Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

In Memoriam – William Gates Sr.

October 2020 Bar Bulletin


Seattle-King County Bar President 1969–1970

The King County Bar Association is saddened by the September 15th death of former King County Bar President, William Gates, Sr. His life and distinguished career exemplified the mission of King County Bar: ensuring access to the legal system and encouraging diversity in the legal profession. 

A decade before the meteoric rise of his name-sake son, during a period in history when civil unrest and widespread feelings of injustice challenged the status quo, Gates was already known as a “lawyer’s lawyer.” He supported the burgeoning women’s rights movement, and championed the change of long-established rules so that women could access the Rainier Club for Bar meetings. 

He understood that the legal system needed to be accessible to everyone, that it should be perceived as fair and without prejudice. However, in 1969 there were very few minority lawyers practicing in King County and no minority judges, and he knew that the perception of the law as biased would not change unless everyone could identify with the lawyers and judges in their communities. 

As Seattle-King County Bar President in 1970, Gates believed the Bar had an obligation to assist in reversing that situation. He began working with his alma mater at the University of Washington to increase minority enrollment, and urged the SKCBA Board to provide funding to assist law schools in offering scholarships to minority students. While the Board agreed with the idea, there was considerable opposition from SKCBA members. In response Gates called for an open meeting of the Bar, the only one that has ever occurred in its history, where his proposal was debated in full. At the end of the meeting Gates took the vote and the project was overwhelmingly supported — a significant victory for both the judicial system and the legal profession.

Bill Gates Sr. is quoted, in the May 1970 edition of the Bar Bulletin, as saying, “It is generally agreed that an indispensable ingredient of overcoming the alienation toward society which minority groups feel is that they achieve equitable access to the decision-making process — the power structure. There are 300,000 lawyers of whom less than one percent are Black and Bar Trustees feel that the organized bar has a measure of special responsibility to contribute to correcting that imbalance.”

The outcome was the founding of the Minority Law Scholarships, which continue to this day. Those first scholarships totaled $10,000 per annum, and 50 years later the Bar now awards over $150,000 a year, split equally between Seattle University and University of Washington Law Schools.

Llewellyn Pritchard, a longtime friend and legal colleague, had this to say, “The (scholarship) program exists and thrives today because Bill realized that having the votes of the Board of Trustees alone wasn’t enough. The key to this important effort was having the hearts and minds of our lawyer members of the SKCBA not only behind, but also devoted to this important task. Making this happen was his ultimate goal. Bravo, Bill — for the education of many minority lawyers and judges who add to the diversity and worth of our noble profession.”

Judge Ronald Cox, KCBA and KCBF Past President, was among the first recipients of the minority scholarship. He recalls how it changed his life, “In 1970, I was in the process of resigning my commission as an officer in the U.S. Army and applying to law schools around the country. I knew nothing of Bill Gates. When my acceptance to the University of Washington School of Law arrived, it came with a scholarship offer from a fund created by the county bar association. I later learned that the fund was created by the vision of Bill Gates when he was president of the bar. That scholarship was the single most important factor in my decision to move to Washington to attend law school. Upon graduation my legal career began when I joined the law firm now known as K&L Gates LLP. Ironically, Bill Gates and I became law partners when our two firms merged in the 1990s. I later became a judge on the Washington State Court of Appeals. None of my career would have been possible without that scholarship from the fund that Bill Gates pushed to create. I will always be grateful for his vision.”

Bill Gates’ friend and fellow attorney Tom Fitzpatrick remembers, “Bill was always interested in law students and young lawyers. He was steadfast for the Minority Law Scholarships, and always wanted to know what young lawyers thought.” 

His interest in young lawyers and his encouragement of their service is exemplified by his decision, early in his tenure as SKCBA President, to invite Llewellyn Pritchard (quoted above), then a representative of the Young Lawyer’s Division to attend and contribute to the Board of Trustees meetings, an invitation that is extended to YLD leadership each month to this day.

Bill Neukom, longtime Microsoft legal counsel and past-President of the ABA, remembers his friend as, “…a lawyer and Bar Leader for all seasons. He was naturally curious and open-minded about the point-of-view of younger lawyers and believed the Bar should be more involved in social justice issues, so he met with young activist lawyers to find out what they were concerned about and why. He learned a lot and it broadened his horizons. He felt young lawyers deserved a place at the roundtable of discussion and saw their inclusion as a positive way to stimulate the best deliberations. One thousand other lawyers similarly situated as Bill was in the early 70s — a pillar of the establishment in a traditional, conservative law firm — would not have been willing to learn about new and painful realities, but Bill was open-minded and made decisions based on the merit; he was willing to be uncomfortable and learn from that discomfort. Bill started the conversation about inclusivity in Seattle legal practice, and although 50 years later it’s still an unfinished agenda, progress has been made thanks to his initial vision.”

This visionary leadership made Bill Gates Sr. a champion of diversity within the legal community, and a true agent of progress and change in the legal profession. He went on to become President of the WSBA in 1986, and to win the ABA Outstanding Lawyer award in 2009, as well as embarking on all his other well-recorded philanthropic achievements beyond the world of law. 

As Thomas Kelly, a former colleague at Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates) and KCBA President stated, “Bill was the unusual combination of intelligence, affability, and effectiveness. In other words a true leader.” A leader whose dedication and vision fifty years ago still defines KCBA today. 

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