The Good Foot Soldier
David Goodnight’s client list ranges from Amazon to Monsanto to a Napa Valley vineyard—and in his spare time, the Stoel Rives litigator helps Burundian widows rebuild their lives
Published in 2014 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 13, 2014
Updated on June 17, 2014
Q: What was it like growing up in the Seattle area?
A: I spent a lot of time in the mountains and North Cascades hiking, and a lot of time in the outdoors kayaking. It was wonderful. My dad was disabled, so my uncle would take me up into the mountains, take me deer hunting, hiking, and was just very kind and generous.
Q: And you’ve stayed put.
A: I think the Bar, the King County Court, and our federal judges are wonderful. The Bar is relatively small and friendly. It’s a comfortable place to practice.
Q: What do you love about business litigation?
A: The challenge of trying to bring thoughtful leadership to a business problem … whether the issues are technological or contractual. I also enjoy the trial experience and litigation experience itself, when it’s necessary.
Q: Who were your legal mentors?
A: I began my career at Bogle & Gates. In the early years, I had the privilege of working closely with Evan Schwab, who clerked for Justice [William O.] Douglas and was very influential in my early development. I have great admiration and respect for Evan and his wisdom and intellect. I also had the privilege of working closely with Kelly Corr, [now] of Corr Cronin; and Guy Michelson, who is at Corr Cronin.
We just had some extraordinary talent at Bogle & Gates in those years. Ron McKinstry was another one. We had a collection, in the ’90s, of extraordinary trial talent.
Q: And then came the crash.
A: Yes. I was there until Bogle & Gates dissolved in 1999.
Q: But now you’re with another historic Seattle firm.
A: I think we have a uniquely wonderful culture and very talented lawyers, many of whom have been here for a very long time. There’s something to be said, I think, for staying put, for stability. I admire some of my colleagues who have been at the firm for 25 or 30 or 35 years; something about that is nice. You do see it in Seattle, and you see it at Stoel Rives.
Q: Did you always see yourself as an attorney?
A: I became interested in going to law school just as the next step in education and doing something that I thought would be analytically challenging. Following law school, I was interested again in the next step and went on to clerk in the United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals, thinking that I would devote my career to teaching either federal jurisdiction comparative law or constitutional law. So my original thought was to practice for two or three years and then to go into teaching. [But] I enjoyed the practice very much and had some fascinating cases, and really never looked back.
Q: What cases got you hooked?
A: One of the most interesting early cases I had was involving a child who became known in the press as “JBS.” It went to the Washington Supreme Court twice: once on the right of access to the courts, and then on the standards that should govern dependency proceedings in Washington. It went from court commissioner to the Supreme Court in just a matter of months. I very much enjoyed briefing and arguing that case.
Q: What was it about?
A: The child, whose name was Jesse, was living in Wenatchee, Washington with foster parents. But the [state child-welfare] department had issued an order sending the child back to his biological father, who had never cared for the child, had been deported from the United States and had some serious criminal history. Our position was that it was in the best interest of the child to stay with his foster family and mother in the States.
Q: And what was the outcome?
A: The court agreed with our position that the proceeding should be open to the public, and the court agreed with our position that the best interest of the child should really be the governing consideration. So the ruling and the substantive opinion was that the best interest of the child should be preeminent in dependency cases, over the blood ties of the family.
Q: That was a pro bono case. What about day-to-day cases?
A: IT litigation, construction litigation—a lot of commercial litigation. One of the most interesting cases I had early in my career was working on the  Wendy and Craig McCaw dissolution case, which was large and complex and involved a very large estate. I was on Wendy McCaw’s team.
Q: I believe it was an estate valued at more than $1 billion, and that Wendy McCaw received one of the biggest divorce settlements ever.
A: The McCaw case is one of the largest cases Bogle & Gates ever handled. Evan [Schwab] was the senior lawyer on the case, and I worked very closely with him. Evan had a unique and amazing combination of will, intellect and wisdom and [I] will forever be indebted to him for the investment he made in my life and career.
Q: Is there a business case that stands out?
A: The most recent large trial that I did was representing King County in the Brightwater tunnel dispute with VPFK, a joint venture contractor. We had a three-month jury trial; Judge Middaugh was the trial judge, and the jury of 12 returned a verdict for the county of $155 million. It’s on appeal.
Q: An enormous verdict. This involved a construction delay?
A: Yes, a delay and a breakdown of the tunnel-boring machines, for many months.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I have a large number of interesting cases right now. I’m working on the Monsanto wheat class-action cases, which are now consolidated in Kansas City, representing Monsanto.
