Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Russ Aoki: Doing the Heavy Lifting

Profile / Russ Aoki: Doing the Heavy Lifting

February 2019 Bar Bulletin

By Judge Dean S. Lum

There are many great things you probably know about Russ Aoki and other things you probably don’t. Of course, Russ being Russ, the last thing you’d ever hear is him blowing his own horn. 

It’s not like he has no reason to. He’s long been one of Washington’s preeminent criminal defense attorneys. He founded his own law firm and established a thriving business litigation and personal injury practice. His service to the bar, public defense and the access-to-justice community has been longstanding and exemplary. 

He has been a trailblazing Asian American attorney and a mentor and role model to many judges, lawyers and law students. It’s just that perhaps because of personality, upbringing or comfort level, he doesn’t talk about his accomplishments. Fortunately, others are more than happy to do it on his behalf. 

Russ has been named one of Washington’s top criminal defense attorneys by Washington Law & Politics and one of Seattle’s top criminal defense attorneys by Seattle Metropolitan Magazine. But his reputation for excellence goes to civil litigation as well. 

Former WSBA president and prominent plaintiffs’ personal-injury lawyer Mark Johnson said: “Russ is the lawyer’s lawyer. He is extremely intelligent, he works very hard and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. But, perhaps most importantly, he possesses exquisite judgment. I have referred several people with very difficult legal problems to Russ, and each person has raved about the results Russ obtained for them. What makes it even more unfair for those of us who have to compete with him is that he is the nicest guy I’ve ever met.” 

However, many of us locally may not know that Russ also has established a national reputation as an e-discovery consultant for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Defender Services Office. His position was first created by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman to help court-appointed counsel manage large discovery productions. In 2011, the office asked him to provide the same service to the 15,000 court-appointed counsel nationwide. Russ, as a national Coordinating Discovery Attorney (CDA), has helped hundreds of lawyers develop efficient and cost-effective review strategies to find needles in enormous haystacks of sometimes terabytes of discovery and has been appointed by the bench as national CDA in more than 90 cases in 21 federal districts. 

Sean Broderick, the federal defender’s national litigation support administrator, credits Russ’s unique background of public defender, private criminal defense lawyer, civil trial lawyer and experienced commercial litigator, and says: “The breadth and depth of Russ’s work is staggering. He has served as national CDA in some of the largest and most complex cases in the country and is a mentor for many assistant federal public defenders and CJA panel attorneys on e-discovery issues. More than a dozen years ago, Russ saw that e-discovery was going to fundamentally affect criminal defense practice and was prescient to focus on learning more about how he could help colleagues educate themselves about technology to keep up with the changing world.”

Russ’s work as a national CDA started off as something interesting to do and a service to the federal courts. But it has benefited his private practice, too. His firm frequently handles civil and criminal big data cases, representing well-known local businesses and high-profile white-collar criminal defendants. As Russ says: “There isn’t a school you can attend to learn the best ways to use technology. It comes from learning what technology is available, trying different tools, and developing the right strategies for your practice.” 

Russ showed an early commitment to public service, diversity and access to justice. Both sets of grandparents came to Seattle from Japan at the turn of the last century, and his mother and father met at UW. They were separated by WWII, as his father’s family was interned at Tule Lake and his mother’s at Minidoka. After the war, his parents were reunited and eventually married, but their wartime experiences left indelible marks on even those yet to be born. 

The Aoki family moved to Redmond in 1967, and Russ attended and played on the golf team at Redmond High School. He tried UW for two years, but unsure of his direction, he dropped out and got a job on a maintenance crew mowing fairways and greens at a private country club. Within months, the 20-year-old became the foreman of what can only be described as a rough and tumble crew of older men. Many had been to prison, lived in trailers in rural Carnation and would show up to work drunk or hung over. 

Russ often sent them out to the far end of the course until they sobered up so the superintendent would not fire them. Over time, a definite bond developed, as they would tell him of their time in prison, their struggles with substance abuse and relationships and their wish for a better life. So, it was only a little surprising when the crew called a meeting, sat Russ down and urged him to go back to school “to become a lawyer.” Russ re enrolled at UW that fall. 

