Paying It Forward

Perhaps, it is the way we are raised. Perhaps, it’s genetic. Or perhaps, it’s how we see and respond to life and the world around us that makes us who we are. In Lish Whitson’s case, it’s likely a bit of all of the above. But in the end, who Lish Whitson has become is best exemplified by his thoughtful and soft-spoken observations about his world. When he was once asked what advice he would offer to students and young lawyers beginning their careers, he answered without hesitation, “Look outside of yourself … reach out to others.”

It’s not just talk with Lish Whitson, whose unusual first name is his grandmother’s maiden name and of Scottish origin. His life, and his career as a lawyer, have been about reaching out — from his work with the Peace Corps in the remote city of Mazar-I-Sharif in Afghanistan in the mid ’60s to more than three decades of advocating passionately and compassionately for the underprivileged and under-represented. He has, from the beginning, approached the practice of law as a service, not merely a business.

Upon returning to the United States from what he describes as one of the richest experiences in his life (working with his wife as volunteers in the Peace Corps), Whitson completed his education, receiving his J.D. degree from the University of Washington School of Law in 1972. Idealism and compassion for the less privileged led him first to the Public Defender’s Office where he demonstrated the same commitment and fervor that still defines his work more than 30 years later.

In 1975, he joined Helsell Fetterman, LLP, where his practice was focused in the area of insurance defense. In 1989, however, the call came again for Whitson to reach out. A medical insurance carrier had denied bone marrow transplant and high-dose chemotherapy treatments for a woman with breast cancer. After a tough battle, Whitson eventually succeeded in getting a judge to rule in favor of the patient, but the ruling had come too late — she died before the treatment was made available.

Incensed by a system that had deprived his client the timely treatment that she needed, Whitson once again took the lead. With a team of lawyers at Helsell Fetterman, he organized an effort to “fast track” trials where patients’ lives often were dependant on resolving disputes with medical insurers in a timely way.

One member of that team, John Bergmann, recalled, “Lish pursued the insurance companies with a passion, yet he manifested great sensitivity when dealing with his clients and maintained unfettered commitment to those clients.”

Whitson and his team successfully obtained coverage and treatment for hundreds of victims of breast cancer, many of whom could not afford the attorney fees. Paying it forward, Whitson took many cases on a pro bono basis. In 1993, the King County Bar Association presented its Pro Bono Award to him for his tireless and charitable work.

It is difficult to fully appreciate where Whitson’s practice has taken him and how many lives he has touched through his “look outside of yourself” approach to his work. Besides being one of the best known and most respected advocates for women with breast cancer in the country — having handled more than 200 such cases — he has represented families whose members included AIDS patients, cancer victims, organ transplant recipients and children requiring ventilators.

With another of his team members at Helsell Fetterman, Rick Spoonemore (now with Sirianni, Youtz & Spoonemore), Whitson worked with the Washington State Insurance Commission to draft and encourage legislation making it easier for people with healthcare needs to obtain preliminary injunctions to allow them to obtain the medical care they need.

After leaving Helsell Fetterman, Whitson did a short stint with Badgley-Mullins Law Group and eventually settled into his own private practice, which permitted him to focus all of his attention on the healthcare issues and the rights and representation of poor and vulnerable people that were so important to him.

Away from the office, Whitson and his wife Barbara continue to reach out. Whitson has been involved with homeless advocacy at the Defender Association and the Downtown Emergency Services Center, the largest shelter and advocacy group in the Northwest, for more than 17 years. He serves as president of the Board of Directors for the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center and for the Allied Arts Foundation.

Art is part of life and the arts are important to the Whitsons. They love the theater, the symphony and opera. Whitson is a past chair of the Marrowstone Summer Music Festival, a component of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra. With their two children grown and successful in their own rights, when they have time, they love to travel and to hike.

It’s hard to imagine how Whitson ever finds time for leisure activities, given all that he’s doing. Besides his membership activities in the WSBA and KCBA, he was one of the WSBA delegates to the American Bar Association; was a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession; is a member of the National Board of the American Board of Trial Advocates; and he is recognized by his fellowship in the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. He serves as an arbitrator and mediator with the American Arbitration Association and as a 39.1 mediator for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

The King County Bar Association awarded him the Outstanding Lawyer of the Year Award in 2000. He has been listed in “Who’s Who in American Law” for more than a decade and has been named every year, since the Washington Law & Politics program began, as one of Washington’s top lawyers, among a host of other distinctions and positions on committees and boards, both local and national. He sponsors projects and seminars throughout the country dealing with the needs of women with breast cancer and other forms of catastrophic illness.

In spite of his long list of accomplishments and recognitions, Whitson remains one of the most unpretentious people you will ever meet. A straight shooter, he puts the cards on the table — face up — and tells it like it is, but always in a gracious and temperate way. His infectious laugh and wonderfully dry sense of humor are exemplified by the final slide in a PowerPoint presentation he offered in a CLE seminar that I chaired for the King County Bar Association in February of this year. After an engaging discussion on the finer points of telling a compelling story in trial, his last slide appeared as, with a mischievous smile, he returned to his seat on the panel. It read:

“No matter how great your triumphs or how tragic your defeats — approximately one billion Chinese couldn’t care less.”
Lazlo’s Chinese Relativity Axiom

An interesting paradox — his intense commitment to the work he does on behalf of his clients and his determination to exemplify the best of the legal community versus his ability to not take things too seriously — a balance not easily achieved, but always delightful when encountered. William Kinzel, a principal at Kinzel, Allen, Skone and Searing in Bellevue, summed it up, “He is a great litigator, a great lawyer and a great human being.”

Having been so involved for so many years, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the legal profession in Seattle who doesn’t know and respect Whitson. It might seem equally difficult to imagine how quietly someone with his distinguished reputation goes about his business, caring for his clients, his family and the things that matter most in his life.

When I moved to Seattle from Los Angeles in 2002, I was just an office neighbor on the 38th floor of the Wells Fargo building on Third Avenue. As a trial consultant, of course I was interested. He was a potential source of work for my company, but it was generally quiet at Whitson’s end of the hall — no big trials, no big talk, precious few visitors. Always genuinely friendly when we met in the hallway or shared an elevator, he wasn’t the source of work I’d hoped for, but I quickly realized that he was someone who was an important part of the legal community in Seattle, work or not.

I was surprised, given all of his accomplishments, how humble and unassuming a person he was. He asked me one day if I would spend a few minutes hearing about a case that he was working on. “I have to tell you, I’m doing this pro bono,” he told me. I told him that that was fine with me, and we talked.

After discussing the case, talk turned to his experiences with the Peace Corps, his travels around the world, foreign language and foreign food, his passion for defending and supporting the less privileged, his disdain for political rhetoric and a lot of other things that filled the afternoon. It didn’t take long to see that Lish Whitson’s advice for law students and young lawyers — “Look outside yourself” — is what he is all about.

“Pay it Forward,” a wonderful film that was released a few years ago, was all about making the community and the world a better place by reaching out to others. The movie was the fictional. Lish Whitson is the real deal.

R. Craig Smith is the senior trial consultant at Prolumina Trial Technologies, in Seattle. He is a frequent CLE presenter, author of numerous articles on courtroom communication and trial strategies, and is the author of “Championship Law – Seven Keys to Winning Performance in the Courtroom.” He can be reached at 206-622-6700.