All You Need is Love

But if it doesn’t work out, Thomas Hamerlinck is there to help

Published in 2008 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2008

Thomas Hamerlinck is a difficult man to locate in cyberspace. 

Google him and you’ll find relatively little information. Graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, 1981. Member, Washington State Bar Association. Named to Washington Super Lawyers list several years running. That’s really about it.

Don’t expect to find a Web site for his practice, or to track down his e-mail address. And there’s almost no mention of him in the press, save a couple of quotes in a Forbes article—eight years ago.

It all seems a bit odd when you consider the caliber of clients Hamerlinck has been associated with during the past 25-plus years. Think rock stars and athletes. Folks whose net worth can run into nine figures. And Hamerlinck, of Thomas G. Hamerlinck law firm, hasn’t represented these luminaries in dry contract negotiations or property disputes with their well-heeled neighbors. He’s been at their sides as they dipped into one of modern life’s more unpleasant potholes: divorce. 

Which is why it is a little surprising to be greeted at his office on the 23rd floor of the Skyline Tower building in Bellevue by the man himself. All 6-foot-4 of him, bounding down the steps to the lobby with a relaxed, casual smile on his face. 

Finally, the man of mystery.

“I realize I’m a Luddite when it comes to that,” Hamerlinck says with a laugh when asked about his low profile in the cyber-fishbowl. 

“I don’t have a Web site because it’s advertising,” he explains. “And I’m fortunate enough to have plenty of business from my existing referral sources. I’ve been concerned that [a Web site might] generate additional referrals for cases that I’m not going to take but will involve time to decline.”

Time is a precious commodity to Hamerlinck. At 51, he’s at the height of his career. He is one of a handful of leading lawyers in the high-stakes world of complex divorce cases. A solo practitioner, he handles just 10 to 12 cases per year—but they keep him working 60 to 70 hours a week.

Hamerlinck is choosy. These days, he rarely takes on cases involving minor children, often the messiest aspect of a divorce. He prefers to stick to cases that allow him to spend time stretching his considerable brain around the bends of complex property divisions. After all, he literally wrote the book on that topic: Hamerlinck is the author of the property valuation and division chapters in the state Bar association’s Washington Family Law Deskbook. 

As it turns out, Seattle is fertile ground for cases involving tricky—and high-dollar—divisions. It is, of course, an area where you’ll find considerable wealth, with companies such as Boeing and Microsoft in the mix. Not to mention venture capitalists putting money down on deals that can double or bust, and younger tech companies with new approaches to rewarding employees—all of which can add unparalleled complexities to identifying and evaluating assets. 

Nothing is boilerplate. The second time we speak with Hamerlinck, it’s the afternoon following a 14-hour mediation—not an uncommon event. “If the case has a bit of complexity to it,” he says, “it usually takes several hours just to work through the factual disputes and valuation disputes before even getting down to offers and counteroffers.”

According to a frequent opponent, Seattle-based attorney Mabry De Buys, Hamerlinck shines when handling what are generally the most specialized cases in his niche: complex financial issues involving professional musicians and athletes. Hamerlinck is tight-lipped about their names.

“[Rock stars’] contracts with record companies are very different in terms of the way they get paid,” says De Buys. For example, there are variations on how money is split among band members, songwriters and managers. And unusual issues can come up: for instance, the question of a planned greatest-hits album. How much of the revenue generated will be attributable to those songs and how much to the musician’s labor after the split? It’s all key to figuring out who gets what size slice of the pie. The same holds true for athletes. It can be difficult to determine the actual value of a contract. For example, both injury provisions and “bad behavior” provisions can affect an athlete’s future play and endorsements. Hamerlinck does his homework. “If he argues a position, he knows what he’s talking about,” De Buys says. “You may or may not agree with him, but … he’s not throwing ideas out and making arguments that make no sense because he doesn’t understand what’s going on.”

And he never even saw Perry Mason

Despite his obvious drive and quiet success, Hamerlinck wouldn’t have predicted when he was young that he’d end up as a divorce lawyer.

The second of six children, he spent most of his formative years in Wadena, Minn.—population 4,300. He didn’t have much opportunity to meet lawyers.