There, visiting professor and civil rights pioneer Gordon Hirabayashi greatly influenced his decision to go to law school. Because of his parents’ wartime experience, Russ took as many of the Asian American studies classes from Hirabayashi as he could. 

“Professor Hirabayashi was amazing, humble and thoughtful,” Russ recalled. “He raised questions about how we fear those we don’t understand. At the same time, I took a criminal procedure class that (prominent criminal defense lawyer) John Henry Browne taught on Saturdays, which linked up all the stories I had heard from my maintenance crew and Professor Hirabayashi. I decided then that I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer.” 

After graduating from the University of Oregon law school in 1985, Russ went to work for The Defender Association in Seattle for three years, representing clients on everything from misdemeanors to felonies. From there, he practiced commercial and personal injury litigation with Betts Patterson & Mines. Of their time together at Betts, former National Asian Pacific American Bar Association President Peggy Nagae recalled: “Russ exemplifies the best of lawyering: bright, creative, compassionate and service-oriented. Even more importantly, Russ is a trusted and good friend going the distance when someone needs help, supporting important causes and serving the legal and APA communities.” 

Russ is a pioneer in so many ways. He entered the legal profession when only a handful of Asian Americans were lawyers, and even fewer still chose litigation. He was president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington (ABAW) in 1995, served on its board for years and helped found ABAW’s Neighborhood Legal Clinic. Eventually he partnered with another former ABAW president, Sharon Sakamoto, to form Aoki & Sakamoto, PS, and since 2011, he’s operated his own law firm, Aoki Law, PLLC in downtown Seattle. 

Although the ABAW now enjoys a roster in the hundreds, and the Korean, Vietnamese, South Asian and other specialty bar associations enjoy tremendous success, Russ began practice at a time when all minority lawyers in King County could fit into a conference room. He often recalls a 1980s incident when all of the Asian American, felony litigators in Washington (Bruce Miyake, Brian Tsuchida, Russ and I) happened to get off the King County Courthouse elevators at the same time. Russ commented: “Well, I think this is about all of us.”

Russ does not dwell on it, but the discrimination and barriers he faced — implicit and otherwise — were huge. One thing we have shared for more than 30 years (and which sadly continues to this day), is being mistaken for one another on almost a weekly basis. Still, the barriers he has faced over the years have only deepened his commitment to help younger lawyers, particularly through bar service.

A list of Russ’s bar activities would alone blow this article’s word limit, but several positions stand out: KCBA trustee, WSBA governor and treasurer, Law Fund of Washington trustee, president of the Northwest Defender Association and The Defender Association Board of Directors, Supreme Court appointment to the Washington State Office of Public Defense Advisory Committee, and ACLU Board of Directors and contributing attorney. 

In 2016, Russ received WSBA’s President’s Award for his tireless five years’ work as chair of the WSBA Task Force on the Escalating Cost of Civil Litigation. Although the appointment was intended to last only one year, Russ managed the competing agendas and personalities of 17 task force members and more than 30 volunteer attorneys and judges to survey more than 6,000 bar members and complete the report to the WSBA Board of Governors with skill, intelligence, good humor and grace. 

“I have the deepest admiration for Russ as a servant leader and consensus builder,” remarked Washington Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens. “During the years we served together on the task force, I came to respect his calm and focused presence. And, I came to call him a friend. Russ is simply a wonderful human being and a joy to be around.” 

Outside of his professional life, you might already know that Russ is a single-digit handicap golfer. Golf runs in the family, as his sister Chris is a golf pro and teacher to many lawyers. But you might not know that he can deadlift more than 455 pounds. To anyone’s knowledge, he hasn’t entered any powerlifting competitions yet, but you never know what he might do in the future. It’s just that he may never tell us. 

Judge Dean Lum has served on the King County Superior Court since 1998. He met Russ Aoki when they had a case against one another as young lawyers in 1986, and they have been friends ever since.

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