Whether in the courtroom or at the piano, Louis Peterson is known for his virtuoso performances.
Published in 2007 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2007
Updated on August 18, 2016
Here’s what you need to know about Seattle attorney Louis D. Peterson: He’s an extrovert. He relishes appearing before juries to spell out the wants or woes of his clients and convince the sworn-in 12 that he wouldn’t be there, pacing about before them in natty suits and striped ties, if his cause were anything less than just.
The courtroom is Peterson’s arena, every bit as much as the Colosseum was the arena of Rome’s fiercest gladiators. He takes no less satisfaction than they in felling his foes.
Peterson happily quotes what The Seattle Times said about him back in 2005, when he represented the University of Washington against former football coach Rick Neuheisel, who was suing for wrongful termination: “Facing Peterson in a courtroom is probably a lot like standing on a beach in a hurricane while wearing hip waders.”
Peterson can hide his passion for winning about as well as a tiger can conceal its stripes. His choice of a career seems inevitable. “I grew up very competitive with my brother,” he says, “and played a lot of sports; and I think if you’re competitive but not a professional athlete, then the trial arena is a great place to be—a publicly sanctioned opportunity to be as competitive as possible. … And if you like to tell stories, then the courtroom is ideal. Because what trial work is about, in the end, is being able to take a whole lot of facts, leaven [them] with a little bit of law, and out of that try to present a coherent story that is true and that is appealing to [jurors], so that, without even knowing how your story should come out, they fill in the ending exactly as you want them to. Sometimes that’s easy to do, and sometimes it’s the ultimate challenge. But,” he says with a grin, “it’s always fun.”
Maybe a bit too fun on occasion. Fellow Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson attorney Michael R. Scott, who’s known Peterson for 25 years and describes him as a “mentor and close friend,” says if Peterson has a weakness in his field, it is that sometimes “it’s necessary in litigation, as in other combat arenas, to retreat and regroup for another day—this does not come naturally to Lou.”
However, the 57-year-old Peterson doesn’t get to spend all of his work time performing before a rapt audience of jurors and spectators. He often serves a considerably less public role as a mediator or arbitrator, hired by other lawyers to help resolve disputes before they ever reach the courtroom. And, as managing principal of the Seattle law firm Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson—which he joined in 1975—he bears business responsibilities as well. “In theory,” Peterson says, “that’s just part of what I do; but it’s really more like a second job sometimes.” Fortunately, he’s long been interested in business, with a significant part of his practice involving the securities industry and work on behalf of companies in areas such as intellectual property disputes and product liability claims.
“Lou brings the same sound business and people judgment to his role as managing partner as he does on behalf of clients,” Scott says. “He’s naturally gregarious and perceptive in his relations with all the members of our firm—staff and lawyers . . . He inspires trust and confidence through his genuine regard for everyone in the firm.”
If all this makes Peterson sound like some kind of Eagle Scout, well, that’s what he once was. It’s apparently hard to outgrow a tendency to overachieve.
Which might also explain why, on top of his legal practice, Peterson studies languages (he’s fairly proficient in Spanish, German and Greek), is an avid golfer (with a 12 handicap), learned to pilot airplanes (at the urging of his son, who teaches flying), and is a classically trained pianist, though he says these days, for his own amusement, “I am more likely to play Cole Porter than Rachmaninoff.”
Given his diverse interests, nobody is surprised when he jokes, “I’m still not sure what I want to do when I grow up.”
Here’s something else you need to know about Lou Peterson: He’s a third-generation Seattleite, deeply rooted in this soggy place. His paternal grandfather arrived on the banks of Puget Sound from Sweden when he was 16, back in 1896—just before the city boomed with the Klondike Gold Rush—looking for a better opportunity than he figured he had back home. He became a logger and eventually a carpenter, building homes for folks returning from the chilly Canadian north, as well as those whose gold-rush drive petered out after they reached Seattle.
His mother’s family was Greek, and settled in the early 1900s in Bellingham, which Peterson says boasted a small but vibrant Greek community.
