Extreme Lawyers

The thrills and chills of the courtroom are not enough for these adventurous spirits

Published in 2008 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2008

You’d think standing in front of a judge, and maybe a jury, in one high-stakes case after another would be scary enough. Not so for four local attorneys who also seek high adventure after hours.

These lawyers “unwind” by doing things like jumping off a suspension bridge, dangling on a rope tethered to a 3,000-foot cliff, racing a bike on a nearly vertical incline and practicing “touch-and-go” landings in a small plane.

Bob Dawson’s ‘reasonably safe’ thrills

“I like to try sports that have a real thrill to them, and are reasonably safe,” says Bob Dawson, 54, with DawsonBrown. He admits his idea of “safe” might not suit everyone. He notes, “My wife and I have a deal. I’m allowed to do one stupid thing a year.” Dawson has tried bungee-jumping off the Nanaimo Bridge in Canada (“Your brain tells you you’re going to die, and you have to convince your brain that’s not true”); flying a steerable parachute in Eastern Washington (“I’ve cruised with hawks flying beside me—you can see their eyes”); and climbing the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro, and the highest mountain in Europe—Mount Elbrus in Russia.

Dawson grew up in Lochsloy, a tiny town between Lake Stevens and Granite Falls in Western Washington. It had a store, a gas pump and a post office—all in one building. He says it was a Tom Sawyer upbringing, with plenty of time to go fishing, wander around and “wonder about the universe. I spent a lot of time hiking and camping, and even went backpacking for a week by myself before I was 16.” 

When he got to the University of Washington in 1971, Dawson was ready for bigger challenges, like skydiving and springboard diving. Of the latter, he says, “It doesn’t seem extreme, but it is really hard to do. Most of the time, I’d hit the water with my belly, or some part of my body other than my hands.” He was studying to be an accountant but changed directions as a junior, going on to Willamette University College of Law. He then set up shop in Seattle, opening an office in the Seattle Tower on Second Avenue and practicing what he calls “food and housing law.” Translation: “whatever paid for my food and housing.” 

Now, Dawson is a personal injury attorney, an interesting choice for someone who spends a good portion of his off-hours exploring the finer applications of the laws of gravity. He is a dedicated athlete.  “I have fitness goals I’d like to achieve. I believe you can be physically fit at any age,” he says. 

But his most recent passion is for summiting “big mountains.” This recently propelled him to the Andes in Argentina, to attempt to climb Aconcagua, the 23,000-foot crown of South America. “Bungee jumping is this intense thrill, but it is short-lived,” he explains. “But climbing really big mountains is very physically demanding. At 20,000 feet, I was on a five-breath step—one step for every five breaths.” The climb was unsuccessful, but it left him with some indelible memories. He and his buddies spent three nights in a howling windstorm at 20,600 feet. “The temperature was zero degrees, and the winds were 80 mph,” he says. “That wind made a scream I’ll never forget—it spooked me.” 

The group managed to get back down the mountain intact, but four were taken out on mules, two were helicoptered out, and only Dawson and two others came out under their own power. The experience did nothing to dampen Dawson’s enthusiasm for climbing. “I don’t really remember the fear, so I want to do more. You see things a very small percentage of people will ever get the chance to see.” 

David Mann banks on speed

When David Mann is not dealing with weighty land-use issues in his office at Gendler & Mann, he’s likely spinning in circles. Mann’s idea of a fun time is to head into a 48-degree banked turn at 40 mph with 40 other Mad Maxes, all pedaling their $3,000-plus sprint bicycles. “It’s like NASCAR on bikes,” he says. “It’s so intense while you’re doing it. You’re at 100 percent output, combined with having to think. And you’re always a bit scared.” For sure. Wiping out in a pack of dozens of speeding bike racers is a sobering thought. But the payoff, blasting around the Velodrome in Redmond, is worth it, he says. “I leave the track smiling, rejuvenated, exhausted and ready to sleep.”

Mann raced bikes as a kid, commuted to law school by bike, and still gets to his workplace by foot power. But in the last decade, the pedal-mania has become more pronounced. In the mid-1990s Mann took a trip to the French Alps. “We rode 100 miles a day, with 8,000- to 10,000-foot total elevation gains every day. Something clicked—I became completely addicted to it.” 

When Mann turned 40 in 2000, he decided to try short-distance racing. These sprints are on a banked track and last from two minutes to a half-hour or so. “It is not pleasure riding, in any sense,” he says. “The track is a closed circuit, 400 meters long. It takes 20 or 25 seconds to go around.”  The turns at the Redmond Velodrome are banked at 28 degrees, steep enough, Mann says, that if you walk on it, you want to put your hands down on the ground to steady yourself. At the world competition circuit, the incline is so sharp “you can’t even walk it,” he says.

It is a consuming affair. “I’m at the Velodrome two hours a day, three week nights, and three to four hours on Sundays.” Mann competes at the master’s level, and has participated in the world championships the last five years. Last year he finished in the Top 5. “I’m trying to break into the top two or three, but the only people who finish that high are the ones who have been racing all their lives. They’re former world champions, and I can’t get past them.”

The bikes are designed with one thing in mind: raw speed. They have one gear and no brakes, a far cry from the multi-speed shock absorber-equipped limo-bikes some of us ride. Mann bought his sprint bike for $1,200, and then spent another $2,000 for the wheels. It is one of nine that he owns. “I do the maintenance myself,” he says. “There are a lot of great mentors to teach you.” That sense of community among the racing crowd is one of the draws. “It’s a large, welcoming family,” he adds. “It crosses ages, genders and so on.”

