Trial by Fire

Starting out as a prosecutor: a brutal workload. And the best job ever

Published in 2020 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on July 16, 2020


In her first five years as a lawyer, Adrienne McEntee tried about 50 cases—from DUIs to murders—some of which she received after walking into the courtroom. “You learn how to juggle a lot of cases and how to digest an enormous amount of information in a short period of time,” says McEntee, a 2003 University of Washington School of Law graduate, “and then have to turn around, pick a jury, deliver an opening statement—oftentimes, without notes.” 

Her job at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in Seattle dealt with intense subject matter and almost-daily court appearances. When she moved on to private practice, focusing on plaintiff’s class actions and estate litigation, she felt the culture shock. “I went from running around the courthouse all day long to sitting at a desk, doing research and writing,” says the Seattle-based member of Terrell Marshall.

McEntee is one of six Seattle attorneys who spoke to us about switching from the prosecutor’s office to private practice. They discussed the transition from putting away sexual-assault perpetrators to working on personal injury, employment, family law and insurance cases.

Why Go Public?

Charles E. Newton, Skellenger Bender in Seattle; Family Law; King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (2005-’08): I was actually a professional ballet dancer—a soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet—for 10 years. I became involved with the artist’s union, and that was the inspiration for me to go to law school. I thought I would want to be a labor attorney, or be involved in employment law, but I started doing moot court, mock trial, appellate arguments, and I realized, “Hey, this is putting on a show!” It appealed to the performer in me, and at that point I decided, “OK, I want to be a litigator, I want to be in court; what’s the best way to get into court as quickly as possible?” I started talking to professors and advisers, and they said, “You need to try and get a job at the King County Prosecutor’s Office.”

Adrienne McEntee, Terrell Marshall Law Group in Seattle; Class Action: Plaintiff; King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (2002-’09): One of my close childhood friends was abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered right after we went off to college. It was devastating. The terrible crime that everyone fears: a random abduction, assault and murder, just a normal kid doing normal things. It really shook the foundation of everything that I’d known, because Lincoln, Nebraska, was a pretty great, safe place to grow up. So I gravitated toward the type of work where I could try to vindicate the rights of victims, or victims’ families.

Thomas J. Breen, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender in Seattle; Personal Injury – Products: Plaintiff, Sexual Assault: Plaintiff; King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (2003-’08): I had a powerful experience when I was in law school, working for a well-regarded, famous trial lawyer named Dick DeGuerin. I was an intern on one of those huge, Court TV-type trials that lasted for months, in Texas, where I went to law school—The State of Texas v. Celeste Beard Johnson. Ms. Beard Johnson was accused of encouraging her lover to murder her rich husband. It ended in her conviction, but it was a long, hard-fought trial. It confirmed for me that a type of practice that eventually can end in the courtroom was the one I wanted to be involved with. I’ve always been comfortable with public speaking and I was comfortable in trial.

Sheryl Willert, Williams Kastner in Seattle; Employment & Labor: Employer; King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (1978-’82): When I first moved to Seattle, I was looking to do something in the trial arena, and one of the things I learned was there were two places you could work that would instantaneously give you trial experience: the public defender’s office and the prosecutor’s office. I preferred to make the move on the prosecution side. After I passed the Bar, I started working on misdemeanors in district court, and after a few months I was, as they say, “brought downtown”—that’s the main office of the prosecutor’s office, where I did not only sexual-assault and rape cases, but also a few murder cases.

Newton: I had started dancing when I was 8 to improve my soccer game, to help my coordination, flexibility, all that stuff. It became my passion. In the ballet, everything you do is in service of the performance—every rehearsal, every class you take, the reason is to get on stage. In a way, being a prosecutor, being a litigator, is the same thing. All of your trial preparation, getting your witnesses ready, writing your briefs, it’s in service of that court appearance. It’s like working toward that same end goal. There are a lot of parallels. 

How Many Cases Did You Try?

Newton: Oh, God, I have no idea! Between 75 and 100. We were in trial a lot.

Carl Forsberg, Forsberg & Umlauf in Seattle; Insurance Coverage, Civil Litigation: Defense; Assistant District Attorney for the state of Alaska in Anchorage (1984-’87): Between both judge and jury trials? Sixty-five-plus. I was able to try cases in courtrooms in Anchorage, in conference rooms in Dutch Harbor, in school auditoriums while school was not in session in Point Barrow, Alaska.

