Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Christopher Howard: The Timing of the Shrewd

Profile / Christopher Howard: The Timing of the Shrewd

February 2021 Bar Bulletin

By Gene Barton

It would not be far-reaching to call Christopher Howard a polymath when it comes to the law and other pursuits. As the “shareholder in-charge” of the Seattle office of Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt (other Schwabe offices are located in Vancouver, Portland, Salem, Eugene, Anchorage, Mountain View, California, and Bend, Oregon), Howard oversees dozens of attorneys while handling a diverse practice of his own. His practice includes representing professionals, including lawyers, and clients in healthcare and life sciences; manufacturing, distribution and retail; and transportation, ports and maritime; and multi-family residential.

In addition to co-leading Schwabe’s Food and Beverage group, he spearheads the Schwabe “Dining Out” team, whose restaurant and beverage reviews have appeared every month, without fail, in this publication for more years than this editor can recall. And I would be remiss if I did not mention that he is a longtime, suffering Mariners fan with an annual set of season tickets that he graciously doles out to colleagues, clients and friends who have a simpatico urge to relive 2001 again.

King County Superior Court Judge Averil Budge Rothrock, who cut her legal teeth at Schwabe before being tapped to take the bench several years ago, has nothing but accolades, not only for Howard’s presence and legal acumen, but also for his true leadership and humanity. 

“The first thing to say is that, day in and day out, Chris always took time to know and mentor the members of our firm, especially young lawyers,” Judge Rothrock said. “I’m grateful for his mentorship and friendship. I love how much Chris likes to practice law — he works very hard — but also likes to make work a human place. At Schwabe, Chris has been an important supporter of pro bono work and he has worked regularly on asylum and immigration cases and recruited colleagues to do the same. Yes, I was recruited.

“Chris has many interests, including games! The conference room across from his office was the site of many newfangled card games,” she added. “His office is well supplied with chocolate and he is very generous with it. Some of the most fun I’ve had as a lawyer has been working on cases with Chris, especially mooting for oral argument. But also collaborating on briefs. I miss it!”

Howard’s parents are both from Portland, but he was born in Cleveland, where his father worked in the General Electric labs. His father earned a bachelor’s degree in science from Reed College and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from MIT. But Howard would not be an Ohioan and future Indians fan for long. When he was just a year old, the Howard family moved to Bainbridge Island.

He attended Commodore Bainbridge elementary school for one year in the early 1960s before the family moved again — this time to Portland. The family stayed in Portland long enough for Howard to finish sixth grade, then headed south — destination Los Angeles, when his father changed jobs again to work for Kliegl, then the leading stage lighting company that manufactured klieg theater lights. After five years with Kliegl, he started designing theaters, which allowed Howard to grow up with a theater background. But apart from non-speaking roles at the annual Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon when he was 12, he has mostly been in the audience or a volunteer. COVID broke his nearly 40-year streak of seeing outdoor plays in Ashland. Locally, you may find him as a volunteer bartender for the Seattle Shakespeare Company, which gives him a chance to take advantage of his mixologist license.

Howard left high school before his senior year. “I earned enough credits by my 11th (junior) year and went to college to get out of L.A.,” he recalled. Pre-EPA, the smog got the best of him. He was drawn to the East Coast and was off to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He called Hopkins a “great place with lots of small classes (if you were not pre-med). I got to know the professors personally and they were very accessible. I also learned to like lacrosse, but I didn’t play until law school.”

His goal was to experience the East for four years, but always knew he would be moving back to the West Coast. He made the most of his time there, especially by being quite close to the other Washington. He took the advantage of commuting two summers and during his junior year with a congressman, Rep. Robert Duncan — a Democrat from Portland representing Oregon’s Third District from 1975–81.

“It cured me of wanting to work in D.C.,” Howard said. “I might have taken a job [later] in D.C. out of law school, but I saw how out of touch they were even then. People can lose touch of where they came from when they work in D.C. It was a luxury to work there for the part of two years and pay tuition in college, but I got the D.C. urge out of my system.”

