December 2018 Bar Bulletin
By Jeanne Loftis
The woman standing before the assembled group wore luminescent, shiny-red stilettos and a bright, floral-patterned dress. The scene? Not a garden party of Prosecco-fueled socialites; but rather a meeting of more than 50 defense attorneys in a high-rise suite in downtown Seattle.
She calls the meeting to order in an authoritative voice and everyone takes their seats. Who is this powerhouse whom jurors describe as “smiles and claws all rolled into one?” It is Melissa Roeder of Foley & Mansfield’s Seattle office — a seasoned product liability and asbestos litigator who has recently turned her attention to building a national cannabis litigation practice.
Growing up in the southwest corner of Minnesota, Melissa learned the value of character and a solid work ethic from her parents, Don and Patty Habeck, while toiling on the family farm. Her dad was a full-time farmer and her mom simultaneously raised three daughters, helped on the farm, and ended her day by working the night shift at the Campbell Soup Company for 30-plus years.
As the youngest daughter, Melissa was the first to go to college, and it was her mom who suggested she give up her post-college job of commercial fishing in the Aleutian Islands outside Dutch Harbor, Alaska (home of the “Deadliest Catch” TV show) for the chance to go to law school. She credits her success to her parents’ limitless support. When she moved to Seattle in 1994, she had no job, no apartment and no solid plan. But with her parents squarely in her corner, she knew she had nothing to fear.
No one faces new challenges as quickly and successfully as Melissa. Having mastered asbestos litigation, she launched into cannabis law three years ago and is becoming a leading authority on cannabis product liability claims with a focus on edibles.
At ease among the younger attorneys who admire her, as well as those whose licenses were issued before she was born, Melissa is the kind of professional you want on your side. She will slip into the back of a courtroom, take copious notes during the parties’ openings, and then share her impressions just to help out and to learn from the best in her field.
Today, Melissa is at the very top of her litigation game with no apparent limits to the peaks she can reach. (Unlike Mt. Rainier, which she swears she won’t climb a second time). She tries multimillion-dollar cases and wins. She recently ended a three-week trial in which the jury took 45 minutes to return a unanimous defense verdict.
Her key to success? Keep the themes and defenses short and sweet. For example, Melissa creates a Ted-Talk experience for her opening statement where a complex case can be explained to the jurors in 18 minutes or less.
More than one senior attorney has remarked about wanting to be like Melissa when they “grow up.” She is the sort of person many of us strive to be — welcoming, cheerful, committed, and highly intelligent, while at all times maintaining a presence filled with grace and modesty. Melissa is a consummate professional, while embodying the thoughtfulness and compassion that many of us pray to possess.
Melissa’s kindness extends far and wide, so I will share one example that has touched me personally. She immediately embraced my son, Joey, who has Down Syndrome, with hugs and smiles. Joey figured out how to say “Melissa” faster than any other person’s name, and he loves showing off the picture he took of Melissa.
The characteristic feature of Melissa’s style is “Be Yourself.” Over the course of her career she has encountered hesitation from more traditional lawyers and firms, uneasy about her bold choices and personality. Melissa-style litigation dictates a strict dress code: a new outfit (rarely a suit) and new pair of high heels daily.
While some attorneys might scoff at collecting shoes as trivial, not only do jurors pay attention, Melissa has used that passion to make it rain: a daily LinkedIn post of her trial shoe choices has attracted new clients, 700 followers and thousands of “likes.”
The lawyer-side of Melissa is undoubtedly successful, extremely confident and edgy; her personal life no less so. With an email address of “HarleysandHeels,” Melissa touts her love of both shoes and motorcycles. In fact, she started riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles — as you might expect from a small town, family-oriented girl — with a hand-me-down from her grandmother who rode well into her 90s.
Melissa’s love of motorcycles even led to meeting her husband, Erik Roeder, after penning a personal ad reading, “Seeking a good communicator who is passionate about life and rides a Harley.” After just three dates it was clearly a match for the ages; they married two years later. It doesn’t surprise her colleagues to see Melissa ride off with Erik on a new adventure to Zion National Park, for example, after sitting through two days of seminars at an out-of-state, defense counsel conference.
And then those shoes. From sparkling blue, platform heels with Seahawks adornments to footwear designed by a professional London architect, Imelda Marcos had nothing on Melissa’s extensive collection. Once ordered off her heels due to a running injury, Melissa capitulated … for about three days.
But not all of her shoes have heels; biker boots and running shoes aside. After not running since it was required in eighth-grade physical education, Melissa undertook a new challenge and purchased a “Couch to 5K” Groupon at age 40. After six weeks of training, she ran 3.1 miles without stopping and she felt on top of the world.
Since then, she has gone onto longer distances and greater challenges, including the Quadzuki (four half marathons in four days over the Thanksgiving holiday); the Great Wall of China Half Marathon (a Stairmaster workout on steroids); and has completed two of the five marathon majors (Chicago and NYC are in the books and she is hoping for Berlin 2019).
One of her favorite running adventures was when she inadvertently ran through the Tenderloin — an area of San Francisco with a large transient population — at an obscenely early hour. As Melissa fearlessly ran by, the homeless men and women on the sidewalk became her personal cheer crew, clapping and telling her to “get it, girl!”
Melissa has also embraced personal and professional avenues for philanthropic projects. Her favorite public service project to date was for Compass Family Services, where 24,000 items were donated by Defense Research Institute members and 1,000 personal care kits were assembled by hundreds of DRI members in less than 15 minutes.
On the personal side, Melissa creates individual social media “thank you” videos in which she names a pair of her elite, high-heeled shoes after the donors. This originality has led to the type of frenzy that marketing wizards are paid the big bucks to create.
At heart, Melissa is a bright and talented human being who lives life to the fullest, and is a fierce competitor in both her professional and personal lives. Admirably, she sincerely appreciates others’ successes and is most satisfied when everyone puts their best foot forward.
One thing is certain about Melissa’s future endeavors: they will involve passion and generosity, along with contagious laughter; and the latest acquisition of high-heeled shoes.
Jeanne Loftis is a shareholder with Bullivant Houser Bailey in Seattle.