Published in 2022 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
By Bob Geballe on July 14, 2022
To help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Washington Super Lawyers list, we sat down with six of the attorneys whose names have appeared every year since the list was first published in 1998. Each hailed from somewhere else, coming to Seattle in search of everything from temperate weather to racial tolerance. Each found a home and a calling, and stayed to help shape the area’s rich legal culture.
How did you end up in Seattle?
Kay Frank, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, Seattle; Employment: Employee: We were in Washington, D.C.; my husband was transferred to Seattle. It was 1970; there were lots of demonstrations in D.C. It was a very volatile time. But here in Seattle, it was … not. It was a much calmer, quieter environment. People went camping on the weekends.
Dave Burman, Perkins Coie, Seattle; Business Litigation: I grew up in Wyoming and I went East to go to law school at Georgetown, but my wife and I wanted to come back West. Her parents had moved to Seattle after she’d gone away to college. We tried out Seattle and loved it—the water, the mountains, the environment.
Janet Cheetham, Ryan, Swanson & Cleveland, Seattle; Immigration: Business and Family: My husband was from Oak Harbor, so after living in Houston all my life except for college, we had a plan to come here to Seattle, where we had cousins. We had come here almost every summer.
Jeffery Robinson, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender (Of Counsel), Seattle; Criminal Defense: I came out in 1980 as an intern during the summer. At Harvard, they gave me a 600-page book of public interest jobs. Out of all those jobs, there were two that I was interested in: public defender in D.C. and public defender in Seattle. I wanted to get away from the East Coast. When I came out here, I met the most brilliant lawyers I could imagine. And when they asked me to come back, I said not only “yes,” but “hell, yes!”
Sheryl Willert, Williams Kastner, Seattle; Employment: Employer: I was in an interracial marriage, and the last year of law school at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, we’d go out to dinner and people would stare at us—the kind of treatment we’d expect to be afforded in the South in an interracial marriage 40 years ago. So we both decided that Nashville was a lovely place, but we weren’t going to live there. We looked at a few different places, and ultimately we got to Seattle because we had some classmates—people a year ahead of us who were in Seattle in an interracial marriage—and they said come here. I had been looking up and down the West Coast, and the cost of living here was much more reasonable than San Francisco and Los Angeles. [We] came here and actually found the place very welcoming.
David Allen, Allen, Hansen, Maybrown & Offenbecher, Seattle; Criminal Defense: A 1962 Volvo was how I actually got out here—I grew up in Connecticut and went to college at Tufts and law school at Boston University. There was a job out here, so I took it. I’d always wanted to be in the Northwest; I pictured it something like Nome, Alaska. I was surprised to see how temperate the weather was.
Why did you choose your area of interest?
Cheetham: My grandfather came here from Syria—he was a Jewish refugee when he came at the age of 12, and the rabbi in Galveston took him in and all the Jewish young people who came. It was 1911, and his family just put him on a ship and sent him to America. With my family coming from Syria and Israel, I definitely have it in my blood to help immigrants.
Allen: I got out here in 1969. I was working at Legal Aid, and we weren’t really supposed to do criminal work, but I did—I represented the Nisqually and the Puyallup tribes who were criminal defendants in fishing rights. Those were the days of the Boldt decision [allocating fishing rights to Native tribes], which we were very much involved in.
Robinson: I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the civil rights movement, so the issues of anti-Black racism have always been right in my face. I was 11 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At Schroeter Goldmark Bender, they did plaintiff’s civil work. I spent six years as a deputy legal director at the ACLU’s national office in New York [while remaining of counsel at Schroeter]. In March of last year, I left the ACLU and started the Who We Are Project, which is a nonprofit organization with the mission of educating every American possible about the truth of our history of anti-Black racism in America.
Frank: I’m a child of immigrants, and my parents talked a lot about our form of government and the value of our Constitution. I was raised to know how lucky we were to have an elected form of government. My parents fled from Nazi Austria. The other aspect of my practice comes from the experience of being a volunteer at Evergreen Legal Services. I was the first coordinator for the local battered-women’s project there and ended up working on legislation to address issues of domestic violence. Those were the two areas I was very interested in, and I was lucky to go to a firm which has always been civil liberties-oriented.
Willert: When I first joined the firm, I was coming out of the prosecutor’s office—I did criminal work there for about a year, and then I transferred to the civil division, where I did employment-related work.
How has your practice changed over the last quarter-century?
