Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Advising a Major Corporation and Inspiring Public Service: My Conversation with Lucy Helm of Starbucks

January 2019 Bar Bulletin

(First of Two Parts)

Lucy Helm is a King County lawyer. Among her other accomplishments are a distinguished career as a practicing lawyer at a leading Seattle law firm; 19 years as an in-house lawyer at Starbucks, culminating with her appointment as executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, positions she held for five years; being named one of America’s 50 Outstanding General Counsel in 2014; recipient of Legal Momentum’s Women of Achievement award; recipient of the Washington Appleseed Bradley C. Diggs Outstanding Service Award for leadership in social justice in 2015; and a mid-career change, of course, as Starbucks executive vice president and chief partner officer in the summer of 2017.

At Starbucks she now leads the partner experience — Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners” — for more than 330,000 company employees worldwide in more than 29,000 stores and offices. Plus, she has a professional lifetime of personal involvement and leadership in providing pro bono services and making other contributions to the communities in which she lives.

Whew!

Lucy’s considerable success has always been accompanied by a genuine regard for her fellow citizens. One of her longtime friends from Kentucky, Marc Murphy, told me, “After I’ve introduced Lucy to someone, the reaction is always the same: ‘How can someone so important be so nice?’ Lucy has always been important, but for many different reasons. If we could take Lucy’s sense of humor and spread it evenly around the world, everyone would be better for it.”

I recently sat down with Lucy for a chat.

Q. Tell us about your family.

A. I grew up in a large extended family in Louisville, Kentucky. My four grandparents were natives of Louisville. Both my parents came from large families, so I had many aunts and uncles and lots of cousins in town. My immediate family consisted of four brothers and one sister. I was one of the younger kids.

Q. What was it like to grow up in Louisville?

A. We lived in a Catholic neighborhood in what was then a very Catholic city, which gave the city a small-town feeling. My siblings, my friends and I attended parochial schools. That did not seem so much like a “private” education to me. I felt that I was just attending the neighborhood schools that happened to be affiliated with the local church. My high school was all girls.

As a young person, I was always involved in neighborhood activities, organizing a carnival, putting on a play, hosting parties in the backyard. At an early age, I was interested in politics. As children we would hold pretend “elections” for political office. In my eighth-grade classroom I played the part of Senator Edmund Muskie, a presidential candidate in the election that year. As I got older, I became involved in student government and debate.

Q. When you were young, did you ever think you might go into politics as an adult?

A. Yes, quite often. As a child, I wanted to be mayor of Louisville or speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives when I grew up. While I aspired to have a career in political office early in my life, I really did not have any awareness of the practical effects of that life until I was an adult.

I later learned what it takes to be an elected public official when I worked as a legislative intern for the judiciary committee of the Kentucky state legislature, and when I worked for U.S. Senator Wendell Ford while in college. That taught me a lot about the obligations and work involved in mounting a successful campaign, and what the day-to-day realities are for anyone serving in public office.

Q. Where did you go to college?

A. I went to our local state school, the University of Louisville, both as an undergraduate and for law school. I wanted to go elsewhere, but that wasn’t feasible.

Q. What was your greatest influence in college?

A. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful professor at the University of Louisville who had a big influence on my choice of studies and my career, Dr. Phillip Laemmle. He gave me inspiration as well as guidance, and he did the same for many other students as well.

Dr. Laemmle recognized potential in me that I had not yet recognized in myself. He taught political science. But he also supervised internships for students and was a trusted advisor. He told me to take the hardest classes from the most challenging professors. He convinced me that if I did so, I could have an “Ivy League” education at any college, including the University of Louisville.

He encouraged me to take not only classes that interested me, but to enroll in others that would force me to grow and develop and see new things. At Dr. Laemmle’s insistence, my studies expanded to include geography, anthropology and other disciplines that went well beyond my interest in political science. He put me on an honors track.

I wrote my honors thesis on women in leadership positions. It was a fun topic, and one that had not received a lot of attention at that time. There was not a lot of research that had been done on the subject back in the 1970s.

