Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Paula Littlewood: Passion Play: A Perfect Set-up

Profile / Paula Littlewood: Passion Play: A Perfect Set-up

May 2018 Bar Bulletin

By Andrew J. Prazuch

For many, the path of a career is fairly linear: an early spark perhaps in a high school mock government program leads to pre-law studies in college, leads to a J.D. degree, leads to becoming a law firm associate, leads to a 30-plus-year career as a respected member of the bar. For others, the path includes way stations in Great Britain and China, work as a political campaign staffer and nonprofit philanthropy officer, and a passion for the legal profession that’s only slightly ahead of her passion for volleyball. Meet Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association.

Growing up in Pullman, Paula did get the law bug early, seeming to fall into that linear path. She was active in the YMCA Youth and Government program. But after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles, she found herself travelling abroad, including a stint working for the British House of Commons and, following in her sister’s footsteps, teaching English and traveling in Asia. When she returned to the U.S, Paula began to focus on political campaign advocacy, including work on several campaigns in roles as a field organizer and fundraiser. That work led to a renewed passion for the legal profession and ultimately a concurrent master’s/law degree program at the University of Washington. The result was earning both a J.D. and a master’s degree in international studies focused on U.S.-Asian relations.

Paula’s passion for the profession did not go unnoticed at the U.W. School of Law, where she was approached after graduation with an offer to join the staff as an assistant dean for advancement. She led the school’s effort to fund its new building, Gates Hall, and greatly impressed the many donors she interacted with by her passion for the project. During this time, she also became an active volunteer with the King County Bar Association, where she kept her love of public affairs engaged by service through KCBA’s Legislation and Public Information Committees in the 1990s. It wasn’t long after that when the then-executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, Jan Michels, tapped Paula to serve as her deputy. Paula eventually was appointed to replace Michels upon her retirement in 2007. Paula has been at the helm of WSBA since, directing a staff of more than 150 and an annual budget exceeding $20 million.

In her role as chief executive officer of the state bar, Paula serves many “masters” including the Board of Governors and the Washington Supreme Court. In the view of the bar presidents and chief justices she has worked with, it has been a successful tenure. WSBA past President Ellen Dial notes that Paula has always focused on both service to the public and preparing for the legal profession’s future. “Her leadership style is marked by her passion, her formidable intellect, and her penchant for imagining a better future,” Dial said. She added that this reflects Paula’s “deep commitment to the unique powers and responsibilities of lawyers in our system of justice.” Former Chief Justice Barbara Madsen echoed this, observing that Paula “always has the long view in mind, even when she’s dealing with the small stuff.” Justice Madsen added that Paula “feels her responsibility deeply, and is constantly juggling the many competing needs and wishes of the people she serves.” In particular, she noted, Paula sees her job as planning for the future, keeping “her finger on the pulse of the membership and the Supreme Court.” William Hyslop, who served as WSBA president in 2015–16, also sings Paula’s praises. He has been particularly impressed by Paula’s “amazing depth of knowledge and understanding of the legal profession, locally, statewide, nationally and worldwide.” He believes her to be “a visionary in knowing that we are all about service to the public as our profession addresses its future.”

Paula leads a large staff that she finds both professional and intellectually engaged, and the feelings appear to be mutual. Chief Operations Officer Ann Holmes is inspired by Paula, whom Holmes reports to be “a strong woman of integrity, who excels at a demanding job, loves what she does, and genuinely cares for the people with whom she works.” Chief Disciplinary Counsel Doug Ende describes Paula as bringing “an astonishing amount of energy and creativity to the role, but she is also careful to reserve time for her family and her own personal and professional interests and activities.” Speaking of her family, Paula has two children, Parker (15) and Sophie (12), who share many of their mother’s passions for extracurricular sports activities. Paula and her family are enthusiastic skiers for sure, but if someone made Paula pick just one outside passion, it’s clear that choice would be volleyball. She played all through high school and college, including in the national playoffs during her Sophomore year of college. To this day she still plays in at least one regular league year round. How she makes the time for this is a mystery to many. As Ende observes, “As far as I can tell, she never sleeps.” Hyslop concurs: “Paula gives 24/7 to the WSBA.”

This author (and her counterpart at KCBA) is convinced she must be giving even her sleeping hours to her duties at the bar, dreaming of a future that she, the Board of Governors, the Supreme Court, and the WSBA professional staff can make into a reality. Paula succeeds at this, according to Justice Madsen, by “identifying issues before they arise and having a sharp, creative mind for problem solving.” Madsen further notes that “besides the critical and complex role Paula plays in executing the Supreme Court’s policies and decisions (the popular ones and the not so popular) and taking direction from an ever-changing Board of Governors, Paula is extremely well regarded nationally among bar leaders.” Ende adds that “Paula has dedicated herself to furthering the mission of the bar association, promoting innovation in the delivery of legal services, and ensuring the effectiveness of the bar’s regulatory and professional association functions.”

Among her more significant accomplishments in her first 10 years leading WSBA, Paula cites the foreclosure prevention project created during the height of the Great Recession, the launch of a moderate means legal services program in partnership with the state's three law schools, and her work implementing the Supreme Court’s direction that a limited legal license technician profession be established in the state. The LLLT concept was controversial at first, and originally opposed by the Board of Governors, but after the Supreme Court decided to proceed, Paula worked to implement the Court’s vision and pulled together convincing data about future trends in the profession for the Board as to why the license could make a difference. As a good lawyer, Paula says “don’t argue the facts.” Ultimately Paula and other bar leaders, who studied the demographic data concerning the need for legal services, became convinced that licensed attorneys alone could never meet the total need. Washington’s LLLT license is now considered a model across the country. Paula’s leadership was a cornerstone of that success.

When Paula discusses her work for the bar, these accomplishments and the plethora of daily responsibilities regulating the profession and advocating on behalf of the same profession, her commitment and love for what she does come through clearly. “I’ve always chosen to work for people or organizations I believe in,” she says. “I’m proud to be a lawyer and proud to work for my profession and in my profession every day.”

The bar and bench of Washington are proud to have her leading us, too.

Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email ( or phone (206-267-7061).

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