Q: That’s the suit over genetic modification?
A: Yes, it is. It’s a class action. There were 15 class-action lawsuits consolidated and it involved some allegedly genetically modified wheat that was found in Oregon. The report from the USDA and dozens of sources at this point say that it’s isolated to that one farmer’s field, but nevertheless, a bunch of class actions were filed [by] farmers and others in the chain of production of wheat all over the country. The wheat was never sold; it never entered the market sold.
Q: Have you done a lot of traveling?
A: Beginning in about 2001, I was asked to be the national outside trial counsel for Qwest and Qwest Corporation in cases under the Telecommunications Act, so I handled dozens of lawsuits in federal district courts and litigated cases through state supreme courts and through United States courts of appeals in different circuits, and several U.S. Supreme Court cert petitions that we were successful in having denied. I did that for many, many years; dozens of cases, and there are probably 30 published opinions in my resume from that line of work.
Q: I believe your client list includes the world’s largest online retailer?
A: We’ve had the privilege of representing Amazon.com for many, many years. I represented Amazon in the strategic-alliance breakup of Amazon and Toys R Us, which went to trial in New Jersey in 2005. We are one of Amazon’s preferred providers.
Q: What’s the least favorite part of your job?
A: That’s an interesting question. [Long pause.] Nothing really comes to mind.
Q: What would you consider the most important quality in an attorney?
A: Integrity. Clients are looking for someone they can trust and someone that can help provide leadership and solutions. I think leadership, integrity, trustworthiness would be the top three.
It may be that a problem has so many different constituencies that it needs someone who can bring some leadership to the different groups of people. It may need someone who can bring some leadership to the team that’s helping solve the problem, or even analytic leadership.
Q: Do you enjoy that leadership role?
A: I like it very much.
A: Trying to find the right talent to solve a problem and seeing people working together and moving in the right direction in a constructive and mutually supportive way, I think, is very rewarding.
Q: I have to ask about your last name.
A: [Laughs] It either means a good knight, as a knight to the king; or a good foot soldier, and we think [it’s] probably a good foot soldier.
Q: Tell me about your recent pro bono work.
A: Since about 2006, I’ve been very involved in Burundi, Africa; and in India. In Burundi, I’ve been—I’ll say the U.S. chairman—of a nonprofit organization called Sister Connection, which is a 501(c)(3) that provides assistance to widows of the Burundian genocide and their children and orphans. We built houses and have a micro-finance program, a monthly support program, and I have been to Burundi many times with friends and family, devoting a lot of time to supporting that organization. We now have a significant staff in Burundi.
We have built over 1,000 houses for widows. We have a fully-funded micro-finance program that’s trained, I think, over 400 widows in small-business enterprise. We have trauma healing and recovery. We have a scholarship program for the widows’ children to be able to attend a university.
Q: And in India?
A: I’m U.S. chairman of the board of a nonprofit called Friends of Immanuel University. It is the first university accredited for untouchables in India.
We started with an MBA program and we are currently launching a school of education named after North American educators David and Janet McKenna. She was a grade school teacher and David, who lives in Kirkland, was president of three North American universities. He’s now 85 years old, but he’s a dear friend and we’re calling it the McKenna School of Education.
Q: How did you get involved in Burundi?
A: I have a friend named Lloyd Ganton, who served on a nonprofit foundation board with me for many years, in Michigan. He knew a family that had lived in Burundi for many years and was going back in 2006, after the genocide, and he invited me to go with the family.
I went on that trip with my oldest daughter, Audra, who was 16 at the time, and we traveled around the country, seeing these widows and orphans with the president of Sister Connection from the United States, Denise Patch, and, as she was describing the work of the organization, she was saying, “We need this. We need that,” and I would say, “Well, I can do that. I can help with that.” So, that just evolved into me creating the nonprofit board corporation 501(c)(3) status, and then pulling together a board of directors and somebody who could build a website and create a DVD description of the work, and that sort of thing. It’s just evolved from there.
Q: What is Burundi like?
A: It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. The genocide was absolutely crushing to the people. Out of 8 million people, over 1 million were slaughtered. It was a tribal conflict between Tutsis and Hutus, and typically the attackers would try to kill educators and leaders, pastors, fathers. So, it left the family structure devastated by war, and destroyed a lot of the educational structures and also just the infrastructure, the homes, roads, churches, schools. It was just a disaster.
There was no heavy equipment in the country, and there were thousands and thousands—there still are—of widows just living in the woods under trees and trying to survive. It’s grim, but the Sister Connection has been a bright light in a dark place.
This interview was edited and condensed.