Willert: We weren’t spending a lot of time on computers 25 years ago. We weren’t in virtual worlds; you didn’t have a lot things coming to you in any form other than hard copy. There was a lot of paper stacked up everywhere. We used to have what I’d call cattle calls in the mornings at the courthouse. There would be 30 to 40 lawyers in the presiding courtroom waiting to be called to do arguments. In King County now, most of your cases are assigned to a specific judge, so there’s not a big crowd in the courtroom anymore. Sometimes it’s just you and the judge. And one other change—I wear glasses now, because I’ve spent so much time on Zoom!
Burman: The type of semiconductor litigation that I was doing 25 years ago is very different from now because technology has become so much more complicated. Twenty-five years ago, people could pirate the relatively simple chips of that era. Now the litigation tends to be more patent litigation between companies, not the sort of fly-by-night pirates of that era. Every big firm is into IP litigation now, whereas 25 years ago it was much more the domain of the IP boutiques and smaller firms.
Cheetham: It’s ironic that there’s more efficiency, and you can generate the forms much faster, but you don’t have the one-on-one interactions that you used to have. Twenty-five years ago, you could walk into the Immigration Service office with an application and they would type up your approval that day and you could walk out with your approval. Today, the backlogs are a lot longer. Your clients have to wait a lot longer for approval for work visas, green cards and citizenship.
Burman: I did my first video deposition in the late ’90s, and it was an intriguing technology [with] a possible benefit in terms of cost savings and time. That seemed obvious, but it didn’t catch on. The technology continued to improve, and, boy, once we were forced to use it due to COVID. … It’s here to stay now.
Frank: We do spend a lot less time with people now. In Zoom trials, you only see the face of your witness—you don’t see their body language. You don’t get as much of a feel from the jury and how they are reacting, so you don’t really know how what you’re doing is coming across. It’s more difficult to read the room in a Zoom trial.
Willert: There are a lot of people who are working remotely now, and there’s a decreased ability for accountability. It may lead to some novel litigation—workers’ compensation issues come to mind. Someone’s working in their home and they fall on the floor. What time did it happen? You don’t know what caused it; there’s no ability to say this is what the environment looked like, because employers are not going into people’s homes to inspect them to determine whether they are appropriate setups for people to work.
Which cases stood out?
Frank: I did a case in 2005 with Columbia Legal Services in Eastern Washington—we had a group of daycare workers who sued the state. Mattawa is a small town; primarily Latino, but had a white power structure. The rest of the people were farmworkers, and these women were daycare workers. Some worked many hours and took care of many children, and some had kind of nice cars and decent houses. The community could not believe they could be earning enough money legally to have things like that, so they made complaints and the state swooped in with the Grant County sheriff. They demanded their immigration documents and green cards and passports and documents for all the children. The women were incredibly strong, and I just admired them so much. It’s not easy to be somebody in a one-down position like that and stand up for yourself. We prevailed and we got money for the women and better treatment in the future—but it took several years.
Cheetham: We do a lot of regular business immigration, but we recently received an ‘O1’—a person of exceptional ability—and this one was a farrier, who fixes horse hooves. That was exciting because it wasn’t run-of-the-mill. He was a very well-known farrier in Abu Dhabi for wealthy families. That was a hard case … and he’s now in the U.S. He had worked for the sheik for 20 or 30 years. Now he’s able to help a retiring farrier’s business.
Have we become more inclusive?
Willert: There are a lot of women in the industry now compared to when I started. But they are faced with different kinds of issues—juggling parenthood and the requirements of practicing law. For the vast majority, practicing law is not a 9-to-5 job, and in the age of tech, it’s become almost a 24-hour job. It’s hard to raise children, and it’s really tough to balance.
Cheetham: More women are attending law schools and being promoted to partnership and leadership roles in firms; however, I also have been aware of the challenges facing women in the legal industry. I’ve found in my own career that specializing or finding your own niche gives you better opportunities than being a lawyer with general skills.
Willert: I participate in a number of national organizations where issues of racial and gender diversity continue to be of concern—especially racial diversity, as [firms] have expressed various reasons for their difficulty in being able to attract and retain people of color. The kinds of things that are said, for me, sound like the things that were said 25 or 30 years ago. We were just in a discussion on attracting people of color to firms, and one of the people pointed to a person of color and said, ‘We’re looking for people like you.’ In other words … ‘You’re smart, you show up well, and so those are the only ones I want.’ I doubt very seriously the person had any idea of the impact that had on the individual being spoken to. This made a statement that there are such a limited number of qualified people of color to choose from … which is simply not the case.
