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on June 18, 2018
Ask a litigator to name people who were inspirations, and you might not expect the list to include Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, who drew, respectively, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. Unless, that is, you’re talking to personal injury attorney Jay Flynn, who is also a prize-winning cartoonist.
There’s a connection between his skills, according to Flynn: “Drawing requires invention and creativity. To my surprise, I found early on that two of the most important components of trying a case were invention and creativity.”
Flynn was always a self-taught artist. “I probably did too much of it in school when teachers were talking,” he muses. “But, well, it ended up helping me in life.”
After getting his J.D. at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in 1979, Flynn moved to the Tri-Cities area, where his wife grew up, and went to work at a Kennewick firm, doing “anything that came in the door.” He loved it—but missed having an artistic outlet.
“I just went to the local paper [The Tri-City Herald] and said, ‘Hey I’d like to do editorial cartooning,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘We don’t have anybody doing it, so OK.’” In 1980, one of his cartoons—depicting George Washington wearing a gas mask as ash poured onto the Tri-Cities from the Mount St. Helens eruption—won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also illustrated calendars and a few books of regional lore. “And then I started having kids and building a busy practice, and I didn’t have time to do it anymore. But I still like to draw and cartoon, just for myself as a leisure thing.” By 1987, he had moved primarily into plaintiff’s personal injury work; in 1989, he helped found Flynn Merriman McKennon.
Prominently displayed on his website is a word Flynn wants to embody: compassion. “Normally, the people I see are in a bad place in their lives,” he says. “They’ve been hurt in some way that has either caused them to be in pain or lose their job, or maybe they aren’t able to do something they want to do. And suddenly they are caught in this maelstrom of doctors and attorneys and courts. … People want to feel like you are listening and really want to help them. That you understand what they are saying and feel for them.”
In one of the cases that brings him pride, Flynn represented the families of 12 teenagers in a special-education program who were sexually abused by a paraeducator. Not only did the 1991 lawsuit lead to financial help for the families, it led to changes by the school district to better protect students.
When he’s in court, pictures still pop into Flynn’s head, and he sometimes finds himself reaching for a Sharpie. “I don’t do a lot of cartooning during trial, but it has helped me—I can draw something, and if somebody’s talking about a body or head or street or car, I can make it come alive a little bit.”
He’s been known to offer a drawing to a colleague who’s had a bad day in court. Karen Koehler, a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney at Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Koehler Moore in Seattle, was one such recipient. “After one brutal trial day, Jay sent me a cartoon of Nala, my Brittany [spaniel],” Koehler says. “He caught her attitude and the moment so perfectly. All I could do was laugh.”
Has Flynn given a cartoon to a judge? “Yes, I have,” he says before pausing. “When they retire.” A good friend who became a judge once received a cartoon of himself sitting in chambers, pondering “a very novel and very difficult legal question,” and asking himself, “I wonder what Jay Flynn would do with this …”
Once, Flynn was invited to speak at a seminar by celebrated Seattle personal injury lawyer Paul Luvera. Speakers had a tight 10 minutes to address a topic; when time was up, they were cut off by a buzzer. No exceptions. Well, one exception: Flynn’s presentation—on managing a life packed with work, a family, plus a hobby or two on the side—was a mix of talk and cartoons that he drew as he went, flipping page by page. When his time was up, Luvera called out, “Just keep going.”