May 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Profile / Nancy Williams

A Path Less Taken

By Karen Jones

 

Nancy Williams really didn’t want this Profile to be written. The idea of honoring her was embarrassing; besides, she didn’t think there was anything especially interesting or noteworthy about herself or her career.

For someone who almost always gets it right, Nancy was dead wrong.

Nancy’s story is important because it reminds us of truths about our profession that are easy to lose sight of: what a fun and rewarding adventure practicing law can be, and how our profession both calls and ultimately rewards those who uphold its high ethical standards. So, for newer or aspiring lawyers questioning what a career in law has to offer, those who are mid-career and looking for new challenges, or more senior lawyers lamenting the decline of professionalism, Nancy’s story offers us hope and a path forward.

That path for Nancy has followed more of a crooked line than a straight one. Her decisions at different forks in the road have been shaped by a mix of pragmatism, a willingness to take risks and the determination to throw herself 100 percent into whatever challenge or opportunity came her way. And occasionally a streak of rebellion.

Nancy grew up in Kansas City, Missouri; one of five girls. Her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher, and they quietly encouraged all of their daughters to pursue their dreams. Though Nancy left home with a strong sense that she could do whatever she wanted, there were no lawyers in her family, and it would be some years later that Nancy dreamt of being a lawyer.

Nancy went to college in 1960s in the midst of the Vietnam War, and she studied journalism, hoping to work for a newspaper. Although she had job offers from several Chicago papers, President Kennedy had recently established an exciting new agency called the Peace Corps. When Nancy and her former husband got the opportunity to work in urban development in Colombia, they jumped at it.

When that commitment ended, Nancy’s husband went to law school while she worked in an editorial job for the university. She liked her job, but as she typed her husband’s papers and occasionally sat in on a class, she found herself drawn into the legal discussions and debates, and a seed was planted.

When her husband began his legal career, Nancy went to work for the U.S. Department of Labor as a public information officer, often preparing news releases about department litigation. When they later divorced, Nancy knew what she wanted. So, she gave up her job in government (against the advice of her father and others), took the LSAT, and applied to and entered the University of Michigan Law School.

She loved law school. As an older student who had prior work experience, the chance to sit in classes and debate issues with great professors was exciting and “luxurious.” When Nancy considered her next career move, she was drawn to large firms with sophisticated clients, where she felt there would be interesting work and the resources “to do things right.”

Initially focused on Denver, and without any particular draw to Seattle, she nonetheless accepted the invitation of Perkins Coie and flew here for her last firm interview. The fit felt good — and as time would tell, it was — so Nancy accepted the firm’s offer and never looked back.


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