Small-town whirlwind makes waves on Washington coast

by Andrew Faught,

The long and impactful career of Paul Stritmatter JD'69 proves you don't have to live in a large metropolis to make it big.

  • Willamette Law alumnus Paul Stritmatter JD'69
    Willamette Law alumnus Paul Stritmatter JD'69

Hoquiam, Washington, population 8,405, is perhaps best known for its annual Loggers Playday, at which lumberjacks from around the Northwest face off in events ranging from axe-throwing and log-chopping to speed-climbing and double-hand bucking.

Over on Eighth Street is a different kind of tough guy. Native son Paul Stritmatter JD’69 may not be spinning logs, but he’s known around these parts — and beyond — for being one of the state’s most successful personal injury lawyers.

In 1983, he won a $10 million judgment, then a state record, against motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha. An unlicensed teen was rendered a quadriplegic after crashing a bike when the throttle stuck. In Brown v. Yamaha, Stritmatter successfully argued that, even though the victim wasn’t licensed to drive the vehicle, the motorcycle should have had an emergency shutoff.

That he plies his trade from tiny Hoquiam, well, Stritmatter never considered otherwise.

“My wife and I both grew up in Hoquiam and had wonderful childhoods here,” he says. “And we raised both of our children here. Being in a small town has allowed me to handle a lot of cases with a lot of great issues.”

Many of his classmates, including a sizable number with lawyer relatives, derided the notion of practicing with a family member of hanging out their shingle in a former mill town. Others aspired to work in the big city. Stritmatter, like many Willamette Law alumni, has found success in a milieu of his choosing — fighting for, as his website advertises, “Real justice for real people.”

It’s an ethos that the law school readily promulgates.

“Willamette, being across the street from the state Capitol, has a built-in culture of service and attention to the public good,” says Mike Bennett ‘70, Stritmatter’s friend and senior director of development for principal gifts at the university. “It’s in the DNA of the place. People like Paul are really important in these small towns, for their work and for just who they are.”
After earning his law degree in 1969, Stritmatter returned home to practice law with his father, the late Lester Stritmatter, whom his son describes as “a small-town generalist who didn’t represent the moneyed clients or businesses. He represented the little people.” When he died in 1982, the elder Stritmatter had been practicing in Hoquiam since 1938.

In one of his first jury trials, Paul Stritmatter won a $14,000 judgment (up from the original $2,500 claim) for a woman who was injured after tripping and falling on a sidewalk in neighboring Aberdeen, Washington. To prepare, he retrieved his Willamette trial class notes to help him decide how to present the case. Stritmatter didn’t know it at the time, but the case would set the course of his professional life.

“All of a sudden, I started getting phone calls from members of the local bar wanting me to try their personal injury cases,” he says. “It was puzzling to me. I was still so wet behind the ears. It took me a while to understand that most lawyers are afraid to stand up in front of a jury. I was too young and naive to understand that.”

But his career path never was a sure thing. A self-described “rebellious youth,” Stritmatter enrolled at the University of Washington to pursue his undergraduate degree. Despite ambitions to become a doctor, Stritmatter spent more time partying than studying, and he scotched his medical aspirations.

He reapplied himself and earned a degree in economics, with plans to continue his studies in graduate school. The law never figured into his thought process. (“By golly, I wasn’t going to be a lawyer,” Stritmatter says. “I was going to do my own thing.”) But his dad’s influence was strong, and he decided to give law school a try.

Stritmatter opted for Willamette over the Gonzaga School of Law. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

“I was at Willamette for four weeks and I said to myself, ‘My goodness sakes, this is what I should have been doing all along,’” he recalls. “I just loved it from day one.”

Stritmatter thrilled to the Socratic method used by his professors, and he devoured case histories. His grades were so good that he was invited to be on the law review. His response surprised classmates.

“I turned them down,” he says. “I don’t think they’d had anybody turn them down before. I said I would rather spend my time working in the legal aid program. In part it was because I wanted to help little people who had legal problems, and that meant getting experience in the courtroom. That was more valuable than editing somebody’s articles or writing an article myself.”

