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Profile / Threesa Milligan: Designing Justice through Pro Bono

Profile / Threesa Milligan: Designing Justice through Pro Bono

June 2017 Bar Bulletin

By Judy Lin

The King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Services Director Threesa Milligan plans to retire at the end of June. I say “plans” only because those of us who have been lucky enough to work with her share an unspoken hope that Threesa might still change her mind. It is hard to say farewell to Threesa. Her years of authentic leadership have not only expanded and improved KCBA’s pro bono programs, but also elevated the role of pro bono service in increasing access to justice for people who are the most marginalized in the state.

Threesa’s ideas about justice were developed while growing up in rural Medford, Oregon, during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. She credits her family for instilling in her, by example, service to others. Her father, a retired Marine, was a deputy at the county jail and committed himself to mentoring people after their release to help them turn their lives around. Threesa’s three siblings have helped people with special needs and others living in poverty around the globe. And still, at 80 years old, Threesa’s mother works with groups that provide hand-made quilts for every homeless family staying at the local shelter.

Threesa’s path to becoming an attorney was not direct. As a talented musician (as if piano, cello and flute weren’t enough, she spent a year learning every instrument in her high school band), Threesa attended the University of Oregon as a music major with dreams of becoming a composer. She admits that she spent more time attending protest marches than studying, and dropped out after the first year, leaving for the quintessential hippie experience.

“I packed up literally a bedroll and got on the Greyhound bus and went to San Francisco,” she recalled. “I arrived there with no skills, no means of support. I had a few bucks that I spent staying at the YMCA. I think it was $3 a night for some pretty horrific little room.”

But soon she was enjoying the community of new friends, making jewelry and listening to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore West and the Pacific Ocean. Threesa was later joined in these adventures by her high school sweetheart and now husband of 46 years, Michael Milligan.

While living in San Francisco, Threesa learned a highly employable skill; typing — in the days of typewriters and triplicate forms. “I went to an employment agency and somehow talked them into letting me go to the agency every day and sit there the whole day and practice typing until I could pass a typing test,” she said.

This skill served her well in various administrative positions in California and Seattle. Shortly after Threesa began working as a secretary at the University of Washington, her daughter Merak was born and she took a few years off to raise her. When Threesa returned to UW, she availed herself of the free credits offered to full-time employees and steadily earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy, graduating with honors.

At the age of 39, Threesa started law school at UW. She describes how she and her dad would often have diametrically opposed views about issues and he would challenge her to make a good argument and back it up. She loved the idea of studying how the law worked and advocating for a client in court.

Threesa’s daughter — now Merak Zimmerman — was in grade school during those years. “I remember her working really hard in law school while still somehow balancing a home life,” she recalled. “I also just remember that, sometimes during days when my school was closed, if she couldn’t find child care or my dad couldn’t take the day off, I would end up going to class with her. I also remember helping her study for the bar exam, asking her ridiculous questions from flash cards that used superheroes as characters in their scenarios.

“My mom has always been a great role model of a strong woman. She went after her dreams despite everything else that she had going on in her life and she has wildly succeeded. She’s been an inspiration to not only me, but my female friends as well. She really is proof that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”

After graduating, Threesa stumbled into a job at a small law firm that needed someone to do family law. Later, she opened her own office in Snohomish County. It was her work as a guardian ad litem in family law cases that inspired Threesa to do pro bono work.

“I went to hundreds of homes in Snohomish County,” she recalled, “and saw what was happening to these families and the struggles that they had. And it was so frustrating as a family law attorney because I was there in the role of GAL, so I couldn’t give them any advice or help. But I could see how some legal advice or help would make such a huge difference. And so I started doing pro bono work.”

Threesa connected with Snohomish County Legal Services (SCLS). As a volunteer at the family law legal clinic, she would inevitably keep cases on for pro bono representation. Her passion and commitment led to Threesa being hired in 2002 as SCLS’s executive director; she spent seven years growing the program. Threesa believes that she had a level of credibility with volunteer attorneys because she understood, firsthand, the challenges of trying to make a living with your own practice and doing pro bono on top of that.

Threesa is especially proud of her role at SCLS in hiring and mentoring new attorneys, many of whom have gone on to work for equal justice partners throughout the country. One was Ishbel Dickens, former chair of the Washington State Access to Justice Board, who Threesa hired as a Rule 9 intern during law school.

“What a great way to start my legal career,” Dickens recalls, “with a dedicated boss who allowed me space to grow and who supported me wholeheartedly when I established a bankruptcy clinic and a housing justice project for Snohomish County. I am so grateful for that and for the fact that our paths have continued to cross as Threesa has tirelessly dedicated herself to committees of the Access to Justice Board, which I chaired, and to the completion of our state plan.

