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Originally published October 6, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified October 10, 2009 at 4:28 PM

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For McGinn, activism began as law-office daydreaming

Mike McGinn, a candidate for Seattle mayor, spent years as a corporate defense lawyer but found his true passion in public policy.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For Mike McGinn, Monday mornings at his downtown law firm often began with a game of "wouldn't it be great."

Wouldn't it be great, McGinn would ask a friend and fellow attorney, to be paid to do public-interest law? To do environmental advocacy? Wouldn't it be nice to do something different?

McGinn then would return to what he was paid to do — unglamorous corporate-defense law representing such giants as AT&T in complicated and often messy lawsuits.

McGinn, now a candidate for Seattle mayor, talks little on the campaign trail about the 14 years he spent as a lawyer, instead emphasizing his after-hours volunteering for the Sierra Club and on his neighborhood council.

Those who know McGinn, 49, said it became clear that as a lawyer he grew less and less passionate about corporate law and defending the likes of wireless telephone companies — including T-Mobile, where his mayoral opponent, Joe Mallahan, worked as a vice president.

Despite McGinn's waning enthusiasm, he didn't leave his Seattle law firm, Stokes Lawrence, until 2007 and launched the nonprofit Seattle Great City Initiative, which finally blended his interests in the environment and public policy.

Looking back at his career, McGinn said, "As a lawyer, every day you are waking up and another lawyer on the other side of town or the country is waking up trying to figure out how to beat you. It's a very intense endeavor. You can't go into it without really throwing yourself into it. I got to the point where I was pretty much done with it."

"Not a crusader"

After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, McGinn worked in Washington, D.C., for Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver, then moved to Eugene, to work briefly as a legislative liaison for Oregon's insurance commissioner.

"One of the things I learned was, if you sit on the sidelines, those with money and power will run things," McGinn said in a recent interview. "If you want to change things, you have to get engaged in elections."

After McGinn's early forays into politics, he started at the University of Washington Law School in 1989. There he forged friendships that he still maintains via pickup basketball and poker. Friends joke McGinn is a "deceptively slow" basketball player with a soft touch and frequent passing.

Alex Higgins, a law-school friend, said McGinn loved to talk politics, was a liberal skeptic of the Clinton administration and already felt strongly that "there were too many cars on the road."

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"Mike was not a crusader out to save the world," Higgins said. "Mike had things to say, but they were always very measured."

McGinn juggled school with an internship at Stokes Lawrence and a part-time job as head of UW's student group representing graduate students. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and said he intended to practice public-interest law. Yet, when Stokes Lawrence offered him a job, McGinn opted for the better paycheck. He and his wife, Peggy Lynch, soon would be starting a family. McGinn said he believed he could ply public-interest law later.

McGinn accepted the job, but deferred starting it so he and Lynch could travel for six months in Southeast Asia.

Stokes Lawrence, a 30-lawyer firm based in a Fifth Avenue high-rise, is known as a "lifestyle" firm in part because its workload for young attorneys — 1,600 billable hours a year — is much less than at other big law firms. The firm also encourages outside interests. Mike O'Brien, a City Council candidate and Sierra Club leader, was the firm's chief financial officer until last year.

McGinn joined the firm's litigation group and found he was at ease in the courtroom. But he said he often counseled clients to settle.

"Over and over again, clients would come in, quite angry sometimes, and say, 'I'll pay you before I'll pay them,' " McGinn said. "I'd say, 'There is probably a better way than litigation to resolve this.' "

His clients were eclectic. He pressed a trademark-violation case on behalf of Toys in Babeland, a Seattle sex-toy retailer. He won a $10,000 judgment against clothing vendors on behalf of the Grateful Dead. And he represented a Burger King franchise accused of being inaccessible to customers in wheelchairs. The case quickly settled after mediation.

Carl Marquardt, a former Stokes Lawrence attorney, said McGinn was articulate and thoughtful in court, but legal work "clearly wasn't his passion in life."

"He wasn't driven to be a successful, gung-ho litigator," said Marquardt, a McGinn friend who has donated to his campaign. "He did it well, but it was not his final destination in life."

Starting on new path

McGinn became active in the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club, and, as he rose into the group's leadership, he steered pro bono cases to friends in the Seattle Lawyers League basketball league. McGinn himself remembers handling only one case himself.

"I actually found that environmental law wasn't that interesting as a lawyer," said McGinn, describing the work as "overly technical."

If there was a case that convinced McGinn to leave law, it may have been an acrimonious class-action case against AT&T Wireless. The case, filed in King County in 2002, accused AT&T of violating the state Consumer Protection Act by billing unwitting customers for a federally mandated program to supply rural phone service.

"Just because you put it in a complaint doesn't make it true," McGinn said recently. "The people at these companies are trying to run their companies in a fair way. The argument is, 'Did they do it right or not?' My approach was, let's get the argument in front of a judge and have it decided on the merits of the case."

McGinn spent most of two years battling attempts to make the case a nationwide class action and arguing with the plaintiff's attorneys, who accused McGinn and his co-counsel of failing to hand over evidence. A King County Superior Court Judge fined McGinn's firm $500 for violating court rules on disclosing evidence.

In 2003, McGinn, responding to allegations of unethical conduct, told a plaintiff's attorney he was being "extraordinarily unprofessional." In an e-mail to the lawyer, McGinn wrote: "Please do not bother to share with me your views of my ethical standards. It is abusive and a waste of my time."

AT&T won the case when a judge dismissed attempts to make it a class action. The case, Schnall v. AT&T Wireless, now is before the state Supreme Court. McGinn soon handled three similar cases, including one in California against T-Mobile.

Dan Johnson, a plaintiff's attorney on the AT&T case, said he came to admire McGinn. "I don't think Mike ever crossed that line between fair and unfair play," Johnson said. "That's saying something. He showed respect for his opponents and the system."

Asked about the case last week, McGinn shook his head as he reread his e-mail. "The one thing that could get under my skin was an accusation of unethical conduct," he said. "I really believe in playing by the rules."

By 2006, McGinn was burned out on commercial litigation and looking to do something else. He had applied for two other jobs in environmental advocacy, and he declined an offer to run the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, a nonprofit water-rights group.

McGinn admits he "surprised himself" staying in commercial law as long as he did, but stuck with it because he liked co-workers at Stokes Lawrence and felt a duty to support his family of five.

Finally, the Monday game of "wouldn't it be great" hit home. McGinn decided to cut back to half time in early 2007. He started Seattle Great City Initiative out of office space donated by Stokes Lawrence. He quit the firm in late 2007.

Law, McGinn said, taught him "how to work in an arena of conflict in a civil and respectful manner, and trying to understand where the other side is coming from."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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