Louis David Peterson (named in honor of his two grandfathers, Louis Franks and David Peterson) was born in June 1949 to parents he describes as “an interesting combination of the laconic, Swedish personality—relatively few words, calm, sturdy, thoughtful—and the more mercurial Greek personality—talkative, with far more gesticulations and carrying on.” He grew up in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge area and attended Greenwood Elementary School, going from there to Lincoln High, in Wallingford, as had his father. Hearing Peterson talk about his boyhood—how he played youth sports, participated in the all-city orchestra, joined the Boy Scouts, spent weeks every summer with his extended family at Birch Bay in Whatcom County—you’d think you were watching a rerun of Leave It to Beaver. “[The 1950s] were simpler times, no doubt about it,” he says, “before President Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War.”
Peterson says his father, an architect who did “mostly large commercial projects” in Seattle and across the country, and his mother were supportive of all their children—Peterson, his elder brother, Dick (a lawyer in Port Orchard), and their decade-younger sister, Tina (a teacher in Gig Harbor). For Peterson, “there were a lot of things to support,” he recalls, “because I had so many interests.” At age 7, he developed a “yearning” to play piano, so his parents bought him a used upright and found a classical-music teacher. A year later, Peterson was hit by the “strong urge” to play clarinet, so he received that instrument and still more instruction. It wasn’t long before he added alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and drums to his repertoire. “At one point, I was taking five lessons a week,” he says, chuckling.
His work paid off. Upon graduating from Lincoln in 1967, Peterson was tapped as one of the state’s two Presidential Scholars for that year, which led to an unforgettable trip east to the “other Washington.” He enjoyed a private meeting with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and a tour of the White House, followed by dinner in the executive mansion with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“On the day of the dinner,” Peterson says, “LBJ had nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. An ecstatic Marshall attended our dinner, [and] regaled us with an endless supply of entertaining—and historically significant—stories. The Presidential Scholar award itself was unimportant compared to the value of these experiences.”
One might suppose that encountering Marshall influenced Peterson’s choice of professions. But if so, it was a delayed reaction. From Lincoln, he went to Harvard, where he considered a science career. Then medicine, or perhaps economics. It wasn’t until his senior year that Peterson settled on law. “It was the right combination of things for me: the challenges of analysis, problem-solving, and a lot of interaction with people,” he says. “I’d determined that the life of a scientist in the lab might be a little too insular for me.”
So instead, he got married (he dated his wife, Barbara, in high school), then put in three years at Harvard Law School, working successive summers with the King County Prosecutor’s Office and Seattle-based Perkins Coie, during which time he discovered he had a strong interest in trial practice. Those opportunities led to a clerkship in Seattle with U.S. District Court Judge Morell Sharp, an “extremely warm and empathic person” who taught him one thing above all others: “to be the type of trial lawyer who the judge knows, when you have a strong view about something, you’re right. And that you won’t try to mislead the judge.”
This is another thing you need to know about Peterson: He’s “a gifted trial and appellate lawyer,” according to Scott; but he tries to temper the rhetoric of his advocacy to fit the strengths or weaknesses of any case. He wants to be trusted—and more than that, respected. And he is, even by many of the attorneys who’ve faced him in court.
“I have the highest regard for Lou,” says Parker C. Folse III, a partner with Susman Godfrey’s Seattle office, who opposed Peterson in a breach of contract case, during which the latter represented the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser (Folse’s client ultimately won a judgment against Weyerhaeuser, though that judgment is on appeal). “He is brilliant, zealous in the representation of his clients, extremely energetic, absolutely honorable and trustworthy, and a very skillful trial lawyer and oral advocate.”