“There were only two in Wadena,” Hamerlinck says. “And even though you know everyone in a small town, in the sense that you know who they are when you see them, my family didn’t socialize with the families of the two lawyers.”

The outside world didn’t provide much help in filling the gap. “We only had one TV station in Wadena at the time, so I really had never seen Perry Mason, either,” he says. 

As a high school kid, Hamerlinck had that innate trait good litigators count on: a talent for talk. He was involved in speech competitions as well as theater—something he would also try his hand at during his years at Harvard. Today, Seattle-based family law attorney Janet George, who has been the opposing attorney to Hamerlinck many times, describes his speaking style as pleasantly theatrical. “I tell my clients he’s a thespian, an actor,” she says. “He has a wonderful wit and a bit of drama; is very smart, fair and reasonable.”

Following high school graduation, Hamerlinck went on to the University of North Dakota, which offered Minnesotans in-state tuition. Having worked as a DJ at a radio station in Wadena from the time he was 14, he also managed to get a job at a Grand Forks station.

“My dad was a school teacher-turned-school administrator and had six kids, and mom didn’t work,” Hamerlinck says of his family’s financial situation. “This was before TiVo and iPods, so we didn’t feel deprived.”  

After college, Hamerlinck set his sights on law school. “I didn’t know the state in which Harvard was located when I started to investigate law schools,” he admits. When he sought recommendations from his university professors, he got a less-than-encouraging response. “The political science department, they uniformly told me, ‘You’re not getting into Harvard,’” he says.

But he did get in. “I was probably the only North Dakotan disc jockey who applied that year,” he quips. 

University of North Dakota had been relatively cheap. Harvard, of course, wasn’t. Grants and loans eased the burden. And, by the third year, Hamerlinck says, “I was working three part-time jobs.”

Hamerlinck’s migration to Seattle wasn’t part of the plan when he started looking for law jobs. Initially, he thought he’d end up in the other Washington. But a half summer spent in D.C., clerking for a firm that handled Federal Communications Commission work, had left him cold. He liked the work, but not the city. Yet another of Hamerlinck’s DJ gigs—this one after college—had been in Great Falls, Mont., the first place he’d seen mountains. He got out the map to look for other cities with mountain views. Seattle seemed a good candidate. So Hamerlinck interviewed with Riddell Williams.

“At the time, they represented KING television, some radio stations and a cable television company,” Hamerlinck says. “And so I thought, ‘Well, gee, I can go there and do communications law—but in Seattle, where there are mountains!’”

Hamerlinck signed on. “And I never even billed one second to any of their communications clients,” he says.

Instead, he found himself following in the footsteps of the late Dick Riddell.

At the time, Hamerlinck says, Riddell was Washington’s pre-eminent divorce lawyer. “When I joined the firm, they had just two dozen people,” he says. “All the associates who came on board would do at least one or two cases with Mr. Riddell. But family law is difficult for young attorneys, because the answers to a lot of questions aren’t written in books. If a client calls you and says, ‘He didn’t bring the kids back on time this weekend. You’ve got to do something about it,’ there’s no resource book you can read that says, ‘Well, here’s what you should do.’”

Hamerlinck’s knack for knowing what to do was apparent. He was given a lot of autonomy early on in the divorce cases he handled. The next thing he knew, he’d entered his field of specialty. 

“If you’d asked me 30 years ago, ‘Tom, are you going to be a divorce lawyer when you’re 51?’ I would have laughed,” he admits.

He has no regrets. 

“Being a divorce lawyer means you have one client,” he says. “And for most of your clients, the divorce case is the single most important legal matter your client will ever have. … It’s satisfying in many cases to be able to help people. Sometimes, when people come in the first time, they’re crying, they’re confused. They need someone who is strong and knowledgeable.” Hamerlinck can claim a certain insider’s perspective. He’s been happily wed to his paralegal wife, Gail—whom he met on a blind date—for the past 11 years. But it’s not his first marriage. “Sometimes, if clients are feeling blue about their predicament, I tell them I used to get divorced every five years so that I could maintain appropriate client empathy,” he says with a chuckle.

In spite of his affinity for his job, he admits it’s not without its trying moments. 