On the track, it’s a different story: time for warfare. “We see doctors, lawyers, bankers—type A personalities.” Racing is supposed to be non-contact, but Mann says you have to be comfortable with being bumped. And you have to be smart. “It’s a highly tactical, high-speed chess match,” he says. “And it really shows at the master’s level. ... The older ones outsmart the young kids.” 

Not completely unlike the practice of law. “It complements in both directions,” Mann says. “The constant thinking, strategizing … where your best points are, when to follow up on an issue and when to let go.” 

Janet George soars after hours

“I’ve always been adventurous,” confesses Janet George, who runs her own firm. “When I came to Seattle, the guy I was with was a skydiver. We were going to go up, but there was an accident the day before, and they closed the trip to women.” 

So, instead of jumping out of planes, George learned to fly them. She has flown all around the Northwest and calls the experience “the greatest adventure of my life.” Though she has let the physical check-up part of her license lapse, due to a lack of spare time, she co-pilots when she can, and plans to return when her schedule lightens up.

George’s career path would never work as a flight plan. After graduating from Stanford, she came to the University of Washington to get a master’s degree in psychology. Then, instead of following her original plan to get a Ph.D. in anthropology, she got a master’s in psychosocial nursing, taught that for a while at UW, then went to law school. She went to work for the King County prosecutor’s office, eventually leaving to go into civil litigation, and found her way into family law. “It was like falling in love,” she says.

She now specializes in complex, high-profile family law. “This is not the everyday stuff,” George says. “I deal with entrepreneurs, people who have companies, have invented things, musicians, ‘trust babies’. I learn something from every case.” 

George says it’s that thirst for the new that propelled her into the wild blue yonder. “I went helicopter skiing, and I fell in love with being in a helicopter. I wanted to learn to fly one, but my friends told me learning to fly a fixed-wing craft was a lot easier.”

So she took a trip with Wings Aloft, a flight school based at Boeing Field. “They take you up and let you ‘fly’ the plane, which gets you hooked,” she says. “I tried it and I loved it—but, with a pilot next to you who is really in control, it’s not really flying.” But that was that; she signed up for lessons.

George says she gets a kick out of flying to the region’s small airports. “Every little airport has some unique thing. Sequim is narrow, with huge trees lining it, which makes it scary for touch-’n-goes, but it’s almost always sunny.” And she raves about the 1950s restaurant at the Hoquiam landing strip, complete with “women in hairnets.” Then there’s the bond among pilots. “Everyone has a commonality of flying,” she says. 

Of course, safety is a concern. But George says most problems are operational, not mechanical, and if you’re cautious and don’t overestimate your abilities, you stay out of trouble. She’s had a couple of shaky moments: Once, she was momentarily confused and panicked about where she was; another time, she had to land in a stiff crosswind. “Then there are these times when we actually flew through a rainbow,” she marvels. “It was so cool. It makes me happy. I come back grinning from ear to ear. When I can get out of working so hard, I’d love to go back.”

Rodney Nelson goes vertical

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas inspired Yakima attorney Rodney Nelson, 54 (with Abeyta Nelson), to become a lawyer. But Douglas—who also hailed from Yakima—inspired Nelson in other ways. “The first thing I remember about Douglas was a short story we read in elementary school about a climb he and a friend did,” recalls Nelson. 

That climb, of Kloochman Rock outside Yakima, is recounted in Douglas’s book Of Men and Mountains. Nelson, who grew up poor in Selah, north of Yakima, was primed for inspiration. He was already an avid camper, and by the time he was 13, he was beginning his assault on the big mountains of the Northwest.

“My first real climb was an unsuccessful attempt on Glacier Peak in 1967, when I was 13,” Nelson says. “I had my dad’s old boots on, but I had to turn around an hour from the summit.” Even though the climb was a bust, it was love at first step. “I was in a very small town,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly good at other sports, but climbing was a wonderful undertaking.” He went on to climb Kloochman Rock, and eventually outgrew the Cascade peaks. “I’m driven by the sport. As you get older and better, you try bigger and more technical climbs.”

In 1984, Nelson traveled to Peru to climb Huascarán, at 22,205 feet the fourth-highest peak in the Andes. It was the first time Nelson had been over 15,000 feet, and he had intense altitude-related headaches. “I was used to running up things, so it was kind of a shock,” he says. “Big mountains teach you patience.” This one also taught him humility. After a tough climb, a snowstorm, and a rugged night in an open bivouac at 20,000 feet, Nelson’s party was joined by a lone climber descending the mountain. “He told us his partner had fallen to his death. It was an eye-opener.” 

The encounter didn’t curb Nelson’s enthusiasm, however. He climbed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a three-day vertical climb requiring nights tethered to ledges clinging to the sheer 3,000-foot wall. He headed to the Pamirs in Tajikistan to summit a 23,000-foot peak, then climbed Cho Oyo, the “Turquoise Goddess,” in the Himalayas. After a month of lousy weather, Nelson found himself atop the peak on a calm, sunny day. 

What ran through his mind, sitting on the roof of the world? “Getting down safely,” he admits. “Standing on top of the mountain is not what it’s about for me. Most of the summits I’ve been on, I think about getting down.” 

Everest is not in the cards. Nelson says the rigors of that kind of climbing demand too much time and take too large a toll on one’s body. He has, though, an ever-lengthening “tick list” of climbs he wants to make. It includes the Tetons, the Bugaboos in Canada, and Torres del Paine in Chile. “When I climb, I’m not a lawyer—I’m a climber. And climbing makes me a better lawyer because it clears my head,” he says. He adds that the perspective he gains from climbing is invaluable. “Because I’ve lived through situations that I didn’t think I was going to, I know I’m not going to lose my life in a lawsuit.”

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