August 2020 Bar Bulletin
By Kaustuv M. Das, Ph.D.
In 2020 alone, Pallavi Mehta Wahi was ranked in Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business in Washington State; named to the fifth annual Power List by Lawyers of Color; included in the India Business Law Journal’s “The A List: International,” a list of the top India-focused lawyers at international law firms; and selected for inclusion in the Washington Super Lawyers list and the “IP Stars” list published by Managing IP. In years past, Pallavi has been included in the Puget Sound Business Journal’s “Power 100” list and named as its 2018 “Woman of Influence” and also recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the United States by editors and writers across The Business Journals’ network of over forty publications. These honors, as well deserved as they are, do not quite do justice to Pallavi’s energy and zeal for the law and furthering the cause of diversity in the bar and on the bench.
Pallavi was born in New Delhi, India, and knew from a fairly young age that she wanted to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Pallavi received her undergraduate degree from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi (a college whose 1.6% admission rate makes Harvard and MIT look like “open admission” schools). She continued her studies as a Rotary Club Internationals Scholar at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge. In 1999, her husband, Ashish, got a job with Microsoft and the two of them moved to Seattle very much with a sense of adventure and belief that the United States was a “place that was very welcoming to immigrants.”
A recent American Bar Association report — Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color — noted that seventy percent of female minority lawyers report leaving or considering leaving the legal profession. As co-managing partner of the United States for K&L Gates, managing partner of the Seattle office, co-chair of the firmwide India practice, and chair of the firmwide Diversity Committee, Pallavi provides a stark contrast to these statistics. She has achieved her success not only through sheer grit and determination, but by never losing sight of the three pillars that undergird her every decision: her love for her family, her unwavering commitment to diversity, and her passion for providing the very best counsel to her clients. As Pallavi noted in a 2015 interview with Law360, “as a partner of color, one is in a unique position to forge a path of success for others who will follow. As such, one has to balance the competing interests of being an advocate for change as well as wanting to be the same as everyone else. As a woman of color, I am proud of the fact that I am an immigrant of South Asian descent who can provide first-rate legal advice and also suggest the best curry restaurant in town.” This ability to balance her unique voice and vision with cutting edge legal advice for her clients is echoed by everyone who has had the pleasure and privilege of watching and helping her grow into her role over the last twenty-odd years.
Pallavi began her legal career as a Rule 6 law clerk with then Commissioner William H. Ellis at the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division I. Bill remembers Pallavi as a hard worker, smart, self-motivated, and always looking for ways to make herself a better lawyer. According to Bill, Pallavi “had definite goals and concrete ideas on how to reach them, and a strong sense of equity and justice. She was very much committed to community involvement long before her later success and gave freely of her time even as she worked her way through her law clerk program.” Even while she was his Rule 6 clerk, Bill felt strongly that Pallavi “would find a path to success and that her drive and determination would see her through any number of obstacles.” After her admission to the Washington Bar in 2002, Pallavi began her legal career with Stokes Lawrence P.S. before transitioning to K&L Gates.
Pallavi contributes her meteoric rise at K&L Gates to the incredible clients, mentors, and colleagues she has had the pleasure to work with, but also to the fact that, in her opinion, K&L Gates is a “true meritocracy, and its leadership and its senior ranks reflect those values.” Her ease of and interest in building strong relationships among her ever-growing network of clients and contacts have led to major engagements in Seattle and cross-border ones throughout the global K&L Gates platform. “She is effective, is quick to understand what needs to be done and achieves results. Clients and colleagues are both beneficiaries of Pallavi’s active leadership of client teams and thoughtful leadership as the head of the Seattle office and in the wider firm as an energetic voice on K&L Gates’ Management Committee,” says David Tang, an early mentor.
I first came to know Pallavi back in 2001, when a group of us (some newly-minted lawyers and others still in law school) came together to form Kanoon, a bar association focused on providing support to the South Asian community in the Puget Sound region. All of us were reacting to the spate of hate crimes against Sikhs and other minorities in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Pallavi was instrumental in working on creating the framework that has allowed Kanoon (now known as the South Asian Bar Association of Washington) to continue to provide meaningful programs some twenty years later.
