Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Leonard Feldman: Appealing for Justice

Profile / Leonard Feldman: Appealing for Justice

November 2017 Bar Bulletin

By Peter Danelo and Felix Luna

It was early 2007. Barack Obama had just announced that he was running for president and was in Seattle for a campaign event. Leonard Feldman walked up to him, introduced himself, and said, “Senator, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but we were classmates in law school.” The future president responded, “Leonard, of course I remember you — you won the Sears Prize twice!” That was the prize awarded every year to the two top students in each Harvard Law School class.

Obama asked Feldman on the spot to join his Judicial Selection Committee, tasked with developing standards for Supreme Court appointments. That led to a series of conference calls with Obama and a Seattle Times op-ed that Feldman co-authored with Tom Burt titled “The Country Needs No More ‘Bush-League’ Judges.” How did Feldman get to this interesting juncture in his career?

The story starts in Montreal, where Feldman was born. He moved to Seattle with his family when he was 10 and became a U.S. citizen six years later. He attended public schools on Mercer Island and then the University of Washington, where he graduated with a degree in psychology in 1987.

When asked why he became a lawyer, Feldman points to two formative events. The first was in his fifth-grade social studies class, when he was assigned the role of a lawyer representing workers seeking greater rights (minimum pay, required breaks and workday limitations) in the industrial revolution. Feldman persuaded the student playing the role of the judge that the workers should have all these rights and more.

The second formative event was when Feldman took a law and psychology course at the University of Washington and realized that being a lawyer was at least as interesting, and likely more rewarding, than attempting to make a living as a psychologist. So, Feldman applied to law school.

Feldman’s law school application capped off four years of hard work at the UW Feldman realized as a freshman that scholarships were available if he had exceptional grades. Given a choice between working more hours at Safeway and chasing after scholarships, he chose the latter. He also studied hard for the LSAT and did well.

The game changer may have been when he approached his statistics professor and offered to write a study guide for the next edition of his textbook. The professor thought it was a great idea, put Feldman in touch with Random House, and within a couple years Feldman was a published author. Harvard took the bait.

But Feldman wasn’t quite ready for law school. As a freshman, he had met his future wife, Kristine. He proposed to her during his senior year in college, and she said yes. But she needed another year to graduate, so Feldman asked Harvard for a deferral so that he could continue to live and work in Seattle while Kristine completed her degree. Feldman worked as a document clerk at Schweppe Krug & Tausend while Kristine completed her degree. The two then moved together to Cambridge.

Feldman prospered at Harvard. Before starting his third year, he received a call from Obama, who was then president of the Harvard Law Review, letting him know that he had graded onto Law Review. He turned down the opportunity. He and Kristine had seen too many marriages that did not survive law school and they did not want their relationship to suffer. Feldman has often said that it was the right decision and he has absolutely no regrets.

Following law school, the couple returned to Seattle. It was a condition of Kristine’s parents, imposed when Feldman proposed to Kristine and asked for their blessing. So, when Feldman decided to apply for a clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals, he applied only to the four Ninth Circuit judges in Seattle. After clerking for Judge Jerome Farris from 1991–92 he accepted a job at Heller Ehrman, while Kristine studied fisheries biology to obtain a doctorate at UW.

During this period, many of us wondered if they would ever have kids. Feldman had been assigned to a massive arbitration in Denver that went on for 13 months. The senior partners on the case decided to take action. The firm made travel arrangements so that Kristine could be in Denver at opportune times. A year later, the couple’s first son was born. They now have two sons: Ben, 18, and Tyler, 16. Ben can now be found playing upright bass at local jazz clubs, while Tyler enjoys soccer, tennis, and playing jazz guitar.

While Leonard showed early promise as a trial lawyer and was soon promoted to shareholder at Heller Ehrman, he became more interested in persuading judges than juries. Former King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer tells the story of Feldman’s role in a dot.com bust securities fraud case that Judge Hilyer presided over. It was a very complicated bench trial, and Feldman did not get involved until very late in the game. The trial was over, Judge Hilyer had prepared 50 pages of single-spaced findings and conclusions, and was about to enter judgment.