Mulling his options, Howard says he was “just trying to decide what to do.” He was looking into working with an independent political consulting firm. He applied to Stanford Law School, though “I had not yet decided that I was going to go to law school,” he said. “But then Stanford let me in. It’s hard to turn down Stanford Law School. It was a good three years.” He obtained his degree in 1980.

He earned an athletic letter at Stanford his first year, taking up his yen for lacrosse. “Lacrosse was a varsity club sport for graduate students to play and they could still give letters,” he recalled. “That is the only letter I ever got.”

In his Seattle days, “many years ago,” he wore his letterman’s jacket to a Husky/Stanford football game, which he deemed a “bad idea.” “Luckily, someone got me seats in a section in a section dominated by a sports-oriented fraternity and I was treated extremely well, like a visiting dignitary. And the Huskies did win that game, so I made it home intact.”

When asked, Howard could not decide on a favorite law professor at Stanford — “there were too many favorites.” “The one I most often refer to was Tony Amsterdam, as well as Larry Friedman, who taught History of American Law,” Howard said. “Friedman wrote my recommendation for the bar. I learned a lot in his class and he made his class one of the most fun classes to be in — he was almost a stand-up comedian. Stanford was small enough to get to know most faculty members on a first-name basis.”

As far as those he most admires within the legal profession, Howard recalled his “amazing criminal law professors,” including Amsterdam and Barbara Babcock, who had just finished serving as an assistant attorney general in the Carter Administration before she returned to Stanford. Coincidentally, Howard also had accolades for Professor Cornelius Peck from the University of Washington ranks. He was a visiting professor at Stanford while Howard was there. “He just wanted to take a vacation down there,” Howard recalls Peck saying. Howard noted his Negotiations seminar as among his favorite third-year classes.

Howard says of his role as shareholder in charge of the Seattle office is that it has “loosely defined responsibilities. My job is to make sure this place has good morale and productivity and so things are flowing smoothly here.” His general tasks are “doing what needs to be done to keep the place going,” and “to maintain the culture — we work hard to make this an office where people want to come to work (apart from COVID).” He is also assistant general counsel to the company-wide firm.

After Stanford, Howard arrived in Seattle with Reed McClure in 1980. He joined the firm “because I really liked Jerry Thonn,” president of Allied Arts of Seattle and who spearheaded the creation of Friends of the Market. Howard left Reed McClure in 1988 to join Weiss Descamp & Botteri, which later added his surname, as Weiss Jensen Ellis & Howard. It was his only move that involved leaving a continuing firm or office. The choice “had a lot to do with enjoying the job.” His firm later merged with Holland and Knight shortly after 9/11 (2001).

Holland and Knight’s New York office had been across the street from the Twin Towers and was shut down for months,” Howard noted. Still, it was a “great experience to be with that national firm. Holland and Knight decided to shut down 13 offices, including Seattle, so we were on the open market. It was take our book with us and go out to interview. The end result was that the largest chunk of litigators came to Schwabe at the beginning of 2006.”

Over the years Howard has handled about 100 jury trials, most of two to four weeks duration, with the longest at 11 weeks. “The hard thing about a multi-week trial is getting to trial. But once it starts it’s fun,” he said. “I’ve been at this for 40 years. There have been a few tough years — with a lot of trials. But after my third year, until that last few years, I usually have had two to three jury trials a year.”

“My record is very good,” he added, “but not perfect. I do better the longer the trial is, with one notable exception, and I think that’s because I am very careful of what I say to a jury. I am always careful to be accurate so the jury sees that I am credible. If you get longer than two weeks they can tell.”

Howard’s practice historically has been focused on litigation, but he has “accumulated clients for whom I trouble shoot and triage issues.” He is a co-lead of the firm’s food and beverage group, which is part of the firm’s Manufacturing, Distribution and Retail Industry Group, but he actively works with almost all the industry groups, especially when a client or professional organization wants an ethics CLE. 

