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Front & Center: Robin Haynes will be the youngest attorney to lead the Washington State Bar

Attorney Robin Haynes is the president-elect of the Washington State Bar Association, the youngest attorney to hold the position. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Attorney Robin Haynes is the president-elect of the Washington State Bar Association, the youngest attorney to hold the position. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

Robin Haynes grew up watching legal dramas with her dad, and decided early on to be a lawyer.

On Oct. 1, she will become the Washington State Bar Association’s youngest president ever.

One wonders where Haynes, 38, might be today if she had been raised on “Mork & Mindy” instead of “Law & Order.” NASA?

Haynes graduated from Gonzaga Law School a decade ago, and since then has been involved in several high-profile cases, including a successful class-action suit against AMR, the nation’s largest ambulance company.

She’s currently with the Spokane Valley boutique firm of McNeice Wheeler.

During a recent interview, Haynes discussed challenges facing her alma mater, debt-burdened graduates, and women attorneys in general.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Haynes: New Haven, Connecticut. I moved here right before high school.

S-R: What were your early interests?

Haynes: I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. Maybe it had something to do with my being the third of four girls and having to be a mediator. But more likely it was watching a lot of “Perry Mason”-type shows with my dad. I had no sense of what they were about, but from an early age I told people I wanted to be a lawyer.

S-R: What did people say?

Haynes: They said it was fitting because I had a big vocabulary and liked to argue. (laugh)

S-R: Is being an attorney anything like you imagined?

Haynes: No. Civil litigation is nothing like TV. It’s less court time and a lot more sitting at a computer doing research, writing and talking to people.

S-R: You’re what some call a “triple Zag,” having earned three degrees from Gonzaga University. How long did that take?

Haynes: Nine and a half years, including my undergraduate degree in English and political science, my master’s in English literature, plus my J.D. degree.

S-R: Did you end up with student debt?

Haynes: Of course. Six figures.

S-R: That’s not uncommon, is it?

Haynes: No. And law school has gotten more expensive since I graduated. The typical debt numbers we’re seeing for students coming out of law school now are $200,000-plus.

S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed the direction of your life?

Haynes: A few years ago I was hit by a car. I wasn’t severely injured, but it was traumatic. And it made me take a hard look at how I was managing my life. Definitely I wouldn’t have had the courage to run for bar president had that not happened.

S-R: Did you sue the driver?

Haynes: No. (laugh) No one wants to be the person who hits a lawyer in a crosswalk in broad daylight. The insurance company settled.

S-R: Can you recall any particularly good or bad memories from your early days in the legal profession?

Haynes: Both. Good memories include arguing my first motion – worth about $900,000. I panicked beforehand, tossed my lunch and blurted out my words in court – which sounds like a bad memory – but I ended up winning. My client was happy, my firm was happy, and I gained a lot of confidence.

S-R: Are you still nervous before arguing in court?

Haynes: Yes.

S-R: How do you overcome that?

Haynes: Preparation.

S-R: What’s the best professional advice you got?

Haynes: To be myself – not what people expect me to be. People are drawn to you when you’re genuine.

S-R: What difference has that made?

Haynes: I’m not the conservative, traditional person that people expect attorneys to be. I wear jeans and really tall shoes. I have a (partly) shaved head, a giant tattoo, and I’m very outspoken.

S-R: You’ve worked for three different firms during the past decade. Is that typical?

Haynes: These days it’s pretty common. Usually there’s at least one move in the first 10 years. I’d still be at my original firm if it existed, but it dissolved.

S-R: How has the legal profession evolved since you started practicing?

Haynes: One thing we’ve seen is an uptick in electronic documents. Emails and what we call ESI – electronically stored information – are changing the way we do our jobs. And we’re seeing a lot more people downloading documents and forms to avoid legal fees.

S-R: What impact did the recession have on your profession?

Haynes: We call it “the silver tsunami.” The largest group of attorneys in Washington state are boomers. Those of us who are 35 to 55 represent the smallest group. Then there’s a large group of young attorneys, a lot of whom are unemployed or underemployed because those senior attorneys haven’t left, so they’re not getting the mentoring they typically would early in their careers. When the older attorneys finally retire, it’s going to create a void.

