June 2019 Bar Bulletin
By Peter Talevich
At a recent panel of local attorneys presenting to the incoming class of Seattle University School of Law, this year’s Outstanding Young Lawyer Debbie Akhbari gave the last message to the soon-to-be law students. Looking out at the diverse mix of people, some right out of college, some older, of many different backgrounds, Debbie told the nervous crowd to believe in themselves.
Law students and young attorneys often feel like they don’t belong or aren’t cut out to be a lawyer, she said, but everyone in that room had overcome challenges and been accepted to law school. “You are good enough to be a lawyer,” she said, seemingly making everyone in the room feel like she was talking directly to them. Her last sentence had a particular emphasis: “Don’t let anyone ever make you believe that you’re not.”
I was sitting next to Debbie at that panel, and thought about how much her message rang true in light of her own career. That is because Debbie has dedicated her impressive time as a lawyer to showing other people that they are good enough — that they can succeed in the legal profession. She promotes mentoring in the legal profession for people of all backgrounds, and has ensured that hundreds of law students and young lawyers have professional role models.
Her work in particular has emphasized a sense of belonging for emerging lawyers who, like her, are diverse attorneys. Debbie opened her own door in building the résumé to be named this year’s Outstanding Young Lawyer, but just as importantly, she has held the door open for other young lawyers to realize their own places in the legal community.
Debbie is a first-generation American, born of parents who immigrated to the United States from different countries (her mother was born in Mexico; her father was born in Iran). She attended the University of Puget Sound — the first in her family to attend college — and then worked as a program manager for the Community & Economic Development Unit with Washington State University Extension. While working full time, she took the challenging path of attending Seattle University School of Law as an evening student, where she excelled. Helsell Fetterman hired her out of law school.
While establishing herself as a foremost young litigator in Seattle, Debbie has found time to contribute to the development of others in the legal community — particularly diverse attorneys who, like her, come from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in the profession. Debbie is the current president of the Latino and Latina Bar Association of Washington, an organization for which she has served in leadership positions for several years, including on its judicial evaluation committee.
She serves on the Advisory Board of the Judicial Institute, working to increase the diversity of the judiciary. Contributing to her law school, Debbie is a member of the Law Alumni Board and, in that role, connected more than 120 first-year students with mentors. There is more, but space limits prohibit me from describing everything that Debbie has done to contribute to the legal community and development of its new attorneys.
None of this extensive service to the legal community has come at the expense of Debbie’s work for her firm. She is, quite simply, a fantastic lawyer. A litigator, Debbie has first-chaired a trial, argued appeals, and taken the lead on briefing in significant cases before a federal court of appeals.
Her accomplishments are unique and impressive for an attorney of her experience. A partner at Helsell writes that Debbie has “demonstrated commitment to her clients, independence of thought, self-motivation, and careful, professional advocacy.” She also plays a “pivotal leadership role,” having encouraged the firm’s diversity and mentorship efforts.
I’ve saved the best for last. Debbie is one of the most compassionate and friendly people I have ever met, in the Seattle legal community or otherwise. Seattle University law school Dean Annette Clark describes Debbie as “a true servant leader, always the first to volunteer and generously giving of her time to clients, law students, and fellow attorneys who are seeking professional guidance. She is genuinely humble and serves out of altruism rather than as a way to become known and get ahead within the profession. She is a warm and kind human being and makes herself present to others in a way few people are willing to do, providing a listening ear and support to those who are struggling professionally or personally.”
Debbie is truly deserving of being named this year’s Outstanding Young Lawyer.