Sheryl Willert defends bosses—and reminds them to play fair
Published in 2012 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 13, 2012
Updated on June 29, 2012
Sheryl Willert’s journey has taken her from a segregated childhood in South Carolina to law school at Vanderbilt to a career as one of the most respected employment attorneys in Washington state—with a prestigious national award named in her honor.
“When Sheryl and I were starting out,” recalls Colleen Kinerk of Cable, Langenbach, Kinerk & Bauer, “to have one female attorney [at a firm] was unusual. To have a female attorney of color was amazing. She broke a lot of glass ceilings.” Over the next three decades, Willert became a top employment defense lawyer, dealing with litigation involving both the public and private sectors, as well as professional negligence, civil rights, personal injury, products liability and contract matters.
Willert served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in King County from 1978 to 1981, then moved to Williams Kastner, where she has already served one six-year stint as managing director and is now in her sixth year of a second stint. Every year, the nation’s largest organization of civil defense attorneys, DRI–The Voice of the Defense Bar, hands out the Sheryl J. Willert Pioneer Diversity Award to honor commitment to diversity in the legal community.
Simultaneously straightforward and compassionate, Willert is an easy person to talk to: a good listener, poised and energetic. A visitor notes that she could easily have been a TV journalist.
She confides with a laugh, “I kind of wish I could have been Bryant Gumbel.”
But she’s just kidding. For Willert, it’s always been the law. At least since she was 12.
Willert’s life has taken her diagonally across the country. Her father was principal of one of two African-American high schools in Columbia, S.C.; her mother was an elementary school librarian. She and her six siblings “took my parents to heart. We are all educated well.”
Willert’s childhood also taught her some tough lessons. She witnessed the corrosive impact of intolerance and segregation, and came early to the idea that the law was a tool for addressing inequities and corruption. “A lot of things happened in my life when I was younger,” she says. “Schools were ‘integrated,’ but neighborhoods were segregated. A lot of the teachers in the integrated schools … thought of teaching as a job, not a profession.”
One teacher stood out: her eighth-grade social studies instructor. “Shirley Mills. She was fascinating to me,” Willert says. “She had taught and spent time in China, and she encouraged me to explore the legality of the Vietnam War.” Which is how, at age 12, Willert found herself doing research in the University of South Carolina’s law library, an experience she says “set the groundwork for my interest in law.”
Six years later, Willert enrolled at Duke, choosing political science as a major. “I refused to apply to any schools in South Carolina,” she says. “I wanted to get away from home.” Even then the West Coast beckoned—Willert had her eye on Stanford—but her mother said it was too far away.
After finishing Duke in 1975, Willert was admitted to the law program at Vanderbilt. “There was a great deal of intellect on the faculty,” she says, “but also, some professors held onto the vestiges of racism. One would put his head down when you walked by so he wouldn’t have to see you. Another told me that I would make good grades but the rest of the African-American students wouldn’t pass.”
After Vanderbilt, Willert finally found her way West. She was in an interracial marriage and eager to leave the South. “Interracial marriages were a novelty at best, and people stared on the street and in restaurants in the South,” she says. “I was reasonably comfortable that on the West Coast, people would not engage in such conduct.” She chose Seattle because “LA was too big and sprawling, Portland was too small … and San Francisco was too expensive. Seattle was a very pleasant place to me.”
But she found some lingering intolerance in the Northwest as well. “My experience here is very different from what I grew up with,” she says. “People are well-educated, politically correct in their speech. However, some people are sometimes insensitive to racist conduct because they are”—here she raises her hands in air quotes—“‘liberals.’ As a person who has been exposed to racism in its harshest sense, you understand its nuances.”
Willert went to work as an assistant prosecuting attorney for King County. “I wanted to be a trial lawyer because you get to talk,” she says with a laugh. “In those 18 months, I had all sorts of criminal cases, experiences that would have taken six years in private practice—murders, robberies.” But the intensity took a toll, and she moved to the civil side of the prosecutor’s office, where she stayed until joining Williams Kastner in 1982: “I really wanted the challenge of being in private practice.”
Dan Tolfree, now retired from Williams Kastner, recalls taking Willert to lunch to make her an offer. “We were looking for a young lawyer with civil experience,” he says. “Her race and gender didn’t really matter—she had the right background.”
“Back in the earlier days,” says Kinerk, “all of us female attorneys dressed in a very conservative fashion—we looked like an army of nuns. But not Sheryl. She had the confidence to dress in a really stylish way. … She’s very glamorous.”
Kinerk has represented plaintiffs in many cases against Willert’s clients. “She has a keen sense of justice, and no one side has an exclusive claim to what is justice,” says Kinerk. She cites a deposition of one of her clients. “Sheryl very carefully zeroed right in on the all the issues for both sides,” Kinerk says. Willert called her and proposed a settlement. “She said, ‘Let’s do what’s right for this person.’ She could have gone a different way, but she had an appreciation for justice.”
Not every case can be a win. “I’ve had some fascinating cases, but not always with the results I wanted,” Willert notes. She lost a case involving a large corporation being sued by a plaintiff who had been laid off in a reduction in force. “They had hired people who were younger in another division. The jury thought they shouldn’t have,” she says. From this and other cases, she learned that listening closely to jurors during selection isn’t always enough. “There’s a lot of truth in the need to watch people as they respond,” she says. “Words don’t tell you everything—body language does.”
The learning process never ends in employment law, and technology has brought many changes. “Cases have become much more complex, because of what can be discovered and turned over—cell phone records, texts, PDAs, Facebook,” she says. “As we have become a less formal society, one of the things I try to instill in my clients is the need to be careful in terms of what’s said. I tell them, ‘Email is your enemy,’ because people think that when they’re using email, they’re talking to their best friend, and they let their guard down.”
Away from the office, Willert works with the Kindering Center, which provides services for children who are disabled, medically fragile, or vulnerable because of abuse or neglect. She is also on the board of FareStart, the Seattle-based culinary job training and placement program for the homeless and disadvantaged. “She cares a lot about the community she lives in,” says Megan Karch, FareStart’s CEO. “She has a good business mind and has played a strategic role for us as we have gone through major growth in the last few years.”
Why has she chosen a career defending corporations? Willert says she sees her role, in part, as helping corporations to understand what’s fair and equitable in the workplace. “I feel strongly about civil rights and due process,” she explains. “I feel like I can effect some change. … I’ve always believed I’d rather work from the inside than the outside to make things better.”