FARM GIRL

Melissa Roeder brings a rural work ethic to the civil defense table

Published in 2013 Washington Super Lawyers — July 2013

Melissa K. Roeder jokes that she never met a lawyer before she became one. This is probably not far from the truth.

When the Minnesota native came to Seattle in 2000, hoping to land her first job out of law school, her resume boasted a stint as a waitress at Applebee’s and a couple of seasons working from January to April on a trawler in the Bering Sea, catching Alaska pollock and cod. “I decided then and there that if I could do that, 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day, I could do anything,” says Roeder, 42, who four years ago became the youngest shareholder and the first female partner at Forsberg & Umlauf.

But according to her boss, Carl Forsberg, and any number of colleagues who’ve seen the civil litigator in action, especially during her compassionate depositions of asbestos plaintiffs, her resume could have stopped at “farm girl.”

Forsberg attributes Roeder’s honesty and some of her most admirable lawyerly qualities to her Midwestern upbringing in rural Brewster, population 500. When he hired Roeder to do asbestos defense work, he says he saw in her “a work ethic that was unsurpassed by anyone I had met with up to that point.” He figures she learned to work hard from pitching in at the family farm, where Roeder and two sisters helped with the dairy cattle, feeder hogs and assorted crops.

Forsberg, who starts his day at the office as early as 5:30 a.m., may have been most impressed by the fact that Roeder volunteered to come in for her job interview at 6 a.m.—known in some circles as milking time. She still often comes to work before Seattle’s birds know it’s a new day.

Roeder was the first person in her family to go to college, let alone law school. Even she was surprised when people back in Brewster started recognizing her “gift for gab” and encouraged her to become a journalist, actor or teacher. Despite never having met a lawyer, she was the one who concluded that “gift for gab” and “lawyer” sort of went together. And once she made up her mind, she was going to make that happen.

“She’s a doer and gets things done,” says Linda Gallagher with the civil division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. She serves with Roeder on the board of Washington Defense Trial Lawyers, an organization that Roeder will be heading up as president next year. “She’s always volunteering to do more, and then it’s already done before people even remember that she volunteered to do it.”

Says Roeder, “I have the most amazing parents in the world, which is 100 percent why I’m anywhere in this world.” They still live on the family farm while holding outside jobs. “They know how to work,” she says.

Although her job is to defend clients facing allegations of making or selling products containing asbestos—and figure out what the facts really are—Roeder’s colleagues say her businesslike but caring demeanor during depositions of seriously ill plaintiffs shows that, along with a steel trap of a brain, she has a heart that is easily touched.

“I think of cases where I leave in tears because the story is so sad,” admits Roeder. But while conveying compassion, she never loses sight of why she’s there: “I weigh my sympathy for them and then figure out the best way to protect my client’s interests.”

“She is very thorough and very tough,” says Paul Anderson, coverage counsel for a client of Roeder’s. “I’m very glad that she’s on our side.”

Mediator and arbitrator Paris Kallas, the former chief asbestos judge of King County, notes, “She is always prepared, works very hard, is professional, focused but always polite, and a delightful person on top of it all.”

Roeder married in September 2010 after finding true love by placing this ad on Craigslist: “Looking for a good communicator who’s passionate about life and rides a Harley.” Her husband, Erik Roeder, a homebuilder and remodeler, was checking ads for Harleys. He ended up with a wife who had her own.

The two married—on a Harley, of course—at sunset at the Haleakala Crater on the Hawaiian island of Maui. There was never any question that her parents would approve. After all, she got her first motorcycle from her dad, when she was just 7 or 8.

Diane Kero, with Gordon Thomas Honeywell, has worked with Roeder as co-defense counsel on multiple cases. Kero recalls how, during the asbestos cases, Roeder never let her status as a new lawyer stop her from herding her colleagues like so many dairy cattle. It was Roeder, Kero says, who put together regular meetings of the Washington asbestos defense counsel and kept all members informed on shared efforts in preparing cases.

Says Kero, “That takes gumption.”

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