“Every piece of pie your spouse gets, you don’t get, and vice versa,” he says. “Most attorneys against whom I regularly have cases are ethical and honest; they do a good job for their clients, but they don’t play fast and loose with the rules. But, because divorce is a zero-sum game, there’s a temptation that some divorce lawyers have in the name of zealously representing their clients. ‘Sharp practice’ is what we used to call it at Riddell Williams. You could call someone and discuss an issue with them, but instead you send them a big demand letter at 4:55 on a Friday afternoon. It’s not unethical. It’s not illegal. But it’s infuriating.”

According to his opponents, Hamerlinck—though always a tough adversary—isn’t one to play “sharp.”

“When I see him on the other side of a case, what I know is: I’m glad,” says De Buys. “It’s not going to be easy. But he is a straight-up guy. The case is going to be run efficiently and smartly. There is not going to be any game-playing. … You’re not going to be peeling your client off the ceiling because someone said something personally insulting.”

Janet George agrees. “There are attorneys that will get personal. He never does that. When I see him as opposing counsel, I’m pleased. I tell my client, ‘I like Tom. You’re not going to like him, because he represents your spouse. But he’s fair and reasonable and not going to get really personal. We will probably reach a settlement.’”

Changing times

In his nearly three decades of practicing law, Hamerlinck has witnessed his share of changes. 

For one, he had a front-row seat to the emergence of a new breed of millionaire, a product of the tech-boom days of the ’90s. 

“We were seeing people in their 20s with eight-figure net worths,” he remembers. “You’d represent a Microsoft millionaire whose wardrobe consisted of T-shirts that had been given out at the annual company picnic, and another who was driving a Ferrari that still had the dealer’s sticker in the window. It was a very interesting time.”

Of course, fortune can be fickle. “People’s net worths increased phenomenally just during the pendency of the divorce,” he says. But the opposite happened, too. When the tech bubble burst, Hamerlinck recalls one case in which the value of the marital assets dropped a breathtaking 90 percent. Decreases of 20 or 30 percent were common.

Hamerlinck has also seen changes in the legal profession—not all for the better. He laments the loss of a certain collegiality. 

“It used to be that you would send someone a letter, and then they would call you and you’d talk about it,” he says. “But they couldn’t leave you voicemail messages at 2 in the morning, and they couldn’t send you e-mails at 3 in the morning.”

E-mail, in particular, seems to be Hamerlinck’s friendly foe. “Last night I went home at 7 o’clock. This morning, I came in at 7 a.m. I’ve been gone for 12 hours—and I have a very good spam filter—but I’ve got 14 e-mails. In the old days, nothing happened between 7 at night and 7 in the morning!” he says with a hard laugh. 

(When he is asked for his e-mail address, he pauses for a moment, then says with mock exasperation, “I don’t even have it on my business card, for God’s sake!”)

In spite of the demands of his job, Hamerlinck knows how to keep his perspective: mainly by unplugging and getting away from it all. Far away.

Seattle-based environmental attorney Rod Brown is a longtime friend of Hamerlinck’s. The two have, for the past several years, packed up annually for two to three weeks and headed into the hinterlands: places such as the jungles of Borneo, the mountains of northern Laos and Vietnam, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. According to Brown, for the most part their trips have been pretty hard-core, the types of vacations more likely to involve mud, mosquitoes and leeches than turndown service and a mini-bar

“He prepares,” Brown says. “I think all of us who travel say, ‘Oh, it would be good to learn the language before I go.’ I would find myself the day before pulling out the phrase book and trying to learn a few words. Tom, in the meantime, has been learning the language for the past three months.”

Competitive spirit

When asked what he might have done had he never entered the practice of law, Hamerlinck’s answer is only partly surprising. Those who know him mention his quick wit.

“When I was in my 20s, I thought very seriously about quitting and doing stand-up,” Hamerlinck says. He tested his chops at a couple of open-mike nights. But, realizing how competitive comedy could be, he decided against it. The irony of his ultimate choice isn’t lost on him. “Like being a divorce lawyer isn’t [competitive],” he says.

As for what’s next, Hamerlinck assumes a more serious tone.

“I don’t see myself doing this when I’m 60 or 65,” he admits. “I guess I need to figure out what else to do. It’s easily said, but harder to do when you’re spending 60 to 70 hours a week doing something already.”

Then, after a moment’s reflection: “It’s a nice problem to have, though.” 

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