Elizabeth Harchenko Makes Her Mark
Most Oregonians probably couldn’t pick Elizabeth S. Harchenko BS’72, JD’76 out of a crowd — but everyone in the state wants her autograph. As director of the Oregon Department of Revenue, her signature graces every tax refund check sent by the department.
Giving back seems inherent to Harchenko’s nature. In addition to serving on the College of Law’s Board of Visitors, she has been active in the school’s Mentor Program since its inception more than 15 years ago.
In fact, Harchenko was instrumental in first getting the program off the ground. “Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS) was formed in 1989,” said Harchenko, a founding board member. “At the time, there were only a few women practicing law. As a group, OWLS knew that the female students needed more mentors and role models.”
According to Harchenko, a number of women attorneys wanted to offer women students the opportunity to meet with them; they wanted to help prepare the students for the world outside law school. The attorneys organized an informal get together and invited Willamette’s women law students to attend. During the event, a number of students expressed interest in shadowing practicing attorneys while they met with clients and attended court. “Out of that first meeting grew an informal version of the mentoring program we have now — matching individual students with working attorneys in their interest area,” Harchenko said.
“Elizabeth had served as a mentor long before we established a formal program,” said Kathryn Ricciardelli JD’86, cofounder of Willamette’s Mentor Program. “Mentoring is in her blood.” Like Harchenko, she believes the mentor relationship gives students a valuable “bird’s eye view” into the practice of law. “The Mentor Program gives them important real-world experience and networking opportunities,” explained Ricciardelli, in-house counsel for Safeco Insurance Co. “It enables students to be introduced to the judiciary and be exposed to the courts early in their legal careers.”
After her initial success pairing female students and attorneys, the College of Law’s Career Services director approached OWLS about formalizing the mentoring program. At the same time, a member of the Student Bar Association asked to have the program expanded to include more lawyers and to provide mentoring to male students. The Marion County Bar Association agreed to cosponsor the program with OWLS and the law school.
Willamette took over administration of the program, but Harchenko and Ricciardelli continued to serve as its ambassadors. They carried the idea of the program and the mechanics of how it should work to other law schools in the state and helped raise awareness of the program among members of bar. “Elizabeth pulled people out of the woodwork to participate in the program,” Ricciardelli said. “We’ve had attorneys all up and down the Willamette Valley serving in the program.”
“The program has just mushroomed,” Harchenko noted. “We now have about 120 volunteer lawyers and judges serving as mentors to Willamette students every year.”
Harchenko believes mentors offer new law students a level of support unmatched by professors or peers. “When first-year students come to law school, it is such a different environment for them,” she said. “Having someone who can serve as a resource for them and let them know that they can get through it is extremely helpful.
“For many students, their mentor is their first connection to people who are lawyers, practicing attorneys,” Harchenko said. “Most law students don’t know any lawyers when they apply to law school. They don’t really understand what it means to practice law.”
In many ways, Harchenko could be describing her own experi-ences as a law student. She confesses to knowing very little about what lawyers did when she enrolled in law school. “All I knew of the law came from watching Perry Mason,” she said of the popular ’60s television show. It didn’t take her long, however, to realize that being a lawyer wasn’t just about winning cases in court.
Harchenko, who earned an undergraduate degree in science and math at Willamette University, said she applied to the College of Law primarily because she wanted to be in Salem. “When I left college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go,” she explained. “I returned to my home in San Jose, Calif., but I just kept asking myself, ‘How can I get back to Salem?’
“I knew that the culture of the law school would be the same as when I was an undergraduate,” Harchenko said. “I also knew I would get a solid education and have teachers who were interested in their students.”
Harchenko thrived in the close-knit law school community. An active member of the Student Bar Association, she helped create the first women’s bar association in the state. She also clerked at the Legislative Counsel’s Office and worked as an intern at both the Employment Relations Board and Marion County Legal Aid. When she graduated from the College of Law in 1976, she left the school with a keen interest in public practice. “I prefer to work with people rather than argue over a case,” said Harchenko. “I’m more interested in how a law applies to an issue, in breaking down a problem into its various elements and finding solutions.”
Harchenko has held a succession of important state public service positions throughout the past 30 years. Following graduation, she clerked for Judge Carlisle Roberts of the Oregon Tax Court for a year and then spent two years working as a deputy legislative counsel for the Oregon Legislative Assembly, where she worked on land use and energy legislation. In 1979, she moved to the Tax Section of the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ); six years later, she was appointed attorney in charge. In 1993, Harchenko was named special counsel to the Attorney General and worked with lawyers from all areas of the DOJ on special projects ranging from complex litigation to administrative issues. She also worked on several multidisciplinary initiatives, including the Supreme Court Task Force on Gender Fairness.
“During my time at the DOJ, I got interested in how organizations work,” Harchenko said. “Rather than dealing with one piece of an organization’s mission on the front line, I became interested in the bigger picture. When the Revenue director retired, I threw my hat into the ring for the job.”
Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Harchenko director of the Oregon Department of Revenue in May 1997; she was reappointed four years later. “I am no longer practicing law, but I use my legal knowledge and training to some extent almost every day,” said Harchenko, who directs the activities of the 900-person agency that is responsible for all personal and corporate income taxes, the property tax, the cigarette taxes, and a variety of other programs. “It was a difficult transition at first. I had worked for the department for years as its attorney — now I am the client.”
As head of Revenue, Harchenko represents Oregon on the Multistate Tax Commission, a special body created to oversee the uniform administration of taxes. The commission collectively pools resources and jointly audits large corporations conducting business in multiple states. It also develops model statutes and regulations and works with the federal government to develop federal laws governing tax administration. “The commission ensures the states administer the acts fairly,” she said.
Despite her many responsibilities, Harchenko still finds time to mentor up to three Willamette law students at a time. “I’m a grand-mentor now,” said Harchenko, who still stays in touch with many of the students she first mentored more almost 15 years ago. She believes that mentors get as much from the program as their students. “Mentoring gives lawyers a chance to reinvest in the profession. It is critical to think of ourselves as members of a larger community. Everyone needs someone to help them along.”
And, of course, a little money back on their taxes…
Elizabeth S. Harchenko BS’72, JD’76
“When first-year students come to law school, it is such a different environment for them. Having someone who can serve as a resource for them and let them know that they can get through it is extremely helpful.”