Willert: I’m not going to count the misdemeanors—there are too many of them. But I probably tried 20 cases to verdict in the first year or so.

Breen: I tried upwards of 40 to 50 trials. When you start off as a prosecutor, your trials are shorter. You’re not doing cases that take a month to try, but you’re in trial a lot. And they’re backed up one after the other after the other, and it was hectic. I had small children. It’s exhilarating, but it’s also really challenging, because you’re in court all day and working on your trial the rest of the waking hours.

Stephen P. VanDerhoef, Cairncross & Hempelmann, Seattle; Business Litigation; King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (1990-’94): As a second-year law student, I tried 15 bench trials and four jury trials. It was trial by fire. The saying in the office was, “See one, do one, teach one.” We had a three-ring binder full of virtually everything you needed to know in district court. It was just a firehose of learning at every level, from the law to the psychology of a jury to figuring out how to administer hundreds of cases at once. [As a prosecutor] I tried, in total, over 100 jury trials and over 50 bench trials.

What Were Your Most Memorable Moments?

Breen: I once had a juror on the edge of her seat in opening statement blurt out a question: “Was the door open?” The judge kind of laughed and said, “Uh, he’s not allowed to talk to you directly during opening.” And the judge asked me to proceed, so I decided to just answer the question: “The door was closed.” She grinned and nodded that she got the information she wanted, and the jury chuckled.

Willert: I second-chaired a murder case involving a judge killed by gang members, back in 1978-’79. I discovered the friends of the accused were in my grocery store on the weekend, following me, so that was kind of scary. For a period of time, I did have some [police] protection before they stopped. It was not fun, believe me. It was difficult to understand why this superior court judge was found in the trunk of a car. We tried the case thinking perhaps the judge in question had been actually soliciting these young men, but you never really know if that’s the truth. But they were convicted. 

Newton: While I was in the felony domestic-violence unit, there was one case that was a really terrible, multi-count assault in the first degree, where the husband had really severely beaten his wife with a pipe—to the point where her face almost looked not even human. There was unlawful imprisonment involved; he had kept her in the house and wouldn’t let her out. They went to the grocery store and she was able to get away from him and get someone to help her. That was a really intense case that ended up in a guilty plea. 

Breen: I did a number of domestic violence cases. I had a particularly challenging defendant on the stand and I remember cross-examining him and “empathizing” with his predicament and how hard life is—and how he brings home the bacon and he takes care of his family and doesn’t get any respect or recognition and sometimes needs to lay down the law. And midway through the examination, he actually thought I was on board with everything he did and then started admitting: “Yeah, you’re damn right I did what I did! You’re damn right I called her the b-word and laid down the law!” I just walked away, saying, “Wow, I can’t believe that went that way.”

Forsberg: I got to try a fish-and-game case. The investigators went undercover to do a sting operation on a guide they thought was breaking guiding laws in Alaska. They had an undercover agent from Montana go to an exposition and had this guy set up a guided trip with him. He was with him 36 to 48 hours, and the guide had between 16 and 22 separate guiding violations—shooting animals out of season, various fishing violations. As a result of the prosecution, the state of Alaska confiscated three airplanes and revoked his guide’s license. At that time, guides in Alaska could make $250,000-$300,000 a year. That was a big deal; it hit the papers. He was well-defended by several attorneys. We won. 

VanDerhoef: I always considered it about 75% really tragic and awful, and about 25% pretty amusing and funny: One of my colleagues had a pro se defendant who clearly had mental-health issues—so that was not funny—but he chose to defend himself, and at one point in the middle of an argument in front of the jury, he dropped his pants. [Then] there was a guy involved in a car chase down in the Kent Valley, and he crashed his car and ran up the bank and [the police] and the canine found him. He had stripped down and tried to tie himself to a utility pipe beside a building, and claimed that he’d been abducted. Of course, the beauty of a canine is that dog’s going to have the ability to find out who’s in the car. The scent had completely died with this guy, and there was no possible way that happened. But he chose to go to trial and I got to examine him and talk through all the reasons why what he said wasn’t true. The other thing that was cool was that I got to bring the dog into the courtroom and explain the science of canine tracking.

How Did You Cope?

Newton: Sometimes there are cases that get under your skin and it’s a little hard. There’s no doubt about it. You try to maintain that professional distance and be at home mentally when you’re with your family, but sometimes you can’t. To be honest with you, there are many nights when you lie awake at night thinking about it.

