Bernice Jonson, tough divorce lawyer, dies at 90

She was known as the grande dame of divorce law, the barracuda of Ballard. For decades, everyone in that field knew about Bernice Jonson, and many attorneys feared meeting her in the courtroom.

"There wasn't anybody in her heyday who had anything to do with domestic-relations cases who didn't know of her reputation," said William Baker, now a judge on the state Court of Appeals. "If you had a high-stakes case that required vigorous advocacy, you wanted to either hire Bernice Jonson or make damn sure your opponent didn't."

Mrs. Jonson, who many consider one of the best divorce attorneys of her generation, died yesterday in her sleep. She was 90.

"It's the passing of a legend, truly," Baker said. "She was one of the early and certainly one of the most effective women attorneys in the state of Washington."

Mrs. Jonson was born in Quincy, Grant County, in 1914 but moved to Seattle as a child. Her father, A.E. Jonson, was an attorney, and Mrs. Jonson joined his practice after she graduated from the University of Washington law school in 1936, starting a law career that spanned six decades. A few years later, she opened shop on her own.

She was married briefly after she graduated from law school. Then in 1949, she married Arthur Olson, a pharmacist and longtime owner of Art Olson Drugs in Ballard, and they started a family that would grow to six sons.

In the 1960s, when divorces became more common, Mrs. Jonson handled a lot of them.

"She just started doing them, and she was good at doing them," said one of her sons, Eric Olson.

Mrs. Jonson was a charter member of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a prestigious national organization that has only 21 members in Washington state, said attorney William Kinzel, a past president of the chapter.

Kinzel said he tried two to three dozen cases against Mrs. Jonson over the years, and though she was tenacious and tough, she also was fair and ethical.

"She was such a professional that you knew when she quoted the law, it was correct," he said.

Attorney William Lawrie, who worked for her in the 1970s, said she was the most detail-oriented attorney he's ever met. "She had a theory that you could never be overprepared," he said.

Baker remembered the time when an opposing attorney argued that Mrs. Jonson's client shouldn't be granted custody of a child because she took him to gatherings of a strange religious sect. But Mrs. Jonson knew the woman attended a Unitarian church and her opposing counsel's law partner was one of the church's leaders.

"She did her homework," Baker said, "and you better have done yours."

Some say she always treated fellow attorneys well. But she also reportedly once kicked a fellow attorney in the shins in front of a judge, though son Mark Olson says it was mostly in jest.

Mrs. Jonson was toughest when she sensed the other side was trying to hide something, said Ed Skone, who worked for her for three years in the late 1970s before opening his own practice.

"Most of her nicknames were generated by opposing counselors whose clients were trying to play games in the case against her," he said.

For a time, most of the area's attorneys who specialized in divorce law had once worked for her. Two of her sons — Eric and Mark — followed her into the field.

She worked very long hours, but she didn't neglect her family, Mark Olson said. He said she would go to work very early, then come home and make breakfast, then return to the office after her children went to school. And she'd go back to work after dinner, too.

She also loved to fish and was active in her church.

Mrs. Jonson was preceded in death by her husband and two of her sons, Marshall Olson of Seattle and Thomas Olson of Mount Vernon. In addition to sons Mark and Eric, she is survived by son Ralph Olson of Seattle; son Jerry Olson of Seattle; brother Carl Jonson of Bellevue; 10 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Services have not been scheduled. Remembrances can be sent to the University of Washington School of Law and the Washington State Bar Foundation.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or