“Threesa is a true champion for justice who lives every day, putting clients front and center, without any thought of personal recognition or reward. Threesa, you will be sorely missed, but your mentorship and guidance ensure a long lasting legacy.”

Threesa arrived as the Pro Bono Services (PBS) director at KCBA at the end of 2009 during the Great Recession, and after budget cuts and staff layoffs. Morale was low. But none of that deterred Threesa. She saw a challenging opportunity and KCBA’s potential as a statewide leader. Threesa quickly earned the respect and trust of the staff as she led restructuring efforts and made collaboration among PBS programs a priority.

KCBA Executive Director Andrew Prazuch describes the impact Threesa has made during her tenure. “Under her vision and expertise during the past seven-plus years with KCBA, Threesa has recruited more pro bono attorneys to serve the indigent in King County than ever before (over 1,400!), built a strong team of committed staff professionals in our office to support those volunteers, and significantly increased the King County Bar’s funding sources for this work, particularly from local governments.

“I know she’s especially proud of the launch of the Washington State Pro Bono Council, which has in very short order become a critical source of networking, mentorship and training across the state for volunteer lawyer programs.”

During her time at SCLS and KCBA, Threesa has served on numerous committees working to improve coordination and delivery of civil legal aid services regionally and in the state. Through this work, Threesa saw how smaller volunteer lawyer programs were struggling and believed that with greater communication and sharing of resources, the programs could be more efficient and stronger. Threesa envisioned a statewide pro bono entity that could support the efforts of volunteer lawyer programs and actively worked toward that goal for several years.

Her persistence and advocacy paid off. In 2013, as Prazuch noted, Threesa helped to create the Washington State Pro Bono Council as an entity of the Access to Justice Board. Through the Pro Bono Council, volunteer lawyer programs in Washington have a platform for mutual support and to bring a unified voice as equal partners in the delivery of civil legal aid. “I feel that there’s finally some recognition,” Threesa says, “that [pro bono] is not just frosting on the cake, but it’s really part of the substance of legal aid.”

Beth Leonard, a staff attorney at Legal Action Center, worked with Threesa as the first Pro Bono Council manager. “Threesa was truly a mentor to me and helped me develop my desire to work on creating a legal aid system that provides meaningful services to every potential client,” Leonard relates.

“Threesa is passionate about access to justice statewide. It was inspiring to work with someone that put in extra time and effort to ensure that quality legal services were available to all Washingtonians, not just those in her service region. The clients were always the focus of Threesa’s work. She never hesitated to share models or materials with other programs to assist them in replicating King County’s delivery systems in their local area.”

In 2013, Threesa was honored with the Access to Justice Board’s Leadership Award, an honor that recognizes the efforts of those individuals in the Washington State Alliance for Equal Justice who have played a significant leadership role.

Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, has worked closely with Threesa over the years. “A quiet, committed equity and justice leader, Threesa has always placed the needs of clients first and foremost,” he says. “In both her leadership positions with Snohomish County Legal Services and most recently as head of the King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Services Program, she has been extraordinarily successful in motivating and offering meaningful opportunities for private volunteers to help serve the justice needs of low-income and vulnerable people in need of a legal voice to protect and enforce important legal rights.

“More often than not working behind the scenes, Threesa has made extraordinary contributions to the statewide pro bono community and the broader ATJ movement over many, many years. She will be missed.”

Asked what she is going to miss the most about working at KCBA, Threesa says, “I’m going to miss just hearing from all the various staff members the things that are happening and what they’re doing, and helping them sort out challenges. The interaction I have with the staff every day is a constant reminder of why I’m doing this in the first place.”

Threesa stresses, “Everything that I’ve accomplished here at KCBA has only been possible because we have such a great staff.” She also attributes her success to the diverse and committed pool of volunteers that KCBA is fortunate enough to rely on to provide legal services and support to low-income clients in need.

Threesa doesn’t have a lot pre-planned for her post-retirement, although foremost are spending more time with Michael and Merak, continuing as a pro bono volunteer, and working on her quilting skills. Taking after her mother, Threesa is known as a master knitter and seamstress, designing and making her own clothes since the age of 9. Threesa shares that her dream is to be on “Project Runway.” But says it would need to be a special seniors edition, where competitors of a certain age could show what they could make and have a bedtime of 9 p.m.

Even in retirement, Threesa will continue to help make equal justice for all a reality. Her achievements have made an enduring impact at KCBA and in the civil legal aid community in Washington. And, of course, we will be keeping an eye out for the occasional family law pro bono case to give her. 

Judy Lin is the senior managing attorney for the Family Law Pro Bono Programs at KCBA.

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