WSBA Celebrates 50-Year Members: Reflections of the Only Woman

Members of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association board in 1971.
Row 1 (L-R): Ed Dawson, Murray Kleist, Faith Ireland, Jerry Schumm, Duane Lansverk. Row 2 (L-R): Paul Luvera, Ken St. Clair, Peter Tonkoff, John R. Lewis, Annon W. May, Duane Lund.

The WSBA 50-year members celebration—postponed for a year due to COVID-19 and therefore recognizing members admitted to the Bar in 1970 and 1971—was an important milestone for me. The WSBA organized a lovely celebration lunch (proof of vaccination required) on Aug. 25 at the Terrace Room at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. 

After delivery of our certificates and 50-year pins, we were asked to sit for a picture. I was honored to sit in the front row, but awed at how it took me back. In 1970 there were 277 people admitted to the Bar. Approximately 36 percent made it to the 50-year mark, and of those 101 attorneys, I was the only woman. Suddenly I felt a 50-year flashback to being the only woman in an all-male peer group—an everyday experience when I was first admitted.

I graduated as one of two women in my class from Willamette University College of Law.

I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I called to answer an ad from a firm seeking a litigation associate. The senior partner asked me if I thought a woman could “stand the rigors of trial practice.” He did not invite me to interview. Fortunately, when I answered another ad, I was invited to interview and the senior partner told me none of the partners liked trial work. I was most welcome there and tried and won my first case in superior court by noon of my second day as a lawyer. 

In those early days we all gathered in the Presiding Department to be sent out for trial. I made it a point to dress up so that I would not be mistaken for court staff and handed paperwork. The waiting time was a good way to get to know other lawyers. 

There were a few female prosecutors at the time, including Patricia Aitken, who became a superior court judge. She was the only woman of the 67 lawyers admitted in 1965 and received her 50-year pin in 2015. Barbara Durham, also a deputy prosecutor, became the first female Supreme Court chief justice. Betty Fletcher was the first female partner in a major Northwest law firm (now K&L Gates). She went on to become a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge and celebrated her 50 years in the WSBA in 2006. Another female lawyer I encountered early on was Bernice Jonson, a divorce lawyer known politely as “the Barracuda from Ballard.” Aggressive female lawyers were frequently referred to with another “B” nomenclature. 

Within a year of becoming a lawyer I was allowed to become a member of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association board (now Washington State Association for Justice or WSAJ). The president, John R. Lewis, wanted me on the board because the organization was facing a battle in the Legislature over “no-fault” insurance. I had worked three sessions as a Senate staffer and knew all the back doors. I was allowed to be a member on the condition that I would not have a vote. It was tokenism, but I took the token. We defeated no-fault insurance and in the same session got contributory negligence abolished in favor of comparative negligence. After that, women on the board had the vote.

In my second year as a lawyer I was a founding member of Washington Women Lawyers (WWL). The organization was formed because female lawyers were not receiving equal pay for equal work and were frequently disrespected, excluded from teaching continuing legal education seminars, and denied leadership in the Bar. The next year, Betty Fletcher became the first female president of the King County Bar Association. It wasn’t until 1986 that the WSBA had its first female president, Elizabeth Bracelin, who was also a founding WWL member. There have only been three female WSBA presidents since then. WWL celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 

My law practice included personal injury, real estate, business, family law, and selective criminal cases. Family law at that time was looked down on and there were not enough competent and empathetic practitioners. Sex with clients was commonplace. It wasn’t until I was on the Supreme Court 30 years later that sex with clients became contrary to the Rules of Professional Responsibility. Family law is stressful work and I limited it to not more than half of my caseload. I got a lot of tough personal injury cases referred from lawyers who saw me as a warrior, in spite of my gender. In the late 70s I decided I would rather be seen as an “expert” than a warrior and began pursuing my M.S. in taxation at Golden Gate University’s Seattle branch, which offered night classes. 