Howard has developed a practice focus on legal issues, including helping to found and present Schwabe’s regularly scheduled Ethics Hours (open to all lawyers) and presents for several other CLEs including for WDTL, for the annual Endangered Species Act conference, and several others including construction law and IP seminars. A few years ago, this author attended one of Howard’s CLE classes and found out that even an old dog can learn new tricks.

“The most common pointers that get pushback are sharing depositions from cases without client permission (RPC 1.6) and getting consent from the insured to work with someone else paying the insurance company (RPC 1.8f),” Howard noted. The RPC 1.6 rule took this author by surprise — along with many other attendees — as sharing depositions had been a longtime practice in a particular litigation arena. 

“Out-of-state depositions should usually be allowed in most states, but you may recall that I said you should really check the state in which you are taking the deposition, as well as the state the case is in,” Howard continued. “Washington’s rule requires it be okay with the host state’s rules, also. And if you have a LOT of depositions in one location, you might cross the line into a systematic presence.”1

“I give a LOT of ethics presentations and different groups push back on different things,” he adds. Howard admits he gets more grief for some of the other presentations he gives, such as his annual presentation for emergency medicine practitioners, in Maui. “Hard to give that one up,” he added.

The idea for the Dining Out column was cooked up when Howard was an associate in the ’80s, although it was many years before it launched in this publication. “I wanted to have a column so I could pan bad service, and then I realized working professionally, if you want to do something, just do it,” he remarked. “We haven’t missed an issue since after an initial mix-up. We welcome good service and remark on bad service. But you have to read between the lines sometime — ‘still working out the kinks.’ More recently, we have taken the gloves off a couple of times. In the time of COVID, you get good service because everybody is grateful to see you.”

Oddly, however, he admits to having been the “least food-oriented person in my family when I was growing up.” His sister and brother were both into baking and stews, and had “no trouble ad-libbing when preparing food.”

The Dining Out crew is now focusing on takeout because “you want to keep them [the restaurants] going,” Howard noted. “We’ve decided that we’re just going to try to have fun with Dining Out,” he added. “We’re going to review things to have fun to enjoy the restaurants we’re checking out. When possible, we try to have fun, write it up and make it fit the (Bar Bulletin) theme.”

As for the Mariners, Howard is hanging in there, like the rest of us. He is well aware that among all of the major sports leagues in the U.S. — baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer — the Mariners are on the longest streak of not making the playoffs, i.e., not since 2001.

“I got Mariner tickets to take my daughter to the game and clients like to go, too,” Howard recalled. “I wasn’t big into sports, but it was a great father-daughter thing. We have a rookie of the year (Kyle Lewis). They might be building right for once. I’m not a big fan of professional sports — there’s too much money in the game.” Except, the other team of which he is a big fan, the Storm. “Much more fun to watch than the NBA,” he commented.

The father-daughter experience lasted until she went off to Southern Oregon University in Ashland after getting her associate’s degree from Highline. He still has the season tickets since the year the Mariners moved into Safeco Field. As far as spreading those around, he says, “I like to see them get used. I hate to see tickets go to waste, ever. I will cheer for the Mariners; it’s almost like cheering for the Cubs.”

Now 64, Howard said he doesn’t “have a direct answer” as to how long he will keep going. “I have other tempting things to do while I still can — such as going back to Capitol Hill (in D.C.),” i.e., not where he lives, and from which he can walk back and forth to and from work. 

“I don’t expect to be unemployed when I retire,” he says. “I’ve been following a path that has been dictated by success, but there are some other challenges to be met in the meantime. Retirement is not about being unemployed at home, but undertaking those other challenges.” 

Gene Barton retired from the practice of law in 2019 after 23 years at Karr Tuttle Campbell, and served as the Bar Bulletin editor from 2005 until his retirement. He has stepped back in as interim editor while KCBA seeks a new, full-time editor.

1 Howard notes that the reader should read ABA Opinion 495, which came out in December and is reprinted on page 4 of this issue, which he says should provide some solace.

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