|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JUNE 2011|
|Michelle A. Blackwell|
Her stage name is Vicki Vortex. But opposing counsel often find their own heads spinning after they lose a case to her alter ego in the courtroom.
Offstage, she is a whirlwind better known as Michelle A. Blackwell, a successful litigator with Watkinson, Laird, Rubenstein, Baldwin & Burgess in Eugene. Her nickname at the firm, where she has been a shareholder since 2009, is “The Pit Bull,” she allows.
This may be a mischaracterization, however: R. Scott Palmer, a fellow shareholder in the firm who often works with her on litigation, says the diminutive Blackwell is not burdened with a Napoleon complex at all, but instead comes across as anything but threatening.
“She is very petite and very attractive,” says Palmer, a trial attorney for 34 years. “You would look at her and you would not think she would be a trial lawyer.” He points to a case in which, in his view, the opposing party was trying to take advantage of a frail, older person. Blackwell cross-examined a psychiatrist called by the other side as a witness. “By the time Michelle was done, the doctor was shedding tears.” It’s not like she sets out to make people cry, but that she is well-prepared and “tenacious in a disarming way that allows her to evoke empathy and emotion even in opponents,” Palmer says.
Blackwell concedes that she brings an “assertive, perfectionist” approach to her legal work and is “ready to go to bat for people.” Her unintimidating physical stature is offset by a personality with a large presence. “The way I view my practice is (that I use) a Trojan horse offense. I look harmless, but I arrive fully prepared and ready to assert my client’s interests. That has worked for me time and time again. I don’t look my role. I see that as a tactical advantage.”
“I win my share of cases,” says Blackwell, who handles civil litigation in state and federal courts; real estate and construction law; creditors’ rights and bankruptcy; and guardianship, will and probate disputes. “That paved the way for my partners to accept what I do in my personal life. The fact that I live in Eugene helps a lot; the expectations might be different in Portland.”
That’s where the Vicki Vortex part comes in. A major avocation of Blackwell’s is working as a professional hula hoop dancer, sometimes referred to as hooping. She explains that hula hooping, which in America began as a children’s craze in the 1950s, experienced a revival among adults in the 1990s. Today Internet sites bring hoopers together to share their interest and to meet for hoop jams.
Blackwell not only was blessed with “a low center of gravity,” but she also possesses litheness and keen balance. Hoop dancing is just one of what she describes as “circus arts” that she dabbles in, including walking on stilts, slackline walking while hooping (on a line similar to a tightrope several feet up, but one that has slack and wiggles from side to side) and lately, acro yoga, a combination of yoga — at which she is proficient — and acrobatics, performed in conjunction with a partner. These activities she does just for fun or to entertain crowds at the Oregon Country Fair, the venerable annual summer paean to 1960s’ counterculture that has become an “artistic temporary community” in which she has worked for eight years, she says.
Hoop dancing, though, is a pastime she takes more seriously. True, the pay isn’t great — usually just $10 and a couple of free drinks (“I’m not giving up my day job anytime soon,” she notes) — but these performances are in club venues or civic events and often done as part of fundraisers for nonprofit organizations.
She views her offbeat sideline as “balancing my legal career with my personal life,” allowing her to use the “creativity and athleticism that I have. It’s all in good taste. It is unusual, but it gives me the chance to meet all sorts of talented, fascinating people. Traveling in these circles energizes my creativity in a way that practicing law never could.”
“It amuses me that I have this other side of my life that may seem inconsistent or frivolous to some,” Blackwell says. “But for me, to be able to hula hoop and perform, it’s really a privilege.”
Choosing Her Path
Blackwell was born and raised in South Bend, Ind. One of her grandfathers was a strong, early influence, a salt-of-the-earth farmer who was “supportive and encouraging of everything I wanted to do in life,” she says. “He never once questioned whether I could do anything (just) because I was a girl.” No one else in her family did, either. All endorsed her choosing her own path.
Her parents’ divorce while she was growing up gave her exposure to the court system, an experience that prompted her to seek “more influence, if not control, over my own destiny,” Blackwell says. “I felt the law was a way for me to have influence over my life, as well as over those I would be able to help.” She was the first in her family to go to graduate school, and the first to become an attorney.
But before that, she majored in political science at Indiana University. After graduating, she traveled in the Soviet Union, an interest resulting from her study of Soviet politics in college. She obtained her law degree from Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana. One of her clerkships was in Washington, D.C., for the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, where she drafted government contracts and takings decisions and learned to concentrate on the most salient aspects of a case.
Blackwell practiced insurance defense law in Indiana for seven years. In 2000, she, her then-husband and their 6-month-old first child decided to head West. They settled in Eugene without ever having visited Oregon previously. “It really was a leap of faith,” she admits. But the Northwest landscape, outdoor life and mindset of the people proved a perfect fit. Blackwell became an associate in two different law firms. Then, after divorcing, she opened a sole practice in 2003 while sharing custody in raising two children.
Since joining her current firm in 2006, she says she has found where she wants to spend the rest of her career, because she loves working there and with her colleagues, but also owing to their acceptance of her colorful pursuits outside the office. Blackwell, who also is admitted in Washington and California and travels frequently on business, devotes many hours to community service, including volunteering for a domestic violence crisis center and leading the fundraising for a big Rotary Club Skate park project.
Her next goal as Vicki Vortex? To take her dancing to what she justifiably calls “the next level” — fire hula hooping. Yes, this is what it sounds like: dancing with hoops that have wicks pointing out to the sides that ignite when lit.
You had best not underestimate Blackwell’s ability to pull this off. If you do, you may end up getting burned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2011 Cliff Collins