Giving Back

After hours, a lot of attorneys open their hearts and wallets to make their communities richer

Published in 2006 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2006

Did you hear the one about the lawyers who were taken hostage and their captor threatened to release them one by one unless his demands were met?
 
Ba-da-boom. No one has a better collection of lawyer jokes than attorneys themselves, who usually have a wry sense of humor when it comes to money-grubbing stereotypes. In reality, attorneys are often extraordinarily generous when it comes to giving their time and money back to the community.
 
Just for kids
For Kim Street, an estate planning attorney, volunteer service is so important that it helped her decide where to chart her career. She went to work for Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine, she says, in part because “the firm was known for its commitment to community involvement.”
 
Street’s mother, who was once president of the Denver Symphony Association, taught her the importance of volunteering. But it was Street’s own daughter who led her to the charitable work that now counterbalances her professional life. Her daughter attended a program through the MetroCenter branch of the YMCA that helped middle-school girls assess the messages they received from society and learn to become leaders.
 
“It had an incredible impact on her,” says Street. “It gave her a lot of confidence.”
 
Initially, Street was too pressed for time to get very involved in outside activities. “I had two children and a full-time job, so I hadn’t been able to do much charitable work,” she says. “But a couple of years ago, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.” The result? Two years ago, when Street was asked to join the board of directors for MetroCenter, she jumped at the chance.
 
Street is deeply passionate about the organization’s work. “We raise money and help guide the MetroCenter — help the staff decide which programs need more support and which should be spun out on their own. We try to evaluate which ones can be made self-supporting.”
 
Street says her volunteer work with MetroCenter has also had a profound impact on how she views her future. “It has changed the way I look at [eventual] retirement — I have no interest in playing tennis, or skiing, or eating lunch,” she explains. “Looking at my mother for inspiration, I’m thinking that when I retire I can do more. I want to make a difference. That gives me real excitement about retirement. It gives me a real challenge.”
 
Like a good neighbor
Growing up in Rembert, S.C., James F. Williams — a partner with Perkins Coie in Seattle — says community involvement wasn’t just a choice; it was a necessity. “Rembert was a poor community, but a close-knit community,” he says. “There was a level of interdependence. It was such a rural place — we didn’t have a United Way or any other organizations. People just had to pull together to help the suffering.”
 
Williams recalls the announcements of “the sick and the shut-in” every Sunday at church. “People were living on the edge of starvation. This idea of helping seemed so straightforward and simple.” Williams’ father was a deacon in the church, and “we were always in a position of being asked to help out,” he says. “My father used to hand out money to people. My mother said he was far too generous.”
 
Williams carried this idea of community codependence through his stint in the Air Force, then law school at The Citadel. It was still percolating when he arrived in Seattle in the early 1990s for an interview with Perkins Coie. “Seattle was at the tail-end of my interview schedule. I was captivated by the mountains, the water and the people.” Here he found a place to develop his practice in international law. He also found a way to continue the circle of caring with which he had grown up.
 
In 1999 Williams was in the Class of 2000 Leadership Tomorrow program through the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Williams’ group had to create a community-service project. One option was to work with Treehouse, a support group for foster children. “They wanted us to stock their warehouse with goods for teenage foster kids,” Williams recalls. “I thought it was a pretty mundane thing, but when I talked to my wife — she’s a social worker — she said to me, ‘If you take any other project, I’ll be very angry.’ ”
 
That, of course, was that, says Williams. “We went to all the clothing providers we could get our hands on and asked for help.” The restocking was a great success, but Williams walked away with more than just a sense of accomplishment. “I feel for foster kids more than any other kids,” he says.“These kids move from place to place and family to family. The least we can do is try to lend a helping hand.”
 
When the executive director of Treehouse asked Williams to join the board in 2000, it was a no-brainer. “I advocate — I’ve gone to Olympia to argue for children in foster care,” Williams explains. “One of the things I really love is our tutoring program. It’s a relatively new development and it’s our major focus now. I get a tremendous spiritual satisfaction from the Treehouse work.”
 
Williams also puts in volunteer time through the Washington State Bar Association, as the first chair of the Leadership Institute he helped found in 2004. “I work with young lawyers,” he explains, “urging them to get involved with Bar activities. I also want to make them more cognizant of the need to give back to the community and the Bar.”
 
