june 2018 Bar Bulletin
By Judge Ann Schindler
Mary Colleen Kinerk’s Irish heritage helps explain the words she uses to describe her career and her life: “lucky and blessed.” The second oldest in a close-knit family of nine children, Colleen grew up in the north end of Seattle. Her parents instilled a strong work ethic and commitment to service in each member of the family.
Three of Colleen’s siblings also became successful and outstanding lawyers: her sister Laurie Kinerk, a personal injury lawyer; her sister Lisa Piper, a business lawyer; and her brother Dan Kinerk, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney. Most of Colleen’s siblings reside in the greater Seattle area and the Kinerk family gatherings are large and legendary.
Following high school at Bishop Blanchet, Colleen attended Seattle University. The encouragement of a woman professor and the women’s movement resulted in her decision to apply to the University of Washington School of Law. There she developed strong bonds with the small cadre of other women law students, including the author of this article. These women studied together and “encouraged each other to do their best and be their best.”
Women were just beginning to join the profession in significant numbers and there was resistance to this change among some lawyers and judges. The winds of change that also influenced many other sectors of American life drew Colleen to employment discrimination and cases arising under state and federal civil rights laws.
As a new lawyer and the mother of two young sons, Colleen was “lucky and blessed” to have the unfailing support and encouragement of her parents and her husband, Dan Kilpatric, a fellow graduate of the UW law school. “Not many had the kind of support system that enabled me to stay in the legal profession,” she said.
Colleen practices at Cable, Langenbach, Kinerk & Bauer. She credits her early mentors and the members of her law firm with teaching her the craft of trial work and the deep satisfaction of serving clients. “My colleagues were incredibly generous with their time and talent. Not every hour had to be a billable hour,” she said. “They emphasized the need to develop one’s own style and to be true to one’s own voice. As a woman lawyer, this advice was incredibly important. It gave me much needed confidence.”
What immediately stands out about Colleen is the amount of time and effort she devotes to service for others within the legal community and the community at large. As John McKay, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, now a partner at Davis, Wright, Tremaine leading the investigative and crisis management group, and a professor at Seattle University, put it, “Colleen lives the Jesuit mission of service as much as anyone I know. She is always willing to help people who are less fortunate and is dedicated to access to justice for all.”
Throughout her career, Colleen has been a consistent and persistent advocate for women, diversity and legal representation for those underrepresented or underserved by the legal profession. She has been a member of Washington Women Lawyers her entire career. She was the chair of the Judicial Evaluation Committee for two years, and was elected as president and is a founding member of the WWL Foundation.
She also serves as a volunteer for Northwest Women’s Law Center, she was a founding member of the Coalition of Minority Bar Association and served on a King County Bar Association committee addressing issues concerning sexual minorities. She also served as chair of the KCBA Pro Bono Task Force Committee and on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Justice Project.
From 1997 to 2014, Colleen was the chair of the Access to Justice Conference. As chair of the ATJ Conference, Ada Shen-Jaffe, a former distinguished professor at Seattle University and nationally recognized leader of the Access to Justice movement, described Colleen’s contribution: “Colleen’s upbeat, can-do, inspiring personality supercharged the energy level of each conference in ways that motivated the rest of us always to do more, to do better.”
Jim Bamberger, another longtime access to justice leader and the director of the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid, expressed a similar sentiment: “Colleen has been an inspiration to all of us working in the trenches to move the equity and justice needle forward. Her energy, passion and great humor power us all.”
Colleen and Charlie Burdell, a retired Superior Court judge and a member of Judicial Dispute Resolution, were members of the King County Bar Foundation board and each served as presidents of the Foundation. Charlie described Colleen as dedicated to the mission of the Foundation and “always willing to do what was needed to support the Foundation and to raise scholarship funds for minority law students.” In addition, she somehow found time to volunteer to work with students in the mentoring programs at the Seattle University School of Law and the University of Washington School of Law.
The only thing I would add, based on knowing Colleen for more than 30 years, is that you don’t have to be among the less fortunate for Colleen to be willing to devote her time and effort to helping you. Colleen has spent countless hours helping her family and friends. Colleen also served as a board trustee for Seattle Preparatory School, as a speech coach and other roles for Our Lady of the Lake School, and as chair of the Seattle University Board of Regents.
Although you would never know it from talking with Colleen, her service has been repeatedly recognized. She was the recipient of KCBA’s Helen M. Geisness Award in 1999 for her exemplary service to the bar. In 2011, Colleen was awarded the Norm Maleng Leadership Award recognizing her commitment to diversity, mentorship, justice and access to justice.
She was named Washington Women Lawyers member of the year in 1994. U.S. District Court Judge Roseanne Peterson worked with Colleen on WWL and the WWL Foundation. Judge Peterson described Colleen as a role model and mentor for WWL members, and a prime example that a successful legal career and devotion to family are not mutually exclusive. “We can have both,” she says. Colleen and Dan have followed that path. After raising two extraordinarily successful sons, they are putting their wisdom to work, assisting in the growth of two grandchildren.
Somehow, interspersed with her service and devotion to family, Colleen managed to establish an outstanding and successful legal career. She has provided counsel and advice to employers and employees, and has served as a mediator, trial counsel and appellate counsel in workplace disputes including, but not limited to, discrimination, wrongful discharge and whistleblower cases.
Lawyers who have worked with and against her praise Colleen’s approach to effective advocacy for her clients. Suzanne Thomas, who practices employment law as a partner at K&L Gates, described Colleen as a “tenacious advocate for her clients who takes principled and defensible positions while working to find a pragmatic solution to the dispute.”
Recalling a matter in which he opposed Colleen, Jeff Tilden, a prominent trial lawyer and partner at the Gordon Tilden law firm, said Colleen provides an example of what lawyers should aspire to be. According to Tilden, Colleen’s client had the better position, but Colleen was “wonderful to deal with” and “possibly the world’s nicest person — somewhat of a rarity in the litigation world.” The dispute was resolved within two days of their initial meeting. Afterwards, Tilden would refer employment cases to Colleen.
Colleen practices extensively before the King County Superior Court. Because of our long friendship, Colleen has never appeared before me. However, I am aware that she enjoys a reputation among the King County Superior Court bench as an effective advocate who is well prepared, competent, articulate and trustworthy.
As with her dedication to service, her knowledge, skills and approach to her employment law practice have not gone unnoticed. Colleen has been acknowledged in “Best Lawyers in America” and recognized as a “Super Lawyer” in Washington Law & Politics over the last 20 years. And Colleen was recently elected to the prestigious College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.
Not surprisingly, Colleen credits those who have taught, mentored and inspired her for all she has accomplished in the legal profession and her work on behalf of the legal community. She firmly believes that, to the extent she has contributed to the legal profession and the legal community, the contribution is but a minimal return on what others have invested in her.
While I question her calculation of the return she has provided based on the mentoring and inspiration of others, one thing is certain. Colleen can be counted on to continue to devote her time and substantial energy to the service of others, both within the legal community and beyond, for years to come.