Second Time Around
For this group of overachievers, the second career was the charm. But the lessons from their ‘past lives’ have served them well.
Published in 2004 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on August 1, 2004
Updated on December 8, 2015
You hear plenty about attorneys who’ve had enough. They’re fed up with the long hours, high pressure, law-firm politics; maybe they even question the ethical nature of their work. They might jump ship for academia, non-profit work, novel writing, or a long sabbatical in New Zealand. Then there are those who do just the opposite; they come to law from other careers as teachers, social workers, aerospace engineers, even television news reporters. Often, they’re seeking greater impact or more intellectual satisfaction. But the transition can be grueling, perhaps involving full-time employment during law school, long hours away from loved ones, and a challenging job hunt at the end of it all. We talked to four such renegades, each among the elite group named by their peers as L&P Super Lawyers this year. Their unique perspectives fuel an ongoing passion for their work. And after hearing their stories you might just wonder if more attorneys wouldn’t benefit from trying something else first.
WILLIAM HENRY FLIGELTAUB
Civil litigation and criminal defense attorney William Fligeltaub knew from an early age that he wanted to be a lawyer but took a detour by first working as a teacher in Libya, and then on Chicago’s South Side. Fligeltaub, 58, grew up in Evansville, Indiana, the son of a sixth-grade dropout who ran a scrap-metal yard. He wasn’t much at athletics, but was a diligent student. And he found himself fascinated by the proceedings in the local courthouse.
“I loved watching the lawyers in trial. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. I knew then what I wanted to do.” But rather than rush off to law school after college, Fligeltaub joined the Peace Corps. He was lured by promotional materials suggesting some applicants might be issued motorcycles to ride around Libya, teaching English to kids in different regions. Instead, he was stationed 100 miles south of Tripoli in Rabta, teaching at several schools just a few miles apart.
With the Vietnam War well underway, U.S. draft authorities tracked down Fligeltaub after his Peace Corps stint ended.
“I had seven days to report,” he recalls, “but I had read in Time magazine that the Chicago Board of Education was desperate for teachers.” Teacher deferments would soon be phased out, but not quite yet, Fligeltaub recalls. Running out of time and luck, he found himself at Yale Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side. The principal noted his liberal-arts focus in college, and asked if Fligeltaub knew much about the author George Santayana.
The young job-seeker proffered some extemporaneous verbiage of admittedly dubious worth. Somehow, it did the trick. The principal called the draft board and told them Fligeltaub had been hired.
Fligeltaub became the designated substitute teacher at the K—6 school, filling in every day, full-time. It was instructive after he switched careers. “Grade-school students give you immediate feedback if you’re not effective,” he says. “A good trial attorney is always sensitive to the audience, and can look at a jury the same way. You’ve got to know if they’re with you or not.”
But frustrations set in. Expectations were low for the predominantly minority student body. And Fligeltaub wanted to teach thirdgraders regularly. However, at the time, social strictures essentially prevented men from sustained contact with young children, he says.
Fed up with the school bureaucracy—and increasingly disenchanted with teachers’ union politics—Fligeltaub was ready to study law, at Vanderbilt.
By this time, Fligeltaub had married a woman he met at Roosevelt University, from whom he was later divorced. The three years in Nashville were uncomfortable for the mixed-race couple. Before graduation, Fligeltaub and his African-American wife decided to seek a suitably tolerant place to live, work and raise a family. That turned out to be Seattle.
They arrived in 1976. Fligeltaub passed the bar, began hunting for work, and found limits to Seattle’s famed tolerance. At one firm, a managing partner, clearly aware of Fligeltaub’s very Jewish last name, told him there was no job available for him, and added, “this is a Christian law firm.” He then put his arm around Fligeltaub as he escorted the applicant out, and made “some cryptic remark” that Jews didn’t work as hard as Christians, Fligeltaub says.
Undeterred, Fligeltaub shaved off his beard, cut his hair and kept at it, landing a post as deputy prosecuting attorney for King County in early 1977, two weeks before his daughter Courtney was born. Five years later, he hung out his own shingle, for a short time with a partner, then on his own. He specializes in criminal defense and civil litigation, including fraud, professional-licensing matters and personal injury.
One notable defense was on behalf of a public school teacher charged with raping a student in a classroom.“We argued it did not happen,” says Fligeltaub. The first proceeding ended in a mistrial, the second in acquittal. Another successful defense was for a client who admitted to reckless driving; Fligeltaub argued it was done under duress, to evade another motorist who had initiated hostilities.