Of course, as with any newly-formed association, no matter how well-intentioned, it took a few years for SABAW to get off the ground. One of my favorite memories relating to SABAW was when Pallavi declared at the beginning of her Presidency that SABAW should establish scholarships for law students at the University of Washington and Seattle University who were either of South Asian heritage or working on issues of importance to the South Asian community (whether in the Puget Sound or elsewhere). As the then-Treasurer of SABAW, I felt it incumbent to point out that we had approximately $75 in our bank account, and that only because I recently had pitched in with $20 because we had to maintain a minimum balance to avoid fees. Pallavi simply refused to take “no” for an answer, and though the sheer force of her personality and will, managed to not only pull off SABAW’s first ever banquet, but SABAW’s scholarship program was recognized a few years later by the South Asian Bar Association of North America as a local program of merit worth national recognition. The scholarship program that Pallavi helped create out of whole cloth continues to thrive and in 2020 will be granting $9,000 in scholarships to law students and recently-admitted attorneys “who have demonstrated leadership in service to the South Asian and/or Black community.” Pallavi continues to serve in an advisory role to the current leadership of SABAW.
Among her many community roles, Pallavi currently is on the Board of Trustees of the King County Bar Foundation and is a past Trustee of the WSBA’s Young Lawyer Division and served on its Committee for Diversity, and serves on the Global Business Law Institute’s, Industry Advisory Board. She also serves on the KCBA’s MLK Luncheon Committee.
Pallavi’s contributions to diversity and the Puget Sound community is not now, and has never been, limited simply to her work in the legal community. She serves, or has served, on the boards of various non-profit organizations including the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and API-Chaya. Aaliyah Gupta, the founding Executive Director of Chaya (now API Chaya), reminisces fondly of Pallavi’s volunteerism with Chaya, noting “Pallavi had such tremendous passion, energy, and commitment for the issues that Chaya was working on in those early days. She engaged on a big picture level as a board member — helping make organizational policy decisions — yet had no hesitation about getting in the weeds on fundraising, doing whatever it took to get our first auction off the ground.”
Needless to say, as a first-generation immigrant and a woman of color, Pallavi has faced her fair share of discrimination — whether in terms of “mansplaining” and “whitesplaining” or outright hostility to her role as an attorney. Pallavi recalls a time early in her career where she was lead counsel at a mediation. She was accompanied by her client and local counsel (both men). The mediator refused to engage with Pallavi, and addressed all settlement positions and strategy to her local counsel. After about an hour of this inexcusable behavior, Pallavi took a break (and with her client’s support) asked local counsel to leave. When the mediator returned, he asked where the lead counsel was and Pallavi had the pleasure of informing him, “Right here, as I have been saying all along.” Pallavi was, not surprisingly, able to settle the case even in the absence of “lead counsel.”
Of course, not every instance of discrimination is so stark and obvious. I recall Pallavi telling me about the time when a well-meaning and woke woman complimented her on how well Pallavi’s son, born and raised in Seattle, spoke English. Throughout these interactions, Pallavi has managed to maintain her sense of humor and focus on what really matters. As she often tells the many attorneys of color and diverse attorneys whom she mentors, “Don’t set limits and don’t let anyone else set limits for you. By accepting who you are and being comfortable in your own skin and with your own voice, there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
Justice Mary Yu of the Washington State Supreme Court observed that when she first met Pallavi, “I was struck by her warm smile and display of what I’ll refer to as humble intelligence. When I was a trial judge in King County Superior Court, I recall having a serious conversation with her about serving as a special discovery master for me. She exuded personal strength, a deep appreciation for the law, and a remarkable level of confidence that made me want to find a way to elevate her to a position of authority and power. The fact that she was a woman of color made it even more appealing.” Justice Yu further commented that she is not surprised by Pallavi’s achievements and her level of success as the managing partner at K&L Gates, Seattle. “Pallavi is a remarkable lawyer with a laser-sharp mind who is sincerely humble in how she walks on this earth and serves her clients; she is truly someone we should all strive to emulate,” continued Justice Yu.
For myself, I am happy to call Pallavi a friend and extremely glad that the legal community in the Puget Sound has such an incredible success story to point to as we work towards creating a bar and bench that reflects the diversity of our community. I only wish she would let me in on her secret of fitting in twenty-six hours of work into each day.
Kaustuv M. Das is a Director, IP Attorney at Intellectual Ventures where he works on all aspects of patent prosecution and patent monetization across IV’s funds. He has been involved in various KCBA and KCBF programs throughout his legal career and is currently serving as the First Vice President of the King County Bar Association. You can reach him at email@example.com and 425-247-2431.