Peterson burnished his creds at the beginning of 2005, when he served as lead counsel in defending the UW against a lawsuit brought by ex-head football coach Neuheisel. The plaintiff said the UW had acted improperly by firing him in 2003, saying he had been dishonest when confronted about participating in betting pools on college basketball tournaments. (Neuheisel initially denied the charges, but later copped to wagering.) Attorneys for the coach claimed that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had forced the university’s hand with suggestions of sanctions. However, the lean, gray-headed Peterson—appearing before a packed courtroom—argued that Neuheisel was dismissed for lying about his betting, and for lying to the press when he denied that he’d interviewed for a job with the San Francisco 49ers. “Neuheisel lies,” became a Peterson refrain throughout the proceedings, much quoted in media coverage.
“The core issue in that case was about as basic as can be: honesty,” Peterson says. “From the University of Washington’s point of view, it was all about standing up for the values that it needed to stand up for. When the most visible representative of the largest university in the state doesn’t model appropriate behavior, it’s significant.”
Neuheisel sued for the money he would’ve received had he finished out his contract—roughly $6.5 million or more. After a huge blunder by the NCAA, which admitted in court that it had changed a bylaw relevant to the case and failed to provide Neuheisel with an updated version, the parties agreed to settle. After six weeks of back-and-forth, an agreement was reached in which the NCAA paid Neuheisel $2.5 million, while the UW agreed to forgive a $1.5 million loan made to the coach and pay another $500,000, which would be applied to taxes owed by the university for Neuheisel’s employment. For a guy like Peterson, whose father attended the UW and who is a strong supporter of the university’s sports programs, “it was a real treat to learn so much more about college sports and be able to represent the university in such an important case.”
Not all of Peterson’s jobs are so high-profile. He tells about working for a man whose brother-in-law “had promised him that, if he would work for him for 20 years, he’d give my client 49 percent of his [auto dealership] business. Seventeen years later, the brother-in-law fired him and insisted that he wasn’t entitled to anything.” Peterson sought an out-of-court resolution, but the contention went to trial. It ended with Peterson proving that his client had a legitimate contract with his brother-in-law, and that the latter had breached that agreement. “My client was awarded 49 percent of the value of their business,” says the attorney, “and he used that money to open his own business, which also proved to be successful. It’s very, very satisfying to help somebody who was in that desperate condition win a hard-fought trial.”
Similar satisfactions can be found in arbitrating or mediating before a case ever reaches the courtroom, Peterson has learned.
“It’s funny,” he muses, gazing out his downtown office window, five stories above Second Avenue, “back when I started practicing law in the ’70s, settlements happened the old-fashioned way: Lawyers talked to one another. Those of us who tried cases knew one another. We’d pick up the phone and talk, or maybe get together over a cup of coffee, and resolve things. But as things got less personal in an urban environment—not just here, but everywhere—it became convenient to call upon others as intermediaries to help settle disputes. The good part of that is that as a mediator, I can assist parties in crafting solutions that simply would not happen in court.”
Arbitration, by contrast, gives Peterson decision-making authority. He’s hired as a sort of private judge, to hear both sides of an argument and then rule. “There’s been a trend in this country for the last couple of decades toward an increasing number of private arbitrations,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons, but the chief one is that it’s a little quicker, a little more efficient, and a little less expensive” than a traditional trial. “Also, confidentiality is a factor. People can engage in arbitration and have confidential resolution of a dispute, as opposed to the courtroom, where there are lots of eyes on what’s happening.”
It’s a wonder Peterson ever finds the time, or energy, to serve on boards of directors—as he has in the past with Lakeside School, the Woodland Park Zoo, and the Seattle International Music Festival—much less participate in law-related outside activities, such as judicial screening and recommendations committees. And then, of course, there’s that golf game he’s always trying to improve. He also tries to maintain strong ties with his two mid-20s children, Sarah and Tyler (both working for Google in Northern California). And he’s planning a six-month sabbatical with his wife, a former UW professor in textiles and apparel design, which will send them tripping across Europe, Africa and South America.
Peterson is energized by the daunting pace of his life. He enjoys testing himself, his limits. That’s one of the reasons why he got into law in the first place. “It’s hard to imagine other career paths,” he says, “where I would consistently be challenged by something new, have to learn a new industry or a new subject matter. I think that’s the most interesting thing about life, is to be learning something new.”