Heart Strings

Environmental lawyer Beth Ginsberg is making beautiful music out of a childhood passion

Published in 2018 Washington Super Lawyers — July 2018

It wasn’t until Beth Ginsberg’s 8-year-old daughter began playing the violin that Ginsberg—who has been playing since she was 8—found out she’d been doing it wrong. 

Ginsberg, who performs with the Ravenna String Orchestra in Seattle, has been taking weekly lessons for the past seven years from Elizabeth Knighton, principal second violin with Northwest Symphony Orchestra, whom she hired originally to teach her daughter. 

Growing up in Amherst, New York, Ginsberg joined her school orchestra in third grade. “Unlike every other violin student in my class,” says the environmental lawyer and partner at Stoel Rives, “I did not have outside instruction. I picked up whatever I could from the classroom and by osmosis from sitting next to better players.”

When Ginsberg switched from just watching her daughter’s lessons to becoming a pupil herself, she had to re-learn how to hold the bow. Not that holding it the wrong way had ever held her back. She played all the way through high school, then joined a folk band in law school. “I played Appalachian fiddle music with my torts professor, who was another fiddler, and my labor law professor, who was a banjo player. A fellow student played the spoons.” 

Ginsberg entered law school knowing her field of interest. She grew up not far from Love Canal, which became the first Superfund cleanup site after it was discovered in the late 1970s that the neighborhood near Niagara Falls was rendered toxic by the dumping of chemicals decades earlier. 

After graduating from law school at SUNY Buffalo, she landed a job doing environmental litigation at the Justice Department’s Land Division (now Environment and Natural Resources Division) in Washington, D.C.  Once she discovered that a colleague played Irish tunes on the piccolo, the two joined forces and, says Ginsberg, “I went from Appalachian to Irish.”

After moving to Seattle in the early ’90s, she joined a community orchestra, the Seattle Philharmonic, and took lessons in classical guitar. She was called back to D.C.—from 1993 to 1995—for a position with the Environmental Protection Agency, before landing at Stoel Rives.

In 2000, she and her partner, U.S. Attorney General for the Western District of Washington Annette Hayes, were trying to decide if they wanted to be parents. To help with the decision, Ginsberg volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. In 2014 she became its board chair, and is currently chair of the Ambassador Board, made up of past board members.  

She met weekly with her “little sister” for a year and a half, until the girl and her family moved. “I realized, yeah, I really do like this, and I am cut out for motherhood,” says Ginsberg. “That’s when I decided I was going to adopt a child from China, and that’s what I did. Our daughter, Sophie Ginsberg-Hayes, is from Chongqing, China.” 

As an environmental litigator, Ginsberg mostly represents developers needing guidance through regulatory compliance and permitting. Her clients appreciate her first-hand experience in dealing with the government. 

And what she knows from experience is that the wheels turn very slowly. Regulatory changes that her clients expected from the current administration so far haven’t happened, which means more work for litigators with clients trying to pursue change through the courts. 

“It’s a slog,” says Ginsberg. “I think I may have a more realistic view than many others because I worked inside the Beltway.” 

As for Sophie, now 16, she stuck with the violin long enough to play a joint recital with Ginsberg, then took up robotics. Her mother has greater enthusiasm for the instrument.

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