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Paine Hamblen law firm names first female managing partner

Jane Brown, of Paine Hamblen LLP, talks about her career Thursday in Spokane. Brown is the first woman to be named a managing partner at a major Spokane law firm. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Jane Brown, of Paine Hamblen LLP, talks about her career Thursday in Spokane. Brown is the first woman to be named a managing partner at a major Spokane law firm. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Paine Hamblen LLP, Spokane’s second-oldest law firm, has appointed attorney Jane Brown to be its managing partner. That appointment marks the first time a woman has been named the top manager of one of Spokane’s largest law firms, longtime Spokane attorneys say.

Brown, 52, has been with the firm since 1990, when she began work as a legal assistant. She graduated from Gonzaga Law School in 1995.

The firm was started in Spokane in 1893. Along with Witherspoon Kelley, Lukins & Annis and Winston & Cashatt, it’s regarded as one of the area’s four large full-service law firms.

The managing partner role is akin to being a company chief executive officer. In part it involves day-to-day management, but the managing partner also helps set a long-term vision for the firm.

That long-term plan, said Brown, is still forming.

“Any growth we have will have a foundation based on the needs of our clients,” Brown said. “Growth for growth’s sake doesn’t strike me as appropriate.”

From 1999 to 2001, Paine Hamblen grew from about 40 attorneys to nearly 80 attorneys, making it the largest law firm in the area.

But the firm took a major hit in the tech bust and post-9/11 downturn. Further reductions occurred in the recent recession. Today it has 46 attorneys and another 55 employees.

Gene Annis, one of the founding partners of Lukins & Annis, acknowledges that female attorneys in Spokane have not been given their share of executive positions.

“I think (Jane Brown getting that job) is an overdue recognition. Our culture needs to continue to be sensitive to this issue,” Annis said.

Washington State Bar Association figures say 38 percent of all licensed attorneys in the state are women. In 2010, 47 percent of all students in U.S. law schools were women, according to the American Bar Association.

But their rise to management in the legal field has shown limited progress. In one survey of 50 “best U.S. law firms for women,” just 10 percent of those firms were chaired by women and 12 percent had female managing partners.

“It would be lovely to see more women in the firm, but in the end we’re interested in finding the best lawyers and the best people we can find,” Brown said.

The bigger goal involves recruiting a more diverse group of attorneys, she said.

Though the legal profession nationally is undergoing some contraction due to the economy, Spokane law firms are still hiring to fill key practice areas. But finding attorneys of color who want to come to Spokane and stay here is a major challenge, Brown said.

That failure is a communitywide issue, she said.

“They (people of color) often left because they didn’t feel the community was welcoming, or they chose not to come in the first place because they heard things about the area,” she said.

She and Paine Hamblen’s other partners are evaluating which areas of practice to emphasize in coming years. “Anything with intellectual property is a potential area,” Brown said. “So are the areas involving information management and transactions.”

Brown has been the lead attorney for Paine Hamblen’s family law practice. She said she’ll continue that practice while working as managing partner.

For many attorneys, family law – which includes divorce settlements and estate disputes – presents highly charged emotional struggles.

But Brown said it’s not all storm and stress. Many cases involve adoptions and custody issues.

“I also enjoy helping people, and this practice lets me help people start over.”

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