Fligeltaub’s civil cases have included a settlement from an apartment complex operator after a tenant was victimized by a serial rapist. Case law said there was no liability for third-party acts, but the management, Fligeltaub says, had specifically assumed responsibility for security. A videotaped statement obtained from the perpetrator buttressed his client’s case.
As Fligeltaub pauses to look at the expansive view from his 44th-floor downtown Seattle office, it’s clear he has found his niche as a sole practitioner, and that the courtroom is the right place for this raconteur. And what about his daughter, Courtney? She just graduated from University of Arizona law school, and wants to zero in on water rights and mineral rights law.
SIDNEY STILLERMAN ROYER
The day Sidney Stillerman Royer left Chicago bound for Washington state, her cargo included a breathing mask her mother had given her. Mount St. Helens had just erupted five days earlier. Royer started seeing ash in Montana, but wasn’t fazed. No volcano was going to come between her and a law degree.
Royer’s path to a successful small personal injury practice with her husband, Mark Leemon, began after she earned a master’s in social work from the University of Illinois in 1976. Raised in the sylvan Chicago suburb of Evanston, Royer went to work for the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute in Chicago. For the institute’s Unified Delinquency Intervention Service, Royer helped petition judges to place young hard-core offenders in communitybased rehabilitative programs or residential treatment centers, instead of jail.
Royer felt that the government’s role of custodian or caretaker carried crucial responsibilities.
“There were some parents who were mentally ill. The kids should have been viewed as at-risk from a very early age. They were often left alone and didn’t develop the internal controls one needs to make it through life,” says Royer, 52 who has two children of her own, ages 17 and 20. In such instances, she still believes, it’s the state’s duty to intervene as the agent of a caring society. “We can’t let them fall through the cracks, if the parents do. Intervening at adolescence is too late.”
Gradually, Royer says, she saw that “social workers, attorneys and judges needed to become better informed about delinquent youth” before sentencing. She realized she could make a greater impact as an attorney herself. “Working on the unit, the position of attorney was the more powerful one, to effectuate real change.”
Royer was accepted to the University of Puget Sound Law School (now the Seattle University School of Law). Royer had fallen for Seattle after a visit to see her high school buddy, Linda Brill, now a veteran news reporter for KING-TV.
In her first year of law school, she clerked for the Washington Attorney General’s Tacoma office, helping the state Department of Social and Health Services pursue deadbeat dads and remove children from the custody of addicted parents. Royer shifted to law classes at night, clerking full-time for the AG’s DSHS division. Her night courses continued as Royer joined the defense team of assistant AG (now AG and Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Christine Gregoire, in a noted “comparable worth” case brought by women state employees alleging pay discrimination.
After passing the bar in 1984, Royer spent three years as an assistant AG representing the Department of Labor and Industries against workers compensation appellants before the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. She then joined the plaintiff personal injury firm of Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender.
Royer made shareholder in ’91, and over the years developed an interest in representing violent-crime victims and medical-malpractice plaintiffs. She won settlements on behalf of many clients, such as a woman whose lung cancer wasn’t properly diagnosed by the Veterans Administration; a woman raped in a poorly lighted parking lot; and the estate of a victim murdered in a poorly secured hotel. Royer, formerly married to longtime Seattle political insider Bob Royer, married Leeman in 1999, and formed Leeman + Royer in 2002. Sid
Royer, as she’s known to many, has continued battling for victims, or their estates, against negligent government authorities or healthcare providers. One specialty now is mental healthcare malpractice—including suits alleging failure to prevent suicide, or faulty diagnosis of multiple personalities.
She rejects the familiar criticism that malpractice actions too often involve opportunism and greed. “It’s about access to justice,” Royer says. “Everybody is entitled to that.”
For better or worse, lawyers are all over TV these days. But this group doesn’t include Seattle personal-injury attorney Susan Davis. She got that out of her system years ago, as a television news reporter.
Graduating from the University of Washington in 1969 with double bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and political science, the Salem, Oregon, native joined the Associated Press as a reporter in Seattle. Davis knew early on she wanted to shift to broadcast news. But she got a sense of how things were when the news director at a major Seattle TV station rebuffed her, saying, “We already have one woman on the air.”
That only steeled her resolve. After a year with AP, she landed a position for KUUUAM, a Seattle oldies station. Davis was morning anchor; and in the afternoons roved around town in the station’s red Ford Mustang to report live on breaking news. In 1971, she moved with her husband, Don, to Spokane so he could attend law school at Gonzaga University. Here, she made the transition to TV news, as a reporter for CBS affiliate KXLY-TV, and then the local NBC affiliate, KHQ-TV. Back then, reporters also operated cameras and edited their own film.
