Lish Whitson Named 2000 Outstanding Lawyer

By William L. Kinzel*

The people of the small village of Mazar-I-Sharif on the Afghanistan-Russian border played a role in molding the personality and talent of this year’s KCBA Outstanding Lawyer, Lish Whitson. In 1965, Lish and his wife, Barbara, were sent to a remote Afghan location as members of the Peace Corps. Lish was assigned the responsibility of teaching English to the villagers. Recognizing that this assignment would not help the populace, Lish instead embarked upon a task of building a pottery factory, knowing that it would create a means of support for the village’s small population and would “help the people.”

This Afghan experience shaped Lish’s life. As Dean Ronald Hjorth of the University of Washington Law School says, “Lish never lost his sense of commitment to the underprivileged.” Lish has applied his litigation talent to protect the rights of women, minorities, and people in the shadows of life. All who know Lish speak with enthusiasm about his “passion,” “sensitivity,” and “commitment” to helping others. Lish is a lawyer who approaches the practice as a service to the people instead of a business.

Known nationally as a veteran litigator representing people with cancer and other life threatening illnesses who have been denied health coverage, Lish’s legal career began in criminal law. After graduating from the University of Washington School of Law in 1972, Lish joined the Public Defender’s Office. Lish handled numerous felony cases with the same commitment and fervor that he displays in his civil practice today. Faye von Wrangel, Senior Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor, worked with Lish at the Public Defender Association. She describes Lish as “one of the most idealistic people working at the Public Defender. He felt his personal life should reflect his strongly held philosophy that all people be treated equally.” Faye cites as an example, Lish’s proposal at staff meetings that attorneys and support staff should be paid the same salaries. Although the proposal was repeatedly vetoed, it made Lish “a hero of the typing pool.”

In 1975, Lish joined Helsell Fetterman, LLP. Initially, his practice concentrated in the area of insurance defense. In 1989, however, a significant event occurred in Lish’s practice. He was asked to represent a woman with breast cancer who had been denied treatment for bone marrow transplants and high dose chemotherapy by her medical insurance carrier. At the time, relief was governed only by time-consuming administrative law procedures. Lish succeeded in obtaining coverage for the client, though it was too late; she died before the treatment was made available.

Incensed with a system that deprived his client of the opportunity for timely treatment, Lish organized a team of lawyers at the Helsell law firm consisting of himself, John Bergmann, Rick Spoonemore and paralegal Mary Ellen Lyons to handle these kinds of cases. Lish’s team “fast-tracked” the trials so they were set earlier than the normal schedule. Referring to the cases handled by Lish, John says, “Lish pursued the insurance companies with passion, yet he manifested sensitivity when dealing with his ill clients, and maintained unfettered commitment to those clients.” Lish and his team were successful in obtaining coverage and treatment for hundreds of victims of breast cancer. Many of the victims could not afford the required attorneys fees. Regardless, Lish represented them on a pro bono basis, resulting in the King County Bar Association awarding him its Pro Bono Award in 1993.

Lish’s efforts for the public good were not limited to breast cancer victims. In 1996, he represented 1,600 families who were insured by a carrier attempting to eliminate coverage and cease operating in the state on 60 days notice. The family members included AIDS patients, cancer victims, people needing organ transplants, and children requiring ventilators. Lish filed a class action lawsuit and succeeded in obtaining a judgment requiring the carrier to provide insurance for 16 months, thus allowing ample time for replacement insurance. Lish’s efforts also resulted in a monetary award for his clients, which is sealed.

In a related effort, Lish and Rick Spoonemore worked with the Washington State Insurance Commissioner to draft and obtain legislative approval for making preliminary injunctions more accessible to people with health care needs.

After leaving Helsell Fetterman, Lish practiced a short period with the Badgley~Mullins Law Group. He has now formed his own firm, Lish Whitson PLLC which allows him the flexibility of being totally committed to matters relating to health care. This has included representation of individuals with aggressive Multiple Sclerosis, forcing the insurance companies to pay for treatment the MS victims needed. This year Lish worked with the drafters of the Patient Bill of Rights and the Health Care 2000 initiative hoping to broaden the rights of the average citizen in Washington State to access quality health care.

Lish’s public service is not confined to Washington State boundaries. Lish is one of the WSBA delegates to the American Bar Association. He is also a board member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. This summer, Lish will join some of the countrie’s leading attorneys in the practice of health law in New York to teach a course in legal advocacy on behalf of breast cancer patients. Keenly interested in equality in the legal profession, Lish has contributed his time and expertise to address the glass ceiling in the legal profession.

Lish’s litigation expertise and talent is recognized by his fellowship in the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers and his membership on the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Lish and his wife Barbara have two adult children, Rick an urban planner in Seattle, and Kim, a manager at Boeing. Barbara has a PhD in Educational Psychology and works for the Shoreline School District. When Lish and Barbara are not pursuing their respective careers, their interests include travel, hiking and the theater, symphony and opera. Both in his practice and in his leisure, Lish maintains a sense of humor manifested conspicuously by his infectious laugh. Recently, his good friend George Guttmann observed that while attending a movie he heard a patron laughing in the adjacent section, a laugh that could only be identified as belonging to Lish. The identification was confirmed at intermission.

Notwithstanding his busy law practice, Lish has found time to serve as Past President of Allied Arts of Seattle, the Defender Association and the Seattle Downtown Emergency Service Center, which is the largest shelter and advocacy organization for the homeless in the Northwest. He is currently President of the Alumni Board of the University of Washington Law School.

In addition to his community activities, Lish has been actively involved with the King County Bar Association and the Washington State Bar Association. He served a three-year term on the WSBA Board of Governors during the 1990s. He is past President of the King County Bar Young Lawyers Section and past Trustee of the King County Bar Association. He is a Fellow of the American and King County Bar Foundations. He has served in the legal community on many boards, committees and commissions, all too numerous to mention.

Bellevue attorney Ralph Maimon sums up Lish when he states “Lish is an individual who cares deeply about the law, the legal profession, the clients he serves and the image of attorneys. Lish’s focus on these issues has been insightful, determined and firm, but gentle and caring.” He is a great litigator, a great lawyer and a great human being. The community and the Bar are indeed fortunate to have Lish Whitson.

*William L. Kinzel is a principal in the firm of Kinzel, Allen, Skone and Searing in Bellevue, Washington