Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2010
Profiles in the Law
Team Player:
Sylvia Stevens Takes the Helm
By Cliff Collins

Sylvia E. Stevens

Portland native Sylvia E. Stevens has been a senior staff member of the Oregon State Bar for 18 years, yet she also practiced law for over a decade and was a member of the OSB Board of Governors and president of the Multnomah Bar Association.

That varied background should serve her and OSB members well as Stevens assumes the position of OSB executive director, to which she was appointed by the Board of Governors in August.

“She’s a strong advocate for lawyers,” says Judy Edwards, executive director of the Multnomah Bar Association. “She certainly understands lawyers and the practice of law. She’s both practiced in, and been in, Oregon for a long time and knows a lot of people.”

A nationally recognized expert on ethics and lawyers’ professional responsibility, Stevens is well-known to Oregon lawyers for her tireless work when, as OSB deputy general counsel, she helped bring the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct up to date and in line with American Bar Association model rules.

Eugene lawyer Arden J. Olson, of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick, who has known Stevens since the early 1990s and worked closely with her on the OSB Legal Ethics Committee, during the drafting of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct, and most recently on the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, says the OSB is fortunate to have Stevens at the helm.

“She has contributed significantly to the bar as its lawyer, operating as a principled pragmatist — always waiting to get the facts and applying sound judgment to solving problems,” he says. “She once on the ABA committee did something I saw done by no one else during our three-year tenure: drafted an opinion accepted unanimously by the committee on its first reading, a real tribute to her intellect and good sense.”

Choosing Law
Stevens was raised with four siblings in what she describes as a typical middle-class upbringing. Some lawyers and doctors dotted her family tree, including her father, who was a surgeon. After the young, horse-loving Stevens realized she wasn’t cut out to be a jockey, she then considered going into medicine. But when she went off to college at Oregon State University, she ended up majoring in home economics and had an interest in fashion, joking that people who know her now might find that hard to believe. After college, she married a military man, and they lived all around the country. In 1977, they returned to Portland, where she decided to enroll at Lewis & Clark Law School at night, while working in her father’s medical office during days.

Her reason for deciding on that profession was that she “wanted to do something good for society. I wanted to improve the lot of women and children in society.” She spent her first clerkship working with a personal injury lawyer, and then for her second clerkship worked at Sussman Shank, where she was offered and accepted a job after passing the bar.

“I had wonderful mentors there and learned a lot of good skills,” Stevens says. “I liked practicing law and liked the intellectual challenges and helping people. I particularly liked representing individuals. I had the opportunity there to shape my practice to do things I enjoyed.” To her surprise, she found she liked handling business matters such as debtor-creditor cases and security transactions, but she also spent part of her practice doing family law. Some of the firm’s clients needed assistance with domestic issues, and she received some referrals from other, similar firms that did not have that expertise on staff.

Sussman Shank encouraged its members to become active in bar activities, so she began joining bar committees early on. Eventually that led to her becoming a member of the OSB Board of Governors, which she considers one of the most rewarding experiences in her career. Through that she got interested in the organizational side of law, and at the time her board service was ending in 1992, a position opened up with the bar as deputy general counsel. She applied and was hired.

The timing was right. She had remarried and had a small child. “I wanted to slow down a little,” Stevens says. The job gave her more regular office hours, allowing her to spend more time with her son. As for the work itself, “I loved it,” she says. “It was a position that gave me a lot of variety.”

During her long tenure in that post, Stevens administered the OSB Client Security Fund and supervised the OSB’s fee arbitration, unlawful practice and complaint intake programs. She served on the board of the Multnomah Bar Association and then became president. She was a founding board member of the Multnomah Bar Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to promoting civic education about the rule of law and the legal system. In addition to serving two terms on the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, she has served on the ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection.

She coordinated the development, adoption and implementation of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct in 2005 and spearheaded staff and member education programs; she also oversaw the revision of 175 existing formal ethics opinions.

In 2006, Stevens was promoted to OSB general counsel. In that role, she worked directly with the Board of Governors as well as with the executive director. “General counsel here is like an associate executive director,” she explains.

Forward Vision
Her appointment this year as executive director was applauded by attorneys who know Stevens well, such as Michael A. Greene of Rosenthal & Greene. “She has terrific relationships with lawyers all around the state,” he observes. “She’s a great problem-solver in that she looks at both sides. She’s got vision: She really has a good hand on the tiller, but her eyes are on the horizon.”

Greene, who has served on several boards and chaired the American Diabetes Association board, adds: “She stacks up well with executive-type people I’ve known. Skillwise, she is one of the best I’ve seen. She’s a real team player; she knows the value of teamwork. That’s a terrific quality.”

In addition, OSB staff “love her and feel good about her,” he says. “Many have told me that over the years.”

In her free time, Stevens likes “exploring the world around me,” from far-flung travel overseas with her husband, Alan Newbauer, to excursions around the Portland area. She also enjoys spending time with her extended family and has “eclectic” reading interests, she says.

Among Stevens’ goals and objectives are to ensure that the bar fulfills its mission to the public and the profession; to help the Board of Governors implement its plans under way such as the BarBooks benefit; and to work with the chief justice on a new mentoring program for young attorneys. She also stresses the importance of being accountable to OSB members, making sure that the dues they pay are used wisely and benefit lawyers statewide. Too, she wants to continue the bar’s commitment to diversity: to “have a profession that looks like our citizenry.”

“I’m very excited and pleased, and very honored, to be deemed worthy of representing my peers,” Stevens says. “I love the legal profession. I’m happy to be leading this organization and serving it. I think that’s what people recognized: They know I care about lawyers and what we do, the challenges they face, and that’s why they trust me with their organization.”

Olson agrees. “As an ethics resource for Oregon lawyers, she has made an enormous impact,” he says. “As executive director, I know she’ll take her comprehensive knowledge of the bar, of Oregon lawyers, and of other bars around the country to lead the organization into the future, patiently and sensibly.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2010 Cliff Collins

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