The Last Laugh

William Barton may have been the class clown in law school, but today he's one of Oregon's finest trial lawyers (no joke)

Published in 2007 Oregon Super Lawyers — November 2007

In this corner, wearing the white trunks, is Muhammad Ali. The autographed photo of The Champ belongs to William Barton, who is something of a champ himself, with more than 500 courtroom bouts under his belt.

The scene depicts Ali, a look of fury in his eyes, poised victoriously over a supine Sonny Liston. The photo hangs in a far corner of Barton's oak-paneled office. He says he goes to this corner at the beginning of every case, just to tune into that fury, that sense of righteous indignation he reads on Ali's face. It gives him the fighting spirit to take whatever risks are necessary to win unprecedented financial settlements for his clients.

This is the first Station of the Case, as it were. Next, Barton moves to the sculpture resting on the fireplace mantel. It's "End of the Trail," James Earle Fraser's 1915 bronze sculpture of an Indian warrior slumped on his horse but still clutching his spear. This icon reminds Barton of the dignity in every human being. It helps him resist old tendencies to rip the guts out of opposing witnesses.

Finally, Barton gazes upon the backlit stained-glass window he bought in England and shipped home to his Newport office. It shows St. Paul on the road to Damascus at the very moment when he literally "saw the light." This scene, says Barton, gives him pause to ponder the greater good that is his ultimate goal in lawyering.

"I need to think about why I'm doing what I'm doing," he says, "because there should be some larger societal purpose."

Barton, legendary plaintiffs lawyer and senior partner at Barton & Strever, calls himself a societal engineer. Sure, he's in the business of winning multimillion-dollar settlements for clients who have been grievously wronged, but that Big Picture allows Barton a prescient view of the beneficial ways in which money talks. Insurance companies and hospitals clean up their acts. Institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts start doing their part to protect the helpless.

Barton helps them see the light.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the man in action. So full of energy he's likened to a Tasmanian devil, Barton, 59, barely seems able to sit still long enough to ponder St. Paul, let alone sit through weeks of trial.

Yet he's the one whose 2004 case seeking $125 million in punitive damages for a former assistant altar boy who alleged he was sexually abused by a priest helped bring the Archdiocese of Portland to bankruptcy. The church filed for bankruptcy the morning Barton was slated to go to court. He's also the one who successfully argued in U.S. District Court in Portland to allow litigation to proceed against the Vatican in a priest-abuse case, although the Vatican had previously been protected with sovereign immunity. He's the one who won a settlement (later reduced, though Barton is appealing) of nearly $21 million for the family of a drunk-driving victim from Farmers Insurance.

Until his body recently began to protest the wear and tear, the 6-foot-2-inch Barton played on a tournament basketball team, still excelling at the sport he played in high school and college. And his aching back has made him cut back on the pleasure of riding up and down coastal roads on his motorcycle, a custom-built chopper. These days, excess energy is directed toward the law.

From cut-up to patron saint

Looking back, his classmates from Willamette University College of Law can barely believe that Bill Barton ("that Bill Barton?") turned out to be one of the state's top trial lawyers. But he's the one who rose in 1983 to the position of president of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and in 2005 was named Distinguished Trial Lawyer by the same organization, and has taught trial advocacy in 35 states and four countries. And in May of this year, Willamette Law's class of '07 named him its "patron saint."

But in the early '70s, Barton was memorable for the way he'd goof off, skip class and party. "Many people in law school did not appreciate how bright he is and perceptive and talented because he's such a jerk," quips Jeffrey Batchelor, also on the Oregon Super Lawyers listing. Batchelor, an appellate lawyer at Markowitz, Herbold, Glade & Mehlhaf, has remained Barton's close friend since they sat next to each other in classes with alphabetical seating. Back then, he helped Barton out by lending him notes from the classes he skipped; these days he handles Barton's appeals.

He remembers his classmate as "a cut-up," and recalls that the now wealthy Barton was barely able to cough up enough rent money. According to another classmate, Marion County Circuit Judge Don Dickey, Barton once camped out in the law library for over a month until he could scrape together enough for his own digs.

"Bill and I both worked in the library, and Bill closed it up at night," he recalls. "Then he would crawl behind a sofa in a sitting room. He had a toothbrush and a blanket, and that was it." Dickey says Barton didn't dare sleep on the couch, just in case early morning library patrons might find him still conked out.

"If we'd have taken a vote as to who would be the whiz bang [of the class of '72], it wouldn't be Bill," says Dickey. "He is so special in ways that turned out to be appropriate for trial lawyers that his weirdness has become his strength. I mean that in a gentle way."