The key issue for Feldman’s clients (the defendants) was the remedy. Would the plaintiffs receive a large award of money damages or would their remedy be limited to rescission? Judge Hilyer had convinced himself that money damages were the right remedy, but Feldman managed to turn him around, something the judge said had a probability of around one in a thousand at that stage. “Leonard convinced me, without being condescending, that I was making a fundamental mistake on the remedy,” Judge Hilyer said. “He walked me through the issue and led me to the result.” This while the other lawyers in the courtroom were jumping up and down in dismay.

After nearly 120 years of operation, at the end of 2009 Heller Ehrman closed each of its offices around the country. Feldman, like many others, was forced to find another home at which to ply his trade. It was during this time that Feldman first flirted with the idea of becoming a full-fledged plaintiffs’ attorney. His discussions with Felix Luna, whom he had mentored and befriended at Heller Ehrman, and Luna’s law partner, Mike Wampold, were positive.

However, Feldman decided to join the Seattle office of Stoel Rives, where he spent the next five years expanding his appellate practice and supporting trial teams. Although Feldman enjoyed his time at Stoel Rives and developed lasting friendships with his colleagues, he came to realize that his true calling did not lie primarily in representing large institutional clients, but in doing full-time what his fifth-grade self had done 35 years earlier —become a plaintiffs’ attorney representing individuals who had suffered harms due to the wrongful actions of others.

So, Feldman reached out to Wampold, with whom he bonded over a mutual interest in running, about joining forces. While Wampold and his partners — after vigorous debate — rejected Feldman’s proposal that the term “business attire” be expanded to include biker shorts and tank tops every day of the week, Feldman joined what is now Peterson Wampold Rosato Feldman Luna in September 2014.

At PWRFL, Feldman supports each of the firm’s trial teams and leads the efforts in drafting and responding to all dispositive and other significant motions. As Wampold commented, “Leonard’s mind is like a computer, he can see the perfect structure for every brief.”

Feldman is also the lead author of any appellate brief submitted by the firm for its clients and handles oral argument on all appellate matters. As he has throughout his career, Feldman continues to earn great victories on behalf of PWRFL’s clients and against many of the top appellate attorneys in the country.

As a prime example, after the firm won a $17-million verdict in federal court against an insurance company for negligently failing to protect its insured and for violating the CPA, the insurance company hired Feldman’s Harvard Law School professor — who now spends most of her time arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court — to represent it. While Feldman was grateful for all that she taught him 30 years ago, the Ninth Circuit accepted each of Feldman’s arguments in affirming the judgment, and wholly rejected those presented by his former professor. The student had become the teacher.

In addition to the Ninth Circuit and district courts nationwide, Feldman has argued two cases before the Supreme Court. One involved a police shooting of a mentally ill woman who allegedly “attacked” officers with a bread knife; the other case was on behalf of a man and his wife who were shot by police who entered the couple’s home without a warrant or announcing themselves as police officers.

Feldman handled both of these matters on a pro bono basis, which has been a hallmark of his career. Feldman is a district coordinator for the Ninth Circuit Pro Bono Program and has personally handled more than a dozen pro bono appeals. In 2006, he received the Washington State Bar Association Pro Bono Award for this and other pro bono work.

Students in the University of Washington School of Law were involved in many of Feldman’s appeals as part of an externship taught at the law school. Feldman’s former student Aurora Martin, previously the director at Columbia Legal Services and now the founder of Popup Justice, said, “Leonard taught me why lawyers matter in the administration of justice and the importance of pro bono service as a way of improving the lives of people who have been harmed and seek justice.”

While Feldman is obviously extremely well prepared and focused when addressing state and appellate judges around the country, he does not take himself too seriously at any other time. If one were to come by PWRFL on a typical day, they would notice that any meeting involving Feldman goes a bit longer due to his penchant for practical jokes and diversion from the topic at hand.

More so, one also would find an attorney who is deeply committed to finding justice for the downtrodden, no matter how elusive it may seem, and using his “computer brain” to help his colleagues achieve the same goal. Having answered his true calling, fifth-grade Feldman would be proud.

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