By Kateri Walsh
He became a lawyer, in his words, 'because I love to argue.' Perhaps not so unusual a calling among the legal brethren. What sets Charlie Williamson apart is the passion he has brought to arguing good causes, and the results he's achieved in 35 years of advocacy.
Charles R. Williamson III graduated from Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1968, and moved to Portland in 1970. Upon his arrival, someone said to him, 'You’re from Boston; you must be political.' So they sent him to Salem. He’s been lobbying, in one form or another, ever since.
One of his first acts in Salem was to help pass the Landlord-Tenant Act. Prior to the act, there were essentially no defenses in Oregon to an eviction proceeding. Although now a mainstay of Oregon law, it took 11 hearings in 1971 and 1973 before the act passed, leveling the playing field for tenants in Oregon. It was among the first of many victories for him on the political battlefield.
Now a partner with Kell, Alterman & Runstein, Williamson’s achievements are felt today throughout the practice of law in Oregon, and perhaps more importantly, by citizens who have never heard his name. He lobbied for Oregon Trial Lawyers for six years. He was instrumental in the abolition of the 'holder in due course' doctrine in Oregon consumer transactions. He helped pass the Anti-Deficiency Judgment statute, which was just recently repealed. He helped persuade the legislature to mandate a major study that may limit caseloads for teachers of learning-disabled children. He helped pass the 5-percent seat belt defense limitation. He helped Oregon’s fledgling wine industry win some victories long before the region’s wines were 'discovered.' (He still represents Valley Wine, a major wine distributor). And when the medical profession (psychiatrists) were fighting to keep psychologists from competing, he helped pass the Freedom of Choice bill in 1975, giving patients broader choice in mental health care.
And the fight hasn’t gone out of him quite yet.
Now, Williamson is focused on saving our state courts.
'Each bar year there seems to be some crisis, like the Gatti issue of 2001,' says Williamson. 'This year’s crisis is different. It threatens to dismantle our court system, and every lawyer in our state should be considering what he or she can do to avert disaster.'
Williamson is talking about the funding crisis. The Oregon Judicial Department budget for the 2001-2003 biennium, which runs through this June, has been cut by more than $50.5 million, or 12 percent. The outlook for the next biennium is equally bleak. (See 'At the Crossroads')
The result increasingly looks like a thoroughly depleted court system, with courts for the first time in history simply stopping the processing of many types of cases. One worst-case scenario is a virtual stoppage of all civil cases in the state. Implications for businesses and communities, not to mention the legal profession, are dramatic.
'The bar should be taking the lead on this issue,' Williamson says. 'The judges have dealt with the worst crisis in their history in good faith, but lawyers need to start talking to their legislators, their clients and their communities about what is happening.'
So how did we get here? Certainly, the courts are not the only arm of government that is reeling from our state’s massive fiscal crisis. But, Williamson points out, the 12 percent hit for the third branch of government is a far bigger hit than the average of eight to nine percent for most state agencies.
The courts have been hurt by a lack of understanding in Salem about what it is they do, and how they impact each community. Part of that has been a drop in the number of lawyers running for the legislature. 'The time commitment is daunting, and there’s not always a lot of public appreciation for the sacrifices they make,' says Williamson. 'But we need lawyers to run, and then we need to support them. We also need a grassroots effort, which is something most lawyers could get involved in. Pick up the phone and let legislators know what’s happening to the courts, to public defenders, to legal aid.'
'I believe lawyers are leaders in their communities,' he says. 'I believe that collectively, we will have an impact when we engage in something so critically important to the future of our state.'
It’s that kind of fight that led Williamson to bar service. He has served on the bar’s House of Delegates since its inception in 1996. He’s always been actively involved in section leadership and has published and spoken for Continuing Legal Education programs. In 1999, he joined the Board of Governors.
'Bar leadership is one of those volunteer opportunities where you get out of it so much more than you put into it,' says Williamson. 'Particularly this year, we’re working on big-picture issues that matter. We’ve always had to fight for things like legal aid and indigent defense. But all of this talk has always been under the assumption that the courts would be there. Suddenly, that’s not a given, and it’s alarming.'
Williamson is focused now on shoring up funding to save as much of our court services as possible. 'Measure 5 passed and we rode blissfully along on the economy in the ’90s, he says. 'Now those chickens have come home to roost. Do we really want to be like Mississippi or Louisiana with abysmal schools, courts, etc.? I don’t think the bar should be lobbying for taxes, but lawyers have a role to play in talking about how tax policy affects our society.'
Williamson has been a leader for three decades on the access to justice issue in Oregon. He started his career in Oregon working for legal aid and has been committed ever since. In 1971, he co-authored the Statewide Legal Aid Feasibility Study that resulted in formation of what is now Legal Aid Services of Oregon. That study stood as the only scholarly examination of the issue until just two years ago when a new study concluded that Oregon is meeting just 18 percent of the need for civil legal services to the poor. As he notes, our work is far from done.
He has spent countless hours in Salem, and behind the scenes, lobbying for filing fee dollars for legal services, increased aid from the state, and most recently, a new pro hac vice fee dedicated to the bar’s legal services program.
'Charlie can easily be regarded as one of the founders of the organized effort to save legal aid in Oregon,' says Linda Clingan, executive director of the Campaign for Equal Justice. 'That study in 1971 was a landmark moment in creating the forces that have energized Oregon on this issue. No one has been as committed, dogged and willing to do the hard work as Charlie Williamson.'