Family ties

Barton says he got risk-taking from his father and creativity from his mother. His dad was a bush pilot in Alaska until the family moved in Barton's early teens to the tiny coastal logging town of Alsea, Ore. His mother was a self-taught artist who took many a state fair blue ribbon for pastels and chalk drawings. His younger brothers were often on the other side of the law, and Barton tells how his father would talk about holding family reunions at the state pen. He's not joking: Some of his relatives did time on marijuana charges.

In school, a teacher told him his feisty spirit would probably lead him to become a lawyer. He didn't even know what that was. He graduated from Alsea High School as No. 9 in a class of 11. "In my résumé I say ‘Top 10 of my graduating class,'" he says with a grin.

But he got through Pacific University in three years, then thrived at law school. And his first jobs were hardly harbingers of success.

"My father was my first client," Barton recalls. "He had 30 Chinese pheasants in the trunk of his car sitting out at the Medford airport [and was] intoxicated, firing away with his shotgun." As for his first boss, a lawyer who had asked Barton to do little more than mix his drinks, he was shot dead in a murder-suicide.

With dignity

Some would divide Barton's 35-year career between the first 10 years, spent mainly in criminal defense, and the years after, when he launched his career as a plaintiffs attorney with a sex-abuse case against the Boy Scouts. A jury awarded more than $3 million (later reduced by $2 million) to a former Scout who accused his troop leader of abuse. From that point on, it was referral after referral.

But Barton would place the dividing line at Before Therapy and After Therapy. "I've been shrunk twice," he says candidly. He readily shares the lessons in humanity gleaned from his shrink.

The lessons turned him from a junkyard dog in the courtroom to a disarming gentleman who kills with kindness. Even if he loses, he does the gracious thing and sends his opponent—what else?—a $150 can of Dungeness crab legs from Newport. Thomas Tongue, of Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue, has received two cans over the years. Tongue is also on the Oregon Super Lawyers list, as is James Westwood of Stoel Rives, who got a can of crab after whittling down Barton's $21 million settlement in the Farmers Insurance case.

"He earned it," says Barton. "He kicked my ass good."

(That, of course, didn't stop Barton from appealing the "whittling-down" of the settlement. A ruling is expected soon.)

The pivotal moment of his transition, as Barton recalls, occurred in a therapy session, during which he recounted with some glee the brutal victory he had just won in court after practically eviscerating a witness on the stand. The therapist's response: "At the guillotine, who loses more—the executioner or the executed?"

Barton's ultimate answer resulted in his office ritual in which he ponders righteous indignation, human dignity and doing the right thing. It's also why he doesn't visibly react to courtroom insults.

The Everyman

Mark Bocci, a personal injury lawyer in Lake Oswego who is on the Oregon Super Lawyers listing, is a member of one of Barton's many self-formed clubs—in this case, the No Name Club, composed of a few close friends in the profession. He says, "If someone on the other side gets really irate with him because he won't come off his numbers or he won't negotiate or he won't do what the other side wants him to do, they'll express their frustration and anger with him and Bill will say, ‘Oh, I love you. Gosh, I'm sorry you feel that way. I just love you.'"
Jeffrey Batchelor likens Barton to a mountain stream.

"I think of him as water going down a hill," he says. "So many lawyers, when they run into a witness that doesn't want to answer a question or fights with the lawyer, the lawyer will fight back. But Bill is like water hitting a rock. Rather than arguing with the witness, he just goes around it. If he's got a witness that wants to argue, Bill will say, ‘Well, let me see if I can just state that differently,' or ‘OK, I'll accept your amendment to my question.'"

Juries resonate with Barton's humble approach. A slick lawyer in a designer suit he ain't. Judge Lyle Velure, recently retired from Oregon Circuit Court, says simply, "Young lawyers act like lawyers; experienced lawyers act like human beings. He [Barton] doesn't talk down to a jury; he talks to a jury."

Membership brings privileges

Every workday, Barton leaves his wife, JoAnn, and goes off to be with "the family," his staff and law partner. Kevin Strever, also on the Oregon Super Lawyers list, was the state Bar's youngest president. Barton wants to inspire a new generation of trial lawyers to love this gig as much as he does. To that end he created the club for SOBs and DOBs. These so-called Sons and Daughters of Bill, just beginning their careers, know they can call on Barton 24/7 for advice.

The chief justice of Oregon's Supreme Court, Paul de Muniz, says the fire Barton has lit under young lawyers "may prove to be his most profound contribution to Oregon's legal profession."
Scott Kocher, with Vangelisti Kocher, is part of the Barton-appointed legion carrying the banner for righteous advocacy and social justice. And he knows he's an SOB for good

"You don't stop knowing Bill," he says with gratitude. "You're stuck with him."

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