When I was interviewed for my first job as a lawyer, the senior partner told me that I would one day be a judge. I was shocked, as I had never thought of such a thing. I don’t know if he saw something in me I didn’t see in myself or if he planted the seed. After 13 years in trial practice I began to think I could have more impact for justice as a judge.

Oddly enough, getting my M.S. in taxation helped me to become a judge. I applied for an open judicial position in 1981 with one class left to get my degree. There were few female superior court judges in the state at that time. Gov. John Spellman told me that he was inclined to appoint me because I was still going to school. He said, “Judges need to be life-long learners.” 

As a judge, I was immediately tapped to be on the judicial education committee. I organized the first full-day program for Washington judges, with national speakers, on issues of women and children in the courts. Topics included women as victims of rape and domestic violence (which was a new term at the time), child custody issues, equitable division of property, including pensions, and adequate child support. After that I became the chair of judicial education for the state. I also helped to create the National Leadership Institute in Judicial Education, which over the next 20 years worked with every state to upgrade their judicial education. The objective was to introduce a curriculum to teach what the highly effective judge needs to know. That curriculum included medical, scientific, social, and cultural issues as well as law. We also developed a national registry of expert speakers on critical topics.

I chaired the National Association of Women Judges conference in Seattle in 1987. I took the opportunity to create for 20 Washington female lawyers a one-day conference with local and national female judges called “So You Want to be a Judge.” Many of those 20 women became judges. We also launched the Washington Task Force on Gender and Justice at that conference. Its final report was delivered in 1989. An update, “2021: How Gender and Race Affect Justice Now,” was just released and identifies goals for addressing each problem.11 

I decided to run for the Supreme Court when there were only two women there. I wanted to help impact system issues as well as do justice in each case. We need justice to be more accessible, affordable, timely, and unbiased. We also needed the judiciary to be more diverse. I was pleased to be on the court when we became the first nine-member Supreme Court in the nation with a female majority. 

Female lawyers today face many of the same—and some different—problems than the ones we experienced 50 years ago—especially female lawyers who are mothers. A recent article by American Bar Association (ABA) President Patricia Lee Refo cited a survey that found that 67 percent of female lawyers perceive they are immediately treated as less committed to the profession when they disclose they are becoming a mother.22 On the contrary, men are considered more committed when they become a parent. 

Two recent ABA reports, “Walking Out the Door,” and “In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession,” examine the experiences of women in the legal profession. For example, ABA research revealed that 45 percent of the women surveyed reported they had been denied proper access to business development opportunities because of their gender. In contrast, just 6 percent of men felt the same way. Other concerns from female lawyers included believing they were being used as a diversity token and having a male colleague take credit for work they had done.

These reports also offer suggestions to turn the situation around. Suggestions include:

  • Developing a strategy and setting targets to meet specific goals, 
  • Providing resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that are faced more often by women than men, 
  • Assessing the impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers, increasing lateral hiring of women, and 
  • Ensuring that there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees.

The recent NWSidebar article “Building a Culture of Gender Equity: Insights From a Majority-Women-Owned Firm”33 by Kelly Noonan gives a practical example of how the suggestions in the ABA report can be implemented with thoughtful female leadership. 

Since retiring from the Supreme Court, I have worked in ADR and find that work rewarding and in service of access to justice. In addition, I have gone back to school to become a life-empowerment coach. In that three-month curriculum, I learned to help clients envision, design, and create the life they love in health, relationships, vocation, and time and money freedom. I find the use of evocative questions learned there also helps in my mediation practice. 

I intend to keep paying my WSBA license fee and remaining active in CLEs. I respect and appreciate the WSBA and its benefits to members and to the public. And I urge you, the reader, to check your status and to look forward to receiving your 50-year pin. (Criteria for receiving it includes having a license status as active, inactive, judicial, or emeritus/pro bono.) If you are like me, you may have insights that will amaze you as you look back on 50 years of practicing law. 

About the author
About the author

Justice Faith Ireland (Ret.) is currently a JAMS neutral and a life-empowerment coach.