Williamson has served on the advisory committee for the Campaign since its inception 12 years ago. According to Clingan, he has been a driving force behind many of the innovative ideas that have made Oregon a model for states throughout the country.
His championship of the needy comes as no surprise to Ted Runstein, who leads the litigation team at Williamson’s firm, Kell Alterman.
'Simply put, the guy just has an enormous heart,' says Runstein. 'If someone is in need of help, Charlie is the first to jump.'
Runstein jokes that his generosity is almost to a fault, as when a client is struggling with legal fees, but is quick to point out the remarkable value Williamson brings to their firm.
'Williamson works like a horse,' he says. 'He epitomizes the old adage that if you want something done, ask a busy person.'
At Kell Alterman, Williamson handles all variety of civil litigation. Runstein cites a remarkable capacity to learn, and abhorrence for the narrowly defined 'specialist’s' career: 'At a time when many lawyers would say that even within litigation you must specialize, Charlie doesn’t burrow into a narrow niche, nor does he ever not have complete command of a case. The thing about Charlie is that he literally becomes a specialist in whatever he’s handling; he’s just a remarkable learner.'
'If I have a complex case, Charlie’s the guy I ask for help.' He cites a recent 'incredibly complex' case that required a full team to live in Eugene for three weeks. 'The client may have thought I was the lead lawyer,' says Runstein. 'But Charlie’s work was so thorough, so organized, it was the key to the case. We were up against some remarkably sophisticated and talented lawyers from out of state, and we matched or out-tried them because of the work Charlie did.'
The OSB Board of Governors faces increasingly complex issues, and constituencies that are all over the board. Runstein thinks Williamson’s leadership style will serve the bar well. 'His work ethic and ability to analyze will be a boon to the bar,' he says. He adds that Williamson will be fair and thorough in leading individuals with disparate interests. 'About 98 percent of the time he is extremely patient and thoroughly focused on ensuring that everyone is heard,' Runstein says. 'But he also will be focused on progress. If he reaches a point where a group is not moving forward, you may see his frustration point, and you will know it. He’ll lead the group toward progress because he doesn’t tolerate inaction well.'
That focus on progress and results is one of the great strengths the bar will see with Williamson at the helm, Runstein says.
Asked about the ever-present 'lawyer image' problem that is consistently noted as a top concern to members, Williamson is uniquely optimistic, believing it’s really no worse than it ever was: 'We’ve made some fundamental changes in 50 years that have helped the profession by helping the public,' he says. 'We have legal aid, a public defenders office and a tort system that offer much greater ability for people of lesser incomes to seek justice. Lawyers used to be solely for rich people, and although there remains great disparity in the access to justice issue, the bar has led the charge to even the playing field. Nothing is more important than that work, because funding for legal aid, public defense and a civil system available to everyone is critical to people trusting the profession.'
One of Williamson’s focuses on the board for three years has been the OSB’s annual convention. He has a passion about creating a time and a place for bar members to come together to work on the big issues of the day, learn from one another and build relationships across the bar.
Over the past decade, the convention has mirrored national attendance patterns, going from 1,300 to 1,600 registrants in the 1970s, down to 500 to 700 attendees over the past few years. Still a worthy gathering where registrants can cram numerous MCLE credits into two days while engaging in important leadership issues, it’s struggled to break even with fewer registrants. Williamson attributes the changes to many things, including the advent of two-career families, and the growth of sections and specialty bars.
'That specialization has had some great effects, like increased participation in their areas, but they’ve also fragmented the bar somewhat. When you work on section work, you don’t necessarily view the bar as a whole, and that has some negative effects.'
In 1997, the convention became biannual, meeting in legislative years. But many bar members were disappointed at the loss, and the HOD passed a resolution to create an Annual Meeting Study Group, which Williamson chaired. The study group recommended having a scaled-down meeting during 'off' legislative years, and retaining the big push for the biannual convention during legislative years.
Williamson still feels the annual meeting has great value. 'It’s so important to promote collegiality, professionalism,' he says. 'The bar is on a fulcrum now. We have a choice to make. Do we want to be a standard regulatory agency, something for members to fear, or are we their organization? Members who go to the convention, who take part in the leadership of the bar, serve both their personal interests and the interests of the larger bar.'
When he’s not storming through Salem on a mission, he may be found jammin’ with the Hawks View Road Band, a bluegrass band that has helped him reconnect with a love of music he hadn’t nurtured since college. He plays the bluegrass guitar and the banjo. The band plays summer nights in several Portland parks, and many Thursday nights at the Salmon Creek Pub in Vancouver.
He and his wife, Julie, met in 1971 at legal aid, where Charlie came to work to begin his long career in Oregon, and Julie was working as a legal secretary. Julie went on to political work for Les Aucoin and Bud Clark, among others. She now deals in antiques. Charlie has one daughter, as well as two stepsons. He and Julie have a home in Manzanita, and still enjoy visits back to Charlie’s New England roots.
Perhaps it was those New England roots that created the politically charged Charlie Williamson. Or perhaps it was that passion for arguing, and for the law, and for leading a community toward progress. Either way, the bar has a powerful leader at the helm this year who will no doubt unleash all that energy on lofty goals for the bar, for the courts and justice system, and ultimately, for the state of Oregon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kateri Walsh is the director of media relations for the Oregon State Bar.
© 2003 Kateri Walsh