In a play on his name, classmates called him “strict mother” for his relentless study habits. Stritmatter’s academic transformation was complete: he graduated fourth in his Willamette class and went on to clerk for Washington state Supreme Court Justice Matthew Hill and then for Justice Charles Stafford. The first Willamette graduate to clerk for the Washington Supreme Court, Stritmatter created such an excellent impression that the court held a spot open for a Willamette graduate for a number of years.

On returning to Hoquiam, “one of the things I heard was, ‘You’re not going to have any interesting cases to work on,’” Stritmatter says. “I guess I worried that they might be right. But legal problems are legal problems. They come up across the board.”

It wasn’t long before his star was on the rise. Stritmatter repeatedly won million-dollar judgments, including $6.1 million for a mother injured by a drunk driver and $5.5 million for a client who was hurt at an unsigned railroad crossing.

Before long, he was speaking at legal seminars in Washington and throughout the West. Stritmatter ultimately served as president of the Washington State Bar Association (1994-95), the first lawyer from Grays Harbor County to hold the post. “I always thought I had an advantage coming out of Hoquiam,” he says, “because everybody’s always looking for diversity, even geographic diversity.”

He also served as president of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association (1984-85) and as national president of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (2002-03), a foundation that he co-founded in 1982 to encourage “creative litigation” while inspiring lawyers to serve the public interest.

In his proudest case, Sofie v. Fibreboard, Stritmatter in 1989 successfully challenged a new state law that limited personal injury claims to $225,000. The state supreme court, after hearing Stritmatter’s argument, removed the cap on pain-and-suffering damages, earning the attorney national acclaim.

“It was the most restrictive, most regressive so-called tort reform — we called it ‘tort deform’ — in the nation,” Stritmatter says. “The decision really has made the lives of so many people a little easier by allowing them to get full justice as determined by a jury, rather than an arbitrary cap that was being set by the insurance industry.”

Stritmatter is unequivocal about his motivations for practicing law. Besides helping people, he loves the competition.

“I played junior high and high school sports, and competition has always been important to me,” he adds. “The second part is the challenge of cross-examination, where you poke holes and show that the position of the insurance industry-hired expert is simply wrong. I just find that extremely exciting. The outcome of a case is truly going to impact a client’s entire future. They can’t work and they’ve got big medical bills. I know and understand that, and I cherish taking the responsibility.”

For Stritmatter, case preparation is paramount. In Brown v. Yamaha, he spent 24 hours in a bed directly next to his client at the nursing home to understand the realities facing his paralyzed client.

“He experienced the moans and groans and screams and smells of the nursing home,” says partner Keith Kessler. “Paul felt that if he did that, he’d get a good sense of what the boy was going through, and that he’d be better able to present it to the jury.”

Kessler was practicing law in Seattle when, in 1979, he joined Stritmatter and other members of the Washington State Bar Association on a trip to Russia to meet counterparts in Moscow.

On the return trip, the Washington delegation, grounded by flight delays, played football on the tarmac (“There wasn’t a lot of policing,” Kessler says). The “football” actually was a plastic bag stuffed with paper. Playing quarterback, Stritmatter threw a hard pass into headwinds and tore his rotator cuff.

“He’ll never go back to Russia because he has such bad memories of it,” Kessler says with a laugh. “But it was a good time for us to talk. I got to know him better, and we discussed how the secret of winning cases is lots of preparation.”

Four months later, Kessler joined Stritmatter’s practice.

“I’d never even heard of Hoquiam,” he says.

Stritmatter’s love for his hometown runs deep. He created the region’s Paint the Corridor Project, in which volunteers spiffed up a neglected three-mile thoroughfare. Besides running a busy practice and traveling, Stritmatter is at work on a memoir for his granddaughters, ages 16 and 14.

The title? “Did Strit Matter?”

“I want them to have an understanding of what I’ve done,” he says. “Maybe I can convince one or both of them to become lawyers.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2016 edition of Willamette Lawyer, the magazine of the first law school in the Pacific Northwest.
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