June 2020 Bar Bulletin
By Andrew Prazuch
Scrabble. Monopoly. Clue. So many boardgames to choose from when seeking entertainment. But what to do if a lawyer’s tastes are slightly outside the ordinary?
Help your best friend create a serial killer boardgame, of course.
Attorney Sara Wahl’s fascination with the macabre wouldn’t cause her peers or clients today anything more than a smile since that side of her personality is well balanced by an exceptional passion for working through legal issues with families in distress as a collaborative law attorney.
Raised on Mercer Island, Sara attended an all girls’ Catholic school. But life growing up was troubled for her: experiencing her own parents’ divorce, experiencing drug addiction and homelessness. In time Sara overcame all this with support from her family, but also with the encouragement of a Jesuit priest.
“Father Mike Kelliher made a tremendous difference in my life,” said Wahl. She met him while an undergraduate at Seattle University, where he served as chair of the Criminal Justice Department - a not surprising degree choice for the kid with a serial killer fascination. “He was one of the first people in my life who really believed in me and encouraged me to see that I could overcome my challenges and make a difference in the community. His friendship and mentoring made a big difference in my life.”
He connected Wahl to Seattle University School of Law’s Alternative Admissions Program, which identifies promising undergraduates who might not gain entry to law school through only grades and LSAT scores, but through personalized mentoring and coaching as well. As the law school describes it, “though their potential for success may not be accurately reflected by traditional indicators such as standardized scores or undergraduate GPAs, Access Admission students have demonstrated grit, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to overcome substantial obstacles.” Wahl was a clear fit for that description.
After earning her law degree in 1999, she began her professional life as a family law attorney in one of the larger firms in the Southend, where she practiced for nine years, becoming a partner at the firm. She quickly became active in the profession, including a term as president of the South King County Bar Association and later as a Southend trustee for the King County Bar Association.
She remembers a state bar association program she attended in the mid 2000s that was one of the first presentations on an emerging new practice area for family law attorneys: collaborative law.
Using this approach versus the traditional family law process, attorneys, clients and other neutral professionals work as a team, meeting in a series of “four-way” or “five-way” meetings to address the needs of both clients and their children (if any). A participation agreement is signed by all parties stating they will work together to come to an agreement that meets both parties’ interests and needs. The participation agreement also states that the parties will not threaten to go to court as a means of forcing an agreement. In the collaborative process relevant financial and personal information is shared openly and voluntarily as opposed to the expensive information gathering procedures used in litigation. All parties commit to work together in good faith to resolve all the issues in their case. The entire process is confidential, and controlled by the parties, not the court system.
The more she learned about collaborative law, the more “it clicked,” Wahl said. “I realized this type of resolution by a couple seeking to dissolve a marriage could save kids from growing up in the aftermath of divorces the way I had. In my heart, I knew this was a way the legal profession could do better by families.” She became an early champion of updating Washington’s laws to allow for this type of legal service.
“She was one of a small group of professionals who were instrumental in getting the [collaborative law] bill passed through the Legislature, making a significant contribution to the organizational efforts and driving to Olympia for the hearings,” said colleague Mark Weiss, a veteran family law practitioner in the King County legal profession.
Eastside KCBA attorney Loretta Story added “Sara was really a workhorse when it came to promoting and advocating for the Collaborative Law statute. She never wanted to be in the limelight, yet she worked very diligently for the cause.”
On July 28, 2013, Wahl was honored to be present at the bill signing ceremony with Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
Ten years ago, Wahl realized that she wanted to focus even more on practicing collaborative law, so she opened her own firm.
“After all, the vast majority of family law cases are resolved without litigation,” Wahl observed. “So why not start with an interest-based, non-adversarial process, where the parties can learn how to work through conflict, rather than escalate it in court.
Wahl has gained tremendous respect from her peers who practice collaborative law. “Sara’s passion for guiding parents through the treachery of separation/divorce with skill, insight, child-centered guidance only rivals her legal expertise — counseling parents, giving them confidence that the decisions they’re making for and with one another are sound,” reported Karen Bonnell, a respected collaborative divorce coach in the Puget Sound region. “Sara’s client management is compassionate and firm. Her sense of humor and storytelling artfully shift tension into a hearty laugh, a deep breath. Anyone who finds their way into Sara’s office is lucky and in very good hands.”
Janel Ostrem, herself a well known collaborative law attorney in King County, observed that Wahl “has a high standard of integrity in the work that she does for clients. She has all the qualities that you would want in a lawyer: she’s genuine, kind, and responsive; a problem solver and a straight-talker. I know that when I have a case with her, it’s going to go smoothly — or if it doesn’t, it won’t be because of the influence of the attorneys.”
Wahl also gives back a lot to the profession and the broader community. She was a member of the Washington State Bar Association’s Lawyer’s Assistance Program Committee for six years. Wahl is also a volunteer attorney at the King County Bar Association’s Greenwood Family Law Clinic, a volunteer family law facilitator at King County Superior Court, membership chair of King County Collaborative Law, and a board member of Collaborative Professionals of Washington. She has received the Pro Bono Service Commendation from WSBA for providing pro bono legal services to low income clients.
When Wahl is not helping human families in crisis, she is a fierce champion of canine families. She has been active in dog rescue groups, and her current four-legged family include Jenny and Walter.
“She’s also a total sucker for a sick dog,” reported Ostrem. “Sara routinely takes in dogs that are old or sick, the ones that no one else wants to adopt.”
While she may not pull that old serial killer boardgame out of the closet very much these days, Wahl has developed many other game pieces in her life of service to others. And the King County legal profession is the ultimate winner by calling this exceptional attorney one of its own.
Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (206-267-7061).