S-R: If a law school graduate can’t find work in the legal field, is the degree still useful?

Haynes: It is if they already had another career and approached law school as a supplement. But going directly from an undergraduate program to law school with no work or life experience probably won’t give them a leg up, and it’s expensive.

S-R: How many hours a week do you work?

Haynes: Sixty to 80, plus bar association work.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Haynes: That if I work hard and research, I can find the answer more often than not.

S-R: What do you like least?

Haynes: Email.

S-R: Has being a woman made your career easier or harder?

Haynes: Harder. We are the least diverse profession. It’s rare that I show up in a room and am not mistaken for a secretary or a paralegal – where I’m not supposed to be silent and let the men speak first. When I ran for a bar position, I was told we already had enough women officers.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Haynes: I wish I’d been more thoughtful about building my practice – doing more of what I wanted to do early on, rather than just what was handed to me. I didn’t focus on what I wanted to do, which is litigation – going to court rather than drafting documents.

S-R: Do you have a professional philosophy or mantra?

Haynes: I’m always responsive, always on time and always prepared.

S-R: What mistakes do people typically make regarding legal issues?

Haynes: They wait too long to seek remedies, and the statute of limitations expires. Or they agree to things they shouldn’t – particularly in personal-injury and employment cases.

S-R: What’s the career outlook in your profession?

Haynes: There are opportunities for people willing to embrace new ways to practice law. You’d never hire a plumber who said, “I cost $200 an hour and I have no idea how long it’s going to take.” You’d get an estimate and hold him to that. In the legal field, clients are now expecting estimates, and to not be charged for three associates and overhead for a fancy building. Clients want someone who’s going to solve problems, not just run up bills. And I think that’s right.

S-R: How about opportunities in small towns?

Haynes: Some states offer subsidies for young attorneys practicing in rural communities. Oregon is looking at that. Washington hasn’t yet, but we have a dearth of attorneys in the Tri-Cities and Yakima, where there’s significant need.

S-R: Law school applications dropped 40 percent nationally between 2010 and 2015. Gonzaga recently offered buyouts to tenured law faculty and cut staff. What’s the outlook for law schools?

Haynes: A number of them are going to close, absolutely. I’m on the board of advisers for Gonzaga Law School, and we talk a lot about ways to move beyond being a regional school and become a national school. We’ve improved diversity and brought in international students. We’ve played around with a two-year program, so people can get through law school faster.

S-R: On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate Gonzaga Law School’s health right now?

Haynes: It’s a six.

S-R: Are there too many attorneys?

Haynes: Yes and no. There are too many attorneys in large law firms cranking out big bills for insurance companies, banks and corporations, and not enough working where the need is – in access-to-justice issues, meaning low-income people who are entitled to free legal services for things like family law and debt-related issues.

S-R: Does the legal profession welcome women and minorities?

Haynes: I want to say we do, but we don’t. During the past two years, the pay gap for women attorneys nationwide has widened, and the number of (law firm) partners who are women, persons of color, LGBT and attorneys with disabilities has really fallen off. Here in Washington, we’re seeing women and persons of color leaving the profession after practicing three to five years.

S-R: If you had a young relative or friend interested in a law career, what would you tell her?

Haynes: Make sure it’s what you really want to do, because you work long hours and weekends, and your brain never stops. But if there’s something you care about – domestic violence issues, youth issues – then it’s a really cool career.

S-R: What sort of person does well in this field?

Haynes: Someone who is patient, who listens well, and is creative, because most legal problems don’t have simple solutions.

S-R: How much time will the state bar presidency demand?

Haynes: I already work about 1,000 hours a year as president-elect, in addition to my full-time job. And the bar association office is in Seattle, so last year I was on a plane 47 out of 52 weeks. The presidency will probably require a little more time.

S-R: Why are you doing it?

Haynes: Because members wanted someone who’s different, and there’s not a person on that wall (of past bar association presidents) like me. I’m the first woman outside of King County to have this role, and the youngest person in the whole country to serve as bar president. I have a voice that needs to be heard.

S-R: What will you do after your one-year term is over?

Haynes: Take a great vacation with all my airline miles and hotel points. (laugh)

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at

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