Leveling the Playing Field

By Nathan Roberts | Bar Bulletin

The first thing a visitor notices when stepping into our Tacoma office is the large painting of Joan of Arc that hangs behind the front desk. The young heroine is depicted sitting on a white stallion, holding a banner aloft, leading her armies against a fortified castle.

Jack Connelly, the firm’s founder and managing partner, commissioned the acrylic painting by a Dartmouth art student. For Jack, Joan of Arc embodies the practice and philosophy of Connelly Law Offices. The words “Truth,” “Justice,” “Equal Access” and “Accountability” are engraved in rocks outside the front door.

“Jack absolutely loves Joan of Arc,” his wife Angela confides. “She represents the most improbable battlefield leader in history, a young shepherd girl, in 1429 taking charge of what remained of the armies of France, at a time when a woman in such a position, much less a 17-year-old girl, was unheard of, and then marching against the most powerful armies in the world – and winning. Even more importantly, her strategy and leadership were always driven by a deep and abiding faith. That’s the model Jack tries to follow.”

Winning for a vulnerable client against improbable odds is what initially drew Jack to the courtroom; over the years, it has become the hallmark of his practice. Whether representing children who are physically or sexually assaulted, students who are discriminated against or bullied, families who have lost members due to corporate or government malfeasance, or citizens who have been injured or maimed by faulty products, pharmaceuticals or medical procedures, Jack is always ready to take on the fight for justice (and win).

A look into Jack’s background reveals that he has always thrived in the heat of competition. Jack grew up swimming in Tacoma with legendary coach Dick Hannula. When it came time for high school, instead of going to Wilson High (where Hannula was in the process of coaching the swim team to 24 consecutive state championships), Jack went with the underdog and chose to attend his local high school, Lakes. Jack helped lift the team to second place in state (behind Wilson), and he became the school’s first All-American swimmer.

After graduation, Jack enrolled at Stanford University with plans to continue his swimming. Then disaster struck. Jack suffered an extremely serious knee injury and went through two major surgeries. Jack was advised that his swimming career was probably ended. After the second surgery, he was placed in a cast for six months and told that he would have to skip his first quarter at Stanford. When they finally removed the cast, it took a tremendous effort just to get across the pool and the idea of swimming at the top collegiate level seemed a pipe dream.

Demonstrating the work ethic that would eventually lead to success in the legal profession, Jack got to work. He went down to Stanford, reported to the pool, and stood and watched a number of Olympians and swimming legends doing laps. Jack laughs in recollecting it. “I jumped in, swam on adrenaline for 2,000 meters and then was unable to move. Unfortunately, the workout went for 8,000 meters.”

Jack stayed with it and by the end of the year he placed at the Pac 8 championships, qualified for nationals, and received one of his most prized possessions – a plaque given to Stanford varsity award winners during their freshman year. Looking back, Jack credits his injury for teaching him what it takes to persevere in the face of adversity. Jack went on to earn the backstroke spot on Stanford’s medley relay team and qualified twice for NCAA All-American honors (although Jack is quick to credit his teammates for the success).

Jack continued his education at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. While in law school, he externed in U.S. District Court for the Honorable William H. Orrick and did a summer internship at the law firm of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell (“GTH”) in his home town of Tacoma. After accepting an offer and starting at GTH, Jack initially did asbestos and insurance defense work (as well as some criminal trials), but he quickly found that representing injured people was much more gratifying.

During this time, Jack points out that he was extremely fortunate to work with senior attorneys Albert Malanca and Warren Peterson, who taught him a great deal about being a trial lawyer.

“Albert was a state champion quarterback – he knew how to get the best out of people,” Jack recalls. “Shortly after I started he handed me a case called Patti Bailey v. Town of Forks. I went up to Port Angeles, and Seattle defense attorney Sid Snyder schooled me and had the case dismissed. I thought Albert would be angry.

