Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Bruce Hilyer: A Man for All Seasons

Profile / Bruce Hilyer: A Man for All Seasons

September 2017 Bar Bulletin

By Peter Ehrlichman

Bruce Hilyer is a complex, highly intelligent man with a great sense of humor, currently serving the community as a solo mediator in Seattle.

As this profile will show, Bruce is a multi-faceted man. He is a fourth-generation attorney, who has succeeded in a significant and impactful way in jobs that “benefit” from having a law degree: attorney; counsel to the mayor; King County Superior Court presiding judge; and now arbitrator and mediator. And he appears to have achieved a sense of balance in pursuit of his non-law life.

The Honorable Hilyer graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1969, where he served on the Inter-High School Council (group of eastside high schools). He attended Cornell University, receiving a B.A. in government (1973) and later his J.D. from UW Law (1979, Order of the Coif). While juggling law school (he graduated at the top of his class) and clerking for a small firm, Bruce helped organize the doorbelling efforts on behalf of Charlie Royer’s Seattle mayoral campaign.

He joined the King County prosecutor’s office upon graduation and spent two years there. Former colleague Becky Roe recalls that Bruce and another assistant prosecutor helped convict a murderer, only to learn that the defendant’s dad was a relocated mobster who did not take kindly to the conviction. A contract was put out on Bruce’s life (for the insulting sum of $10,000). Bruce had to wear a bulletproof vest, live with guards and occasionally hide out. At an early stage in his career, Becky noted, Bruce showed that life would never be dull around him.

After trying felony cases for a couple years, Bruce left the prosecutor’s office to become legal counsel to Mayor Royer (1982–85) — all that doorbelling paid off. In the same fashion by which the current sitting Seattle mayor has proceeded, Royer came to lean on this sharp, engaging young attorney to help guide him through the multitude of legal issues facing the City of Seattle.

Following his stint in government, Bruce spent three years in a small firm where he worked alongside distinguished attorneys, including the late Susan Agid, John Keegan, and his good friend and mentor Mike Cohen (currently of counsel at Dorsey & Whitney). What Bruce recalls learning from Cohen about the legal profession is: “We are in the service business in which people are the most important assets — clients, colleagues and staff. Focusing on their unique humanity, everything else will take care of itself.”

In 1988, Bruce joined a bigger firm, Culp Gutterson & Grader, which had been founded by the legendary Bill Dwyer before he left to join the federal bench. It had 45 attorneys, which in those days was a “big” firm, and it allowed Bruce to work on some large cases with some great lawyers.

That experience prepared Bruce to hit the ground running when he opened his own law office in 1994, emphasizing commercial, environmental liability and health law cases. One of his earliest passions was piloting small airplanes, and there was one two-year period when he flew his Mooney Rocket, single-engine airplane coast to coast for depositions and trial 18 times.

Bruce left private practice to become a King County Superior Court judge in 2000, appointed by Gov. Gary Locke. Judge Hilyer was elected presiding judge by his peers in 2008 and served in that role through 2010. Current Presiding Judge Laura C. Inveen described Judge Hilyer’s work on the bench as follows: “He excelled … he had the respect of his fellow elected officials in both the executive and legislative branches, and had an extraordinary reputation for working together with them.”

Tough budgetary times required Judge Hilyer to be the ultimate tightrope walker. “His experience with revenues and competing needs in lean times,” Judge Inveen said, “lent to the establishment of court programs in the family law area which provided services to pro se litigants, while providing a funding source as well.”

All agreed he was an extremely effective administrator, working with the county executive, council and the bench to find solutions to a severe financial crunch affecting the court. Attorney General Bob Ferguson recalls: “I’ve known Judge Hilyer for a long time. I worked closely with him when I was on the King County Council and he was the PJ. Bruce was a dedicated public servant and advocate for justice.” Judge Hilyer’s work on behalf of the bar and bench resulted in him being named “Judge of the Year” in 2010 by the KCBA.

While hearing cases, Judge Hilyer earned a reputation for being an excellent trial judge. Trial attorney Mike Wampold tells the story of trying a case to the Hilyer bench 10 years ago, which involved very technical and scientifically complex facts. It was a case that Wampold had carefully prepared for two years. At the end, Judge Hilyer prepared findings and conclusions that, according to Wampold, demonstrated that “he understood the case better than I had.” Wampold’s high assessment is echoed by others with whom we spoke, including Judge Helen Halpert of the King County bench, who called him a “great judge, very smart.”

Not everyone knew of Judge Hilyer’s sterling reputation, however. For years while serving on the King County bench, he would work out at the Washington Athletic Club in the morning. His day would begin by arriving at the WAC in his gym clothes, worn underneath his overcoat.

