When Bill Helsell, one of Seattle's preeminent trial lawyers, died in December at age 88, it is hard to believe that his career could be summed up in one short paragraph. But the late U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer did so:
"Bill Helsell is a great trial lawyer in the classical tradition. I worked with him as opposing counsel, co-counsel, with him being my lawyer, and with me being his lawyer. He is tough as boot leather, but he is also good-humored, ethical, fair, and always a pleasure to have around."
Helsell, a Seattle native, was the second son of a prominent Seattle lawyer and a school teacher. After graduating from Lakeside School, Helsell attended Princeton University for one year before enlisting in the Navy, becoming a fighter pilot, and flying Wildcats, Hellcats and Corsairs off aircraft carriers. After the Navy, Helsell finished college and went to law school, both at the University of Washington.
Helsell's father, Frank P. Helsell, was a respected attorney with his own law firm, but young Bill refused to join that firm out of law school - he wanted to prove that he could make it without help from his dad. So, Helsell spent his first three years as a lawyer trying insurance defense cases for the firm that later became Williams Kastner.
It did not take long for Helsell to make his mark and in May 1954, U.S. Attorney Charles P. Moriarty appointed Helsell as assistant U.S. attorney. Helsell wanted the job for the trial experience and he got it. During three years he tried civil and criminal cases at the rate of one a month. It was a time that Helsell remembered with great fondness for the remainder of his career.
In the fall of 1957, Helsell joined Helsell, Fetterman, Paul, Todd & Hokanson, where he practiced until his retirement in 1991. Helsell continued to try cases for the remainder of his career, many with longtime partner and friend Richard S. White, and they had many legal and not-so-legal adventures together. After one too-exuberant victory celebration, they were found mistakenly driving down a taxiway at Larsen Air Force Base, looking in vain for the turnoff to Moses Lake and to their hotel room.
Helsell worked hard, had a steel-trap mind and a near-photographic memory, all of which made him a superb trial lawyer. He was a highly ethical one, too. Even today, many of his former partners ask themselves, "What would Bill do?" when they are faced with a thorny ethical issue. His wisdom lives on.
Judge Dwyer had it right. Bill Helsell was a pleasure to have around. As his partner Brad Bagshaw said: "It's too damn bad we won't have him around anymore."