A Life Of Justice: `I'm Proud To Be A Trial Lawyer' -- Michael Withey Has Challenged Wrongdoing By Marcos, Boeing, Seattle Fire Department

Michael Withey is a trial lawyer who likes to make a statement. "I get satisfaction out of sending a message: Don't do this anymore. You're hurting people."

Withey, 48, has taken on Ferdinand Marcos, Boeing, Exxon and a host of other powerful opponents he believed harmed people they thought couldn't fight back.

King County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Fox says Withey "is one of the lawyers who is not afraid of getting into a long, difficult battle with powerful adversaries, whoever they might be.

"He has a firm and unshakeable commitment to achieve justice for folks who have been, in his view, denied justice."

Withey also plays a raucous boogie-woogie piano and recalls the teasing he got a few years ago when he cut his hair and started looking like a partner in a respected law firm - which he is. He joined Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender 12 years ago.

The new look and the old ideals co-exist.

Protester becomes Army officer

His ideals arise from his family's values and the impact the activist 1960s and early '70s had on him.

From his parents, Withey says he learned to "be as good as you can. Do whatever you do to the best of your abilities." He particularly mentions his mother, who lived to be 77 and worked until she was 75.

"She taught me the values of hard work and perseverance and doing the right thing," he says. "She raised four kids, and she worked as a schoolteacher. She never complained about how hard she worked.

"She never said, `Mike, work hard.' She never had to; it was her example."

Withey's father, a CIA analyst, steered Withey toward the military. He won honors in ROTC at Pomona College and got a degree in international relations in 1968, then went off to law school at the University of San Francisco.

There, he says, "I learned the importance of law as a tool for social change, the need to do the right thing and to right a wrong."

He did well in law school, making the honor roll and law review. But he says his proudest moment was shutting down the school in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Still, because it was the right thing, he fulfilled his ROTC obligation with a short stint as an officer after law school, a volunteer when others were trying their best to stay out of the Army and out of Vietnam.

He finds it ironic that he, who volunteered, was never sent to Vietnam. He doesn't find it ironic that his desire to do the right thing put him at the head of anti-war protests.

"I didn't see a contradiction. My father, before he died (in 1966), expressed a lot of concern that Lyndon Johnson hadn't told us the truth."

"They killed my friends"

In 1972, Withey joined a small law firm in Seattle that his wife's brother was starting. The firm was dedicated to putting social idealism into action. He worked there for 10 years until two cannery workers, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were killed in 1981 in the Seattle offices of the Alaska Cannery Workers Union.

Withey saw in their deaths a conspiracy that led all the way to Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom the two had opposed.

Withey had met Domingo when they were part of an effort to integrate work crews building Medgar Evers Pool. Withey started doing work for the cannery workers' union, organizing in Alaska, and met Viernes through that work.

"Silme was my best friend," he says. "They killed my friends."

On the wall opposite the picture window in his downtown office, there are two photographs. Both a little fuzzy for having been blown up so large. One of them shows Domingo with his children; the other is of Viernes. They are what Withey sees when he looks up from his desk.

He dropped everything to take on Marcos, working for whatever the Committee for Justice could scrape up to pay him. For 9 1/2 years, he worked the case, sometimes 80 hours a week.

Judge Fox says "99 percent of lawyers in U.S. would not have taken on the Marcos case."

Withey remembers his two children would come to spend time with him but would wind up playing with the kids of others on the committee while he worked.

He won the case, against the odds. A jury found the late deposed dictator and his widow liable for the deaths and ordered a $15 million payment to the families. The families settled for a lesser amount, just over $3 million, rather than fight the Philippine government over the Marcoses' Swiss bank accounts.

High-profile cases

Withey has a long list of major victories:

-- $1.3 million for a former Husky football player who had been shot by an attorney.

-- $1.15 million for the estate of a longshoreman who was killed by a toploader on the Seattle waterfront.

-- $750,000 for the widow of a Seattle firefighter killed in the Blackstock Lumber Co. fire in 1989. The fire department was accused of failing to account for the whereabouts of two firefighters, one of whom died inside the building. (The department did not admit fault but agreed to the settlement.)

-- $500,000 for a Boeing worker who contracted leukemia after exposure to radiation.

Attorneys who have opposed him may see things differently, but they respect Withey's skills.

Lawyer Michele Sales says, "He's very bright. He listens to what people say and then he turns what they say around and kills them with it He says greed is his enemy

In an age where lawyers are held in low regard, Withey says unabashedly, "I'm proud to be a trial lawyer."

The jury system is this country's most democratic institution, he says. Ordinary people come together to do their civic duty, then return to the community. That is the system's strength, he says, but

also a weakness that can be exploited.

The system has no institutional defenders save for lawyers, Withey says, and lawyers are easy targets for people who want to destroy the system.

"They don't say they are going to take away your right to bring a lawsuit, and you can't bring a lawsuit anymore. They just have this mass-media campaign with advertising that says there are too many lawyers and too many lawsuits. . . . They just try to demonize trial lawyers."

Lawyers bringing suits keep businesses, government and powerful individuals from perpetuating ethical errors, he says. He believes most people have good intentions, but that greed can drive people to make wrong choices, to weigh profit ahead of human lives or the environment.

Lawyers, too, have been accused of being greedy. But Withey says he doesn't see why they should be criticized for earning a living that matches their skills.

"We're pleased Bill Gates is a billionaire and that Microsoft millionaires contribute to the local economy. Why should it be any different for dentists, architects or lawyers?"

He defends the contingency-fee system, whereby lawyers get a significant cut of a payment made to a victorious client, saying that it allows poor people access to the system.

"Without contingency fees, the courthouse doors would be closed to the vast majority of American consumers," he says.

This summer, Withey became president of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a national group dedicated to creating a more just society by challenging wrongdoing by the powerful and guarding access to the courts.

He's geared up for the presidency. It will be another forum for a man who likes to make strong statements.