Willert: It can be a very difficult thing. Sometimes you do not know what the cases are doing to you subconsciously. At some points in my career, when I was dealing with sexual-assault victims, I became very angry at a lot of guys, and I didn’t know why until I finally stepped back and realized it was what I was doing in terms of my profession. You just got angry at people. It was only after I realized what the genesis of the anger was that I was able to work through it, and it went away.

Breen: I did very few cases with children as victims—that’s orders of magnitude more difficult. I had young children at the time. I ended up leaving for the private sector before I was assigned to the unit that prosecutes child-victim cases. 

Why Switch to Private Practice?

Newton: I got divorced and, especially back then, being a prosecutor, being in public service, is not the most lucrative career. So, frankly there were some financial pressures. And around the same time, two of my best friends from law school were at a firm and they were hiring for a commercial litigation associate. We were grabbing a beer at one of the standard prosecutor happy-hour joints, and they basically told me about this position and twisted my arm.

Willert: I didn’t want to get to a point where I was at the prosecutor’s office for such a long period of time that I had priced myself out of the market to get into a private practice. If you had been there long enough [to] become a senior prosecutor or had some kind of title, your compensation might be such that you wouldn’t be able to make a transferable move to the private sector.

VanDerhoef: I knew that there was more to learn, and I wanted to expand my experience beyond just the criminal law. And I could actually pay off my student loans.

Your Most Memorable Private Practice Moments

Willert: The gentleman that we were defending in one of the cases I worked on in Eastern Washington was Dr. Castillo. He had been accused of not properly delivering a child, who ended up with cerebral palsy as a result of the birth trauma. This wonderful man who was so traumatized by this allegation that he was going to give up practicing medicine was vindicated by the jury. 

Breen: I represented someone rendered quadriplegic from a snowboard accident, and we sued the snowboard manufacturer for a defective binding. I’m unaware of any other cases at the time finding a flaw in a snowboard binding, so it was novel and cutting-edge. That case settled before trial. 

VanDerhoef: I’ve had some really complicated real-estate finance and securities cases that require an understanding of reams and reams and reams of contracts. Oftentimes they’re projects with 25 to 50 investors, so you’re dealing with lots of different personalities and engaged in complicated business transactions. Determining what happened and how it should be resolved and helping clients through that process is gratifying work.

Forsberg: The Boeing environmental litigation in the early ’90s was an insurance coverage case—upwards of 18 to 20 counsel on the defense side and seven or eight attorneys on the Boeing side. What was being contested was whether or not the insurers were going to pay for the environmental cleanup at those sites or if Boeing was responsible. There were accusations that they had sent [hazardous material] to the sites while knowing that their practices were contaminating the countryside. We undertook probably 110 depositions, traveled all over the country to several Boeing facilities to take testimony. It was cutting-edge at the time for environmental-coverage law. 

Should Young Lawyers Become Prosecutors?

Breen: Absolutely. When young lawyers come to me who want to be trial lawyers, that’s one of my top recommendations. Prosecutors are fearless. You have to dive in, work up a case and proceed to trial, and you don’t always know what the other side is going to do. You’re not allowed to, for example, examine the defendant in advance of trial. The confidence that you can be nimble on your feet if things change in a case helps a great deal in the kind of work I do.

VanDerhoef: I highly recommend it. It’s the whole 10,000-hours-to-become-an-expert approach. You just get better with experience. There’s 20 working days a month, and sometimes you’re in trial 19 or 20 days of a month.

McEntee: Once you’ve spent that much time before judges and juries, it leaves you with this lasting level of comfort—whether you’re representing individuals who have a lot at stake or pursuing high-impact litigation against well-financed companies. That comfort level speaks volumes. Clients feel like they’re in good hands.

Willert: One of the things I credit my prosecutor experience for is the ability to go into a courtroom—I won’t say without fear, because I believe that a little bit of fear is very important in trying a case—but I handled probably 1,000 misdemeanor cases in my career as a prosecutor, and that gives you the ability to think on your feet. It gives you the ability to analyze quickly.

Forsberg: Being a prosecutor is the best job I’ve ever had. If I won the lottery today, I’d go back and be a prosecutor again. It’s good work, great people, you’re in court all the time. There’s really no comparison to it that I’ve been able to find. 

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