One day, he was stopped by a Seattle police officer as he approached the WAC. He was asked to open up his coat, which as presiding judge he was not used to doing. The officer was responding to a report that a flasher was frequenting Sixth Avenue and Union Street early in the mornings. Fortunately, that day Judge Hilyer had remembered to wear his running shorts, according to our source. No scandalous headlines about the PJ followed.

After a very close, but unsuccessful statewide primary race for state Supreme Court, it was time for Bruce to consider “what now?” As Seattle attorney Brad Keller noted: “Bruce can’t take his finger off the reset button. He’s been a lawyer with a thriving private practice, a prominent judge, a successful real estate investor, a politician and most recently, an accomplished ‘go to’ mediator.”

Bruce left the bench in 2013 to begin his fourth or fifth legal career, as mediator and arbitrator, first with JDR, then as principal of his own firm, Hilyer Dispute Resolution. Fellow mediator and friend Jim Smith, Jr., reports that when Bruce asked him about pursuing a new career as mediator and arbitrator, Smith responded: “I told him that it was a fascinating career, which, in my view, would be a natural and unique match with his own skills. That turned out to be an understatement.”

Bruce describes his current work as a mediator as challenging. “Being a mediator,” he says, “is different than being a judge and harder in some ways because it is usually easier to decide a case than it is to convince the parties that a reasonable settlement is achievable. Of course, as an effective mediator, you must read the mediation statements, digest and understand the issues, but that may not be enough to settle the case.

“The lesson I have learned above all else is the same that my mentor explained to me 35 years ago — it’s ultimately human beings to whom we provide service, whether as lawyers, judges or mediators. And to be an effective mediator, in my opinion, the indispensable quality is that you respectfully and faithfully engage with the litigants and their lawyers as human beings.

“At times that may mean getting yelled at (I have very thick skin), or ignored, or cried to, but these all reflect aspects of being human. So even though every case is different, it is that challenge to use the law, the evidence, and everything you have learned about being human that makes being a mediator such an amazing occupation. Besides, in what other profession is having gray hair more useful than looking youthful?”

Smith reports that Bruce shines as a mediator. “It requires patience, understanding, liking people, and a fascination with the process of negotiation,” Smith says. “Bruce has all of those skills. No mediation with Bruce is rushed to conclusion. Bruce always has in mind the fact that the key hallmark of a good mediator is the ability to listen to the parties and their counsel, acknowledging the fact that a successful mediation will have to be a substitute for the parties’ day in court. He always has time to listen.”

Others have also experienced what Brad Keller has seen firsthand. “Whether with a smile or that gleam in his eye, both as a judge and now as a mediator,” Keller relates, “Bruce has that uncanny ability to, without saying a word, let you know when he thinks you are out to lunch.”

When not involved in the practice of law, judging or mediating, Bruce also has pursued many a life adventure:

• as the father of two (Brett, 32, and Brittany, 25);

•horseback rider (his recent shoulder injury from a fall is not illustrative of his usual skills);

• pilot of small planes (Mooney Rocket);

• river rafter and kayaker;

• hunter;

• 2016 Burning Man attendee (the photo, taken by a prominent colleague mentioned in this article, is worth more than a thousand words); and

• world explorer, including Machu Picchu.

Travel is a key component of Bruce’s life, per Smith. “This is a man who, unlike some of us who still practice law, understands the importance of balance,” Smith says. “In Bruce’s world there is more to life than work and we are better and more effective in our careers for understanding this.” Experiencing the wilderness is every bit as important to Bruce him as his career. He is truly a man for all seasons.

Until recently, Bruce was not aware that he is a fourth generation attorney. He always knew his father Gale P. Hilyer, Jr. was a lawyer, who practiced in Seattle from 1951 to 1979. And he knew that his grandfather Gale P. Hilyer, whom he never met, worked in a private law practice and for the U.S. government.

But he never was told that his great-grandfather Andrew Hilyer, was a distinguished lawyer in the D.C. area in the early 1900s, or that this early relative was born a slave in Georgia and became the first African-American graduate of the University of Minnesota. Turns out, Andrew Hilyer was a noted civil rights leader in the Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois era, who became a regent of Howard University.

As Judge Halpert wrote: “Bruce, certainly, was always socially conscious, but his personal history, I believe, now informs his long-held views in a meaningful and deep way.” Collegial, practical, humorous and with a wealth of real-world experience, Bruce Hilyer is a person you would enjoy spending time with. Hopefully you will get that chance someday. 

Peter Ehrlichman is a long-time friend of Bruce Hilyer (since 1967). Ehrlichman is a senior trial partner in Dorsey & Whitney LLP’s Seattle office.

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