Q&A: Robert K. Dawson, DawsonBrown, Seattle

The 55-year-old litigator is hooked on adrenaline—whether it be in the courtroom or hurtling through the air attached to a bungee cord  

Published in 2009 Washington Super Lawyers — June 2009

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in the country. There were lots of cows and time spent floating down rivers. It was kind of a Tom Sawyer upbringing. My father had a lot of occupations. Early in his life he was a gambler—a pool shark. He was later a salesman, a carpenter, ran a hardware store—he did quite a few things. Up until third grade we lived in Seattle, then we moved to Lochsloy.

 

What did you learn from your dad?

He paid his taxes, every penny of them. The most money he ever made in a year was $9,000, so we lived very frugally. But his word was very important to him, and his reputation was very good. He had some flaws, but in that arena I don't think anybody would have criticized my father.

 

What drew you to law?

I was going to be an accountant ... and the more I got into it, the less interesting it was to me, so I didn't know what I wanted to do.

 

How did you finally decide?

I really think it was mainly TV. In those days it was the ancient show Perry Mason. Didn't you love how you always knew who was guilty: It was the person who got on the stand the last five minutes of the show. But think of that show: Every week, Hamilton Burger was trying an innocent person for murder, and nobody seemed to care.

 

How was your first foray into the legal world?

Straight out of law school, I opened my own law firm. It seemed like a good idea at the time. People would ask me, "What do you specialize in?" and I got tired of telling them general law practice, so I would tell them food and housing law, and they would go, "Oh, man, I never heard of that." And I would say, "Yes, anything that pays for my food and housing."

 

How did you get into personal injury?

A young woman was once referred to me by an agency at that time called King County Rape Relations. She had been gang-raped, and the people who did it were never prosecuted criminally. I did some research and we brought a civil claim, one of the first in this state for sexual assault. I was so green, I made every mistake in the book. The defense attorney had well over 100 civil jury trials, and it was rough sledding, let's put it that way, but the jury awarded a very substantial verdict. It was an enormous satisfaction to sue those SOBs. Suddenly the case is on the front page of The Seattle Times, and Oprah's calling her. I was flown down to Los Angeles to be on a news show. This was my first civil trial. I'd had some criminal trials, and 17 lawyers had turned this case down. This woman called me, I think it was about 12 years after the verdict, and said—she was very proud—"Tonight I went out to the mall at night by myself." Those experts that talked about this affecting her for a lifetime, they weren't kidding. To be a two-year lawyer and have won a verdict that everybody's paying attention to, being a boy from the sticks, was a heady experience.

 

What type of cases do you handle?

I really look at "Is the person horribly injured?" We take a very small number of very serious injury cases. We really like to spend the time on the cases and try to be creative and do things that are out of the box.

 

I hear you might be giving Teatro Zinzanni a run for its money?

Well, I was at a legal conference in Whistler [B.C.] and they had a trapeze set up and were giving lessons. I think the next-oldest person taking lessons was about 16, and I was 45. That's my entire trapeze history. It was really fun, though. I called from Whistler and told my staff I was going to join the circus that day.

 

You also skydive and bungee-jump?

They're good high-adrenaline sports. I love the bungee jumping; it makes your back feel great for at least a week. I took springboard diving in college. They tell me I was the first one to do a full gainer off the Nanaimo [B.C.] bridge, where you face out and do an inward flip. I really like that.

 

You seem to like being suspended in mid-air.

I joke that I want to open a sporting-goods store, Spinal Sports—only sports that threaten your spinal cord. I like the outdoors. I really like to climb mountains. I'm getting to an age where I'm going to have to make some hard decisions about whether to do any more really big mountains because it takes such a commitment. You're gone for a month, and I've got kids that I miss. I've done Rainier several times, including camping in the crater, which was a lot of fun. A buddy and I climbed the Matterhorn, a steep son of a gun for somebody who is not really a rock climber. But the last big one I did, Aconkagua, we got into a pretty dangerous situation, so it really scared my wife because a person died on the same side of the mountain as my buddy and I. We had 80 mph winds at zero degree temperature, and that's a little above my skill level.

 

Is it all about the adrenaline, or do you enjoy the travel, too?

I like going to another country, seeing the people, the culture, the food, all of that, and then doing something that's strenuous. ... I want my kids to understand there are a lot of different parts of the world so that the world's a more meaningful place. I think America is turning inward, and it's becoming an us-and-them. I think we all need to learn to get along.

 

What is your favorite place?

I once ended up in Cinque Terre, in Italy. I was working on a case with Paul Stritmatter. I was supposed to call in and find out a critical ruling. Paul won the biggest motion, so I'm in this little town where hardly anybody speaks English and I get this wonderful news for our horribly paralyzed client. I went into this little restaurant and I was just busting with joy. I bought a really big bottle of wine and I went around pouring wine for everybody and, needless to say, it was a really fun evening.

 

How have you changed over the years?

I used to get mad when somebody didn't agree with me and want to settle the case. Now, what I'm trying to do is to really understand how do we get to a just result. If I think a just result is $5 million and they think it's 50 cents, well, we're going to disagree, but it shouldn't be torture.

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