But once she advanced to where she thought she wanted to be, the bloom came off the rose. Davis says her shift to law was prompted by two things. First, watching her husband go through law school at Gonzaga inspired her, she says. Second, she adds, “I felt that broadcast journalism wasn’t doing its job. There was a tendency to cover fluff, to not dig into the tougher, meatier stories.” The last straw came when her copy was reviewed by the news director because of worries from a major advertiser caught in the middle of a controversial story.
Davis graduated from UW law school and passed the bar in 1977. She hasn’t looked back. She joined Burns and Schneiderman, then a small Seattle personal-injury and criminal law firm. She says the two principals, Jim Burns and Barry Schneiderman, “were wonderful teachers. They always had their doors open, and I never felt that any question I asked was [considered] a dumb one.”
One big case for Davis was a settlement the firm won on behalf of Paccar assembly workers, against a polyurethane foam manufacturer. The foam contained a potentially hazardous chemical called isocyanate, which workers hosed into the walls of refrigerator railroad cars without having been informed that fans, exhaust systems and other precautions were required, Davis says. A number of employees developed emphysema or asthma.
In 1986, Davis became the first woman president of the Washington Trial Lawyers Association. The next year, she and her husband opened The Davis Firm, in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. They’re still going strong, handling a range of personal injury cases. Davis says her work often requires her to learn about “stuff I knew nothing about,” from the engineering of hydraulic jacks, to severe burns, to maritime and aviation safety.
Davis, 55, says she definitely sees some overlap with her past life as a news reporter.
“I love to dig through the information, and put together the story of what happened. In many ways it’s similar to doing TV news. It may include witnesses, documents, photos, audio, animated presentations, or a model. Being able to put it together in a coherent manner is really important.”
Chatting at Uptown Espresso in Lower Queen Anne, Davis exudes a calm satisfaction with her choices. “I’m glad I made the change. If I don’t believe in the person or the cause, I say, ‘No, thanks.’ With any luck, I’m just working for what I believe in.”
For aerospace engineer John Denkenberger, the turning point in his career came when, along with about 3,000 co-workers, he was laid off by General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas, after a military contract was canceled in January 1991. “It was a real eye-opening experience for me. I realized you’ve got to become self-sufficient. I figured I could get an MBA or a law degree.”
Denkenberger began working toward the latter, but under daunting conditions.
First, the State University of New York-Buffalo grad–who had also worked as a structural engineer for Grumman Aerospace on Long Island—landed a position at Boeing’s wing-technology group in Renton, in 1991. He did structural design and wind-tunnel testing for commercial aircraft wings, and worked on the 767 AWACS program, an airborne combat-control system that identified friendly and enemy craft.
But less than a year after starting his full-time job at Boeing, Denkenberger also began night classes at the University of Puget Sound’s law school (now Seattle University School of Law). He completed law school in 3 1/2 years while working full time at Boeing. Drawing on his experience as an engineer, Denkenberger decided he would specialize in patent law.
There was barely a minute to spare, and things didn’t get any easier upon graduation. But having asked around, at least Denkenberger knew where he wanted to work: Christensen, Johnson, O’Connor and Kindness. At the time, it was the leading Seattle patent law firm, says Denkenberger.
Just one problem: The firm wasn’t hiring when Denkenberger came calling; and he was told he needed experience. He agreed. So, still working full-time at Boeing, he offered to clerk for free at the firm.
“It gave them the opportunity to see the type of dedicated worker I think I am, and I got the experience of drafting patent applications.” Putting in four 10-hour days at Boeing, Denkenberger clerked Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Christensen O’Connor.
Within a month, he was being paid, and within six, he left Boeing and began work as a fulltime attorney for the firm. Now a shareholder, Denkenberger, 41, says he finds his new career more stimulating. “As a member you wear many hats: lawyer, marketer, mentor, supervisor. The pressure is much more intense—meeting deadlines and budgets—because there’s now so much competition” among patent law firms.
He says the market certainly peaked and ebbed with the Internet boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1990s, into 2000; but things are hopping now. Denkenberger has won patents for a high-tech sled designed to handle turns faster, the board game Cranium, a toe-hinged ice speed skate, a wheelchair lift, a stand-alone shower and various mechanical tools. The firm’s work also includes trademarks, copyrights, trade secret issues, licensing, Internet domain name disputes, and related litigation.
It’s a good bet Christensen O’Connor knew what it had with Denkenberger, right from the start. Just before his first day at the firm as an unpaid clerk, he broke an ankle in two places, hiking down Mount Si on a rare recreational outing. He came to work anyway, in a cast that ran all the way up to his knee.