Community harmony
For Steve Winters, a partner at Lane Powell in Seattle, his choice of charitable work reflects his childhood life in a Los Angeles suburb. “I grew up in the ‘Boogie Nights’ town,” says Winters, an intellectual property attorney. “There was stuff going on — I was in a bowling league, and the bowling alley was next door to the XXX Pussycat Lounge.” Winters turned his attention to rock and roll — becoming a flash guitarist before he hit puberty. “I heard guitar, loved it and picked it up,” he recalls. “I performed for my school when I was 12 years old.” In 1987, he signed a record deal.
 
He followed a winding path to law school, with an excursion to near-fame as lead guitarist and lead singer in an L.A. band and a seven-year sojourn in advertising. Winters, though, was intrigued by law and, after taking the LSATs, attended USC’s law school orientation. “I loved it, and I decided to go,” he says. Now, nearly two decades later, Winters practices law by day (“I do a lot of entertainment law now, for the love of the game”) and boogies by night as lead vocalist and guitarist of Morris Can Fly, his rock band. His dreams of rock ’n’ roll riches, however, are parked.
 
Instead, Winters uses his musical passion to raise money for a variety of causes, including community services for the deaf and blind. He also is on the board of the annual legal battle of the bands, Lawyerpalooza. Money raised at this event helps support music programs at public schools in Seattle. “I play for fun,” Winters explains. “If you can play for fun and raise money for good things, that’s great.”
 
Morris’ community service goes beyond the musical variety, however. He is active in the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington and seven years ago adopted a child from Guatemala.
 
Children first
When Bruce Bjerke finished his term as managing partner at Riddell Williams four years ago, he had time to expand his charitable work. “I’d been president of the Pike Place Market Medical Clinic, and then I joined the Pike Place Market Board [as president] and became chairman of the board of Childhaven.”
 
These organizations deal with people on the outer fringes of society in need of basic services. “The medical clinic sees mostly people who have no other alternative for care, and Childhaven treats abused and neglected children,” Bjerke says. “These are kids who have not developed a sense of attachment or trust. They are angry, sometimes violent, and they need consistency and a sense of safety.” Bjerke says Childhaven offers intense one-on-one care.
 
“You can’t heal the kids totally, but maybe you can make their lives better. I was compelled by my heartfelt interest and the potential cost benefit to society by treating these kids to keep them out of trouble.”
 
Bjerke puts nearly one-third of his time into these and other charitable works. While this dedication may seem extraordinary, he says it is his fellow partners at Riddell Williams who amaze him by their understanding of the demands on his time. “I tell them what I need to do, and they say, ‘Fine.’ They are so very supportive.”
 
Civic values
“I grew up in a small town in Idaho. It was kind of like Lake Wobegon,” reminisces Judy Runstad, an of-counsel attorney at Foster Pepper. “That was an early lesson in community involvement. We were one of those families that sat down for dinner together and talked about issues and our lives.” Runstad’s father owned a lumberyard in the town of Fruitland, and both her parents were involved in community and church. “I was taught that what goes around, comes around,” she says.
 
Runstad attended public school and went to the University of Idaho, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. She moved to Seattle and spent four years teaching at Shorecrest High School during the Vietnam War. Community activism was never far away. “I organized a Vietnam Awareness Day,” Runstad says. “We had speakers, information sessions, all sorts of activities.”
 
But during the Boeing bust in the early 1970s, Runstad was laid off. She went back to school at the University of Washington and headed for a law degree. After she graduated, Foster Pepper hired her. “I was lucky that Tom Foster, who was the lead partner, was really involved in the community. He believed that lawyers needed to be involved, and the firm culture is built around that.”
 
Runstad has stayed true to that culture. She has been involved with many community-service efforts, including the Alliance for Education and the United Way of King County. “I was chairing the United Way campaign in 1988,” Runstad says. “That year, the campaign almost came apart over [the issue of] abortion. Catholic Community Services and Planned Parenthood [both supported by United Way] really got into it. I was the first female chair in Seattle, and we were trying to raise $34 million.”
 
Late in the campaign, Runstad says, it appeared that the controversy would derail the fund-raising effort. “It looked like we were only going to raise $15 million. It was tragic,” she explains. “But I went to the local business leaders, and they went to their employees, and I told them what was going to be lost. We ended up with almost the $34 million. It was challenging and gratifying.”
 
Charitable work has been a large part of Runstad’s life, but she says it’s harder now for young lawyers to find the time. “I think the world is more complex now, more divided. It’s hard to be involved in so many places. And the drive for billable hours, the drive to be competitive, means maybe there’s less time and support for the types of things I could do.”
 
But as Runstad sees it, charitable work is a crucial part of a well-lived life. “It gives you greater perspective, more balance. It helps you understand what makes communities and people tick. You meet a lot of people, and it expands your world view and way of thinking.”
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