Robinson: Those numbers still hover below 5% when it comes to Black lawyers. If it’s the difference between 4% in 1981 and 5% in 2021, you could say that’s a 25% increase, but … looking at the reality, there are two aspects: how many lawyers are in the profession, and how many of those lawyers are in positions of leadership or power. The numbers are even bleaker there. If we are serious about addressing these issues, we’ll be thinking about them in different ways as we go forward. The legal profession is not immune from every problem of racial bias that every other profession in America has.
Willert: It’s important that everyone in management of any law firm understand that there is a moral responsibility to understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and in larger law firms there is clearly a need to inculcate that concept into all of its lawyers and its staff and to make people willing to reflect on their motives, their actions, and their knee-jerk reactions. The manner in which the problem is solved cannot be on the shoulders of the minorities. It must be on the shoulders of everyone.
What worries you about the future?
Allen: One thing I’m really concerned about is that there are less trials now. Penalties—federal and state—have become so severe that people will plea-bargain, even if they’re innocent, because they can’t afford to take the chance at trial.
Robinson: The legal system has suffered because we have not dealt with racism in a way that is actually effective. The legal system is just a microcosm of America, and this is America’s original sin. This isn’t Black history, it’s American history, and it was stolen from all of us.
Cheetham: I am concerned about how politics affects the practice so deeply. It’s become a political hot topic, rather than just focused on what the law says, what the Constitution says, what may be right or wrong regardless of which side you’re on.
Frank: People are looking a lot more to our state Supreme Court and to our state constitution. In some ways, we have better protections than at the federal level. I think that many of the federal jurisdictions were not something that people were trying to avoid, but I think there might be more [avoidance] now. So in the future, we may have more state litigation than federal.
Cheetham: I have clients who have been waiting 12 to 15 years for green cards, from countries like India. I would really like to see changes in legal immigration to alleviate the backlogs on people who are in line waiting on legal immigration before we have a new amnesty program or assist people who are coming here illegally. Over the next 25 years, we have to have some immigration reform that’s going to assist America in bringing individuals in on professional visas, not limited to a quota system.
Willert: There are Continuing Legal Education webinars everywhere these days about the loss of civility in the legal profession. When I started practicing law, the community was small. Your word was your bond. You’re seeing an increase of people not understanding that you are in a profession, and being in a profession means that we should be honest and honorable. I’m not saying it’s a huge number of people, but they stand out.
What makes you hopeful?
Burman: I think there’s going be more freedom for lawyers to experiment with remote practice—to come together in virtual firms and take on bigger projects than before. I think there’s going be a lot of pressure on geographic barriers—each state having its own licensing and requiring people to become members of the Bar in that state. I think it will encourage a more national practice in the future.
Frank: In terms of discrimination law, I think we’ve seen some positive movement, particularly at the state level. We have a state Supreme Court that is responsive to cases of discrimination. The Legislature has also been forward-looking in many ways. One of the things we have now is rights for pregnant women and women who’ve had children, and our disability law has evolved positively both through litigation and legislation.
Robinson: The entire criminal justice system has been infected with racism for a long time, and things are starting to be reckoned with. There’s now a major movement that we do this going forward … in part due to technology. The access to information today is incredible. What you see today is people of every race protesting together at levels that I have never seen before, and that tells me that something different is happening.
Willert: I am sometimes a cynic and sometimes an optimist. I work with a crop of really smart kids, as I call them. They have a lot of talent. And I believe that when you have a lot of bright people around you, good is going to come. I tell young people this all the time—and it’s something that I did know—life is not easy; you have to work for what you get. Life is not about having a handout. What life is really about is finding someone who will give you a hand up, walk beside you and guide you, and then push you off to sea so that you can do it on your own.
The Best Thing About Practicing Law in Seattle
Burman: The quality of the other lawyers and the variety and challenge of the matters that arise here.
Willert: Working with colleagues and clients who continue to present challenging issues and keep the practice interesting.
Cheetham: Being able to work with a diverse law firm staff of different ethnicity and cultures, and being able to help immigrants from all over the world who have made Seattle their home.
Allen: The professionalism and collegiality of the criminal law bar.
Frank: The broad legal community support of social justice initiatives.
Robinson: That is easy—it is the incredible lawyers, legal assistants and paralegals that I’ve met over 40 years. Some of my best friends have come from this group.
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