Q. You had not thought about law school until another college professor of yours suggested it. Tell me about that.

A. I took a two-semester course in college taught by Professor Mary K. Tachau on constitutional history. She was a nationally recognized authority on the United States Constitution, the chair of the history department at the time, and had been appointed to be the historical advisor to the Watergate Committee in Washington, D.C.

Professor Tachau’s curriculum started with source materials from the founders in the late 1700s and finished with current events that included studying archived materials that she had collected during the Watergate hearings. It was an amazing experience. I had never studied anything like it. Not even in law school did I have such an in-depth exposure to constitutional law and history.

During the second semester of that class, Professor Tachau told me that I should consider applying to law school. She said that law school would provide me with more than a career path and that a legal education would expand my thinking. She also thought I would enjoy it.

Q. Was she right?

A. She was. It did expand my thinking and I did enjoy it. I’m glad I became a lawyer. While I don’t think I was all that well suited to the private practice of law, a legal education taught me a lot about the legislative process and judicial reasoning. For someone who entered law school knowing very little about the legal system, it was a very useful guide. It caused me to think a lot about individual rights and protections, and how important it is to preserve them, notions that I have valued over the course of my entire professional career.

Q. Professor Tachau’s son, David Brandeis Tachau in Louisville, told me, “Lucy was one of my mother’s very favorite constitutional history students, and as a young attorney she was an extremely kind and passionate advocate for people with disabilities, years before the Americans With Disabilities Act changed the public landscape. Our loss in Louisville was Seattle’s gain.”

It sounds like Professor Tachau not only had an influence on your choice to become an attorney, but also on your thinking about public service. True?

A. Yes, she did.

Q. You’ve been involved in providing pro bono services far longer than most of us. Tell us what got you started.

A. In law school, I spent my summers working at a camp for people with disabilities, rather than working as a law clerk in a firm. When I graduated, I went to work for a Louisville law firm. I was a litigator and the firm had a strong commitment to encourage its attorneys to be involved in pro bono legal services.

Pro bono work appealed to me originally because it gave me an opportunity to gain litigation experience early, much faster than I might have acquired it representing paying clients of the firm. What I learned was that there were many people who had legal rights, but no practical “right” to counsel because they could not afford to hire an attorney.

While the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed the right to counsel, that was only true in criminal cases. There was no corresponding assurance of counsel for civil litigants who were without means, unless they were fortunate enough to have a lawyer willing to serve on a pro bono basis.

During my first year of practice, I worked with the Louisville Legal Aid Society handling domestic cases, real estate and housing matters, and one very cool case representing a tenants’ union. There were abundant opportunities, the firm was very supportive and I benefited greatly. It was a terrific way for a young lawyer to start a career.

Q. You served as the advocacy director for the Louisville Center for Accessible Living before you moved to Seattle. What did that involve?

A. After four or five years in private practice, mostly working on gigantic cases, I realized that I just didn’t love it. I was more attracted to the pro bono cases I had been handling. And I got more personal satisfaction out of that work. So, I left private practice, intending to go in a different direction.

I accepted a job with the Louisville Center for Accessible Living which supported people with disabilities, affording not just legal support and protection of their individual rights, but also providing support mechanisms for their daily lives. My job had a legal component, but that was only one part of my overall responsibilities. In fact, the original job was a low-paying, non-legal position, that I somehow managed to broaden into more of a legal job.

This was in the early days of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the enactment of various state laws around the country to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. It was a time of tremendous activity in that area. At the Center, we created a network of pro bono support for the individuals we served, with lawyers handling all variety of claims for medical benefits, representing clients at Social Security hearings and whatever else our constituents needed.

Q. When did you decide to move from Louisville to Seattle?

A. I always thought I would move west someday and I felt like I had deferred that decision when I decided to stay in Louisville for college and law school. I was interested to do something different. The combination of ocean and mountains was a great attraction. So, in 1990 I headed to the Pacific Northwest.

When I arrived, I loved it, even the weather. It was, and still is, a great community, with tremendous sensibilities and an openness that you don’t find in many places. Of course, I loved the coffee. 

Harry H. Schneider, Jr., is president of the King County Bar Association and a litigation partner at Perkins Coie. He can be reached by email at hschneider@perkinscoie.com or by phone at 206-359-8508.

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