Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Cynthia Whitaker: Family Law Pioneer

Profile / Cynthia Whitaker: Family Law Pioneer

June 2021 Bar Buleltin

By Rachel Culver

After almost five decades in practice, a certain generation likely knows her from her work on Rockwell and Littlefield, but Cynthia Whitaker has been deep in the trenches of family law since the 1980’s. In addition to being trial counsel on multiple and significant reported family law cases, she has a long history of volunteering her services for the legal community. 

Cynthia Whitaker was born in Florida, lived in Japan for a few years, and grew up in Hawaii. Cynthia attended the first two years of college at the University of Redlands in California. She then moved to Seattle and transferred to the University of Washington where she majored in journalism and political science. Inspired by Branzburg v. Hayes, a 1972 Supreme Court case that dealt with journalist’s privilege, she decided to attend law school. In law school, she continued her interest in journalism, and served on Law Review. She graduated from UW Law in 1976. 

Cynthia recalls one of her early trials severely tested her cross-examination skills. She represented a woman charged with offering and agreeing to an act of prostitution. The primary prosecution witness was an “expert lip reader” working for the Seattle Police Department. The lip reader, who observed conversations through binoculars from 50 yards away, was looking to arrest women for prostitution. Over Cynthia’s objection, the judge admitted the expert testimony. Cynthia’s attempt to show the lip reader’s unreliability through cross examination was not persuasive and her client was convicted. Despite her loss, Cynthia decided she loved trial work and hasn’t looked back. 

After graduation Cynthia began practicing out of her house, in partnership with Larry Lund. Her practice consisted of juvenile law, dependency hearings, criminal law and family law. After one jury trial, she decided personal injury cases were not for her.

In 1979, Cynthia volunteered to create a newsletter for Washington Women Lawyers. WWL had never had a formal publication, and Cynthia spearheaded the creation of the publication and served as its Editor for three years.

In the early 1980s Cynthia continued with her interest in journalism and worked with others to revamp the (then called) Seattle King County Bar Bulletin. The Bar Bulletin’s format had remained relatively unchanged since the 1950’s and a decision was made to update its format. In September 1982, the first issue using the new format was published. Cynthia co-authored the front-page article of the initial issue on the subject of family law, and subsequently served as Editor. In March 1986, Cynthia received the title of Editor Emeritus and was officially recognized by the SKCBA trustees for her work on the Bar Bulletin. 

Cynthia moved her office downtown in 1984, opening a solo practice in the Fourth & Pike building. Her practice focus narrowed to family law, and she represented clients in several difficult child sexual abuse cases, where she demonstrated her ability to handle those topics sensitively, but directly. 

Cynthia volunteered and served as a pro tem Family Law Court Commissioner in King County Superior Court from 1988 to 2013. She believes seeing litigation from the judicial perspective considerably enhanced her effectiveness as a trial attorney

Cynthia’s cross-examination skills improved, and by the early 1990’s she had developed a reputation as a fearsome litigator. In May 1991, a half-page advertisement appeared in the Sunday Seattle Times seeking information from people who had “legal or business relationships” with “Cynthia B. Whitaker, Attorney at Law.” The ad requested persons with information to contact a certain private investigator. The ad, which cost over $11,000 to place, was an intimidation tactic by the husband in a dissolution proceeding, trying to gather ammunition against Cynthia, who represented his wife. While such intimidation tactics might have made others weak in the knees, the ploy only solidified Cynthia’s resolve that she had to “do right” by her client. 

In zealously representing her clients, Cynthia often changed the course of family law in Washington. Her long-time colleague, appellate lawyer Catherine Smith, notes, “Cynthia just had a way of setting the case up, her legal analysis was always on point, and she knew what needed to be done to move the law on an issue.” Catherine Smith credits Cynthia with much of their success at the appellate level. Cynthia always closely read the statute and was adept at recognizing when an issue was ripe for consideration. There were the relocation cases, third-party custody cases, then a string of cases involving prenuptial agreements, and others. 

In her 45 years as an attorney Whitaker has been involved in over 35 appellate cases — she has litigated many high conflict cases and did these in a way that set the law. She is perhaps best known for In re Marriage of Littlefield and In re Marriage of Rockwell. 

In Littlefield, Cynthia represented the wife, who had moved back to her hometown in California with the party’s child while the dissolution action was pending, with no objection from the father. But after trial, the wife was ordered to return to Washington, to make it “easier” for the father — a wealthy man who owned homes in both Washington and California — to have visitation (there was no question that the wife would be primary parent). After losing the relocation issue in the trial court, she partnered with Catherine Smith and they appealed on behalf of the wife. In August 1997, the Washington State Supreme court overturned the trial court’s decision and held that the trial court did not have authority under the Parenting Act to order the wife as primary residential parent to live in a particular geographic area. Subsequently the legislature passed statutes that address relocation issues.

Then came Rockwell, again with Whitaker representing the wife. The trial court had divided property 60 percent to wife and 40 percent to husband, acknowledging wife’s separate property. The husband appealed, disputing the split. The Rockwell objective — in dissolving a long-term marriage, it is desirable for the trial court to place the parties in “roughly equivalent” financial positions when distributing assets and awarding maintenance — became a general standard. When asked whether she saw how groundbreaking the issues were from the beginning, Cynthia said, “it’s family law, you often can’t really predict what issues are going to arise.”

Cynthia is not just an extraordinary lawyer; she is a fantastic person. She has a quick wit and a dry sense of humor and will keep you on the edge of your seat. She is always knowledgeable of the legal principles that should be applied when making strategic case management decisions and on the practical impact on the clients. She is a committed mentor, eager to encourage those following in her footsteps.

Family law has a way of turning lawyers into calloused cynics — perhaps it’s the constant squabble — but Cynthia is and has remained an incredibly nice person. However, she will give you a lecture if you don’t know the difference between “affect” and “effect.” In her pursuit of literacy she has given each of her associates and staff a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. She treats everyone equally, whether right out of law school or a seasoned veteran. Her reputation is based on a simple premise, there is a right and a wrong way to do things and she is only going to do it the right way. 

In her spare time, Cynthia can be found tending to her various plants — including vegetable starts that she shares each spring with her friends. She’s an excellent cook and an avid reader. She loves Yoga, and wishes she had started practicing yoga 30 years earlier. In another life, she might have aspired to be on the bridge tournament circuit. There is no doubt that had she chosen this path, she would be the best bridge player by far. The bar is fortunate to have Cynthia Whitaker. 

Rachel Culver is an associate at Whitaker Kent Ordell, PLLC.

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