“When I got back to the firm, I told him what had happened. He puffed on his cigar, nodded and told me, ‘You’ll win it on appeal.’ After the Court of Appeals affirmed it, Albert puffed on his cigar, nodded and told me, ‘I can’t imagine the Supreme Court ruling against you.'”

It didn’t. Bailey v. Town of Forks became Jack’s first public duty doctrine case and is still frequently cited for its principles in this area, i.e., the standard for allowing lawsuits against public entities.

Jack studied under Peterson and Malanca, and began handling a caseload of plaintiffs’ matters. “I always appreciated the fact that GTH allowed me the freedom to take my practice in the direction I chose,” he says.

Even as a young lawyer, Jack proved that he was a natural in the courtroom. He went down to Pacific County and tried his first case against the State of Washington, which involved a logging accident. The jury returned a verdict in his client’s favor that set a new record for Pacific County. This helped jump-start his career against public entities.

Jack’s other early successes, including a landmark case involving the Redmond basketball program, led to him being contacted regarding a case on behalf of adolescent boys who had been abused at the OK Boys Ranch in Olympia.

“When we first were contacted on this case, we round-tabled it at the firm,” Jack says. “Most of the attorneys felt that we should not take it. The kids were juvenile delinquents who had been placed at the ranch due to significant problems in their backgrounds.”

Jack accepted the case anyway. His primary goal has always been to serve as a voice for those vulnerable members of our society who otherwise wouldn’t have one. He set up a team within GTH to represent the boys, along with the two referring attorneys. The team was immensely successful. Ultimately, 68 youths were represented and the settlements from the case exceeded $70 million. More importantly, the manner in which adolescent group-home care is handled in Washington has been greatly improved.

Jack’s career has been punctuated with notable trial successes. Whether representing the families of the Lakewood police officers who were slain by Maurice Clemmons, a firefighter who died in the Pang warehouse fire, or victims of sex abuse or DOC or DSHS neglect, Jack has brought a distinctive and sincere style to the courtroom. Viewing wrongful death as the ultimate injury, he developed a unique approach to trying those cases by emphasizing general damages and downplaying specials. This led to a $6.3-million verdict on behalf of a murdered high school cheerleader – a landmark verdict at the time.

Jack is always especially proud when one of his cases helps to change or reshape policy. Although a multimillion-
dollar wrongful death verdict was reversed by the Supreme Court in Joyce v. State, Justice Tom Chambers’ opinion reaffirmed the milestone result in Taggart v. State and extended the duty of reasonable supervision to offenders under the Sentencing Reform Act. In 2010, a domestic violence case against the Federal Way Police Department resulted in a unanimous Supreme Court opinion (Washburn v. City of Federal Way), issued last year, that further reshapes the contours of government liability in Washington.

Although Jack is renowned for big verdicts, those who know him understand that obtaining justice is his primary motivation. After the Supreme Court opinion came down in Joyce, reversing the damages award but upholding the law, the client called to thank him for the result. “He wanted justice and to effectuate change,” Jack says. “This is true of most of the people I have been honored to represent, and is what I love about this area of the law.”

Jack has never limited his practice to a specific niche area. He credits this to Malanca, Peterson and other mentors at GTH, such as Judge Ron Leighton and Bud Daheim, who taught him that a trial lawyer should be able to use his or her skills to try a variety of cases. Although he is perhaps best known for a long string of successful cases against public entities, Jack has achieved similar success in cases outside the government realm. One such notable case, Salvini v. Ski Lifts, Inc., resulted in a $33-million verdict (less 55% for assumption of risk) in favor of a young man who was paralyzed in a ski-jump accident at Snoqualmie Pass.

In 2002, Jack was selected as the Washington State Association for Justice Trial Lawyer of the Year. In 2007, ABOTA honored him as its Trial Lawyer of the Year. He became a “wartime president” of WSAJ, presiding over the fight against Initiative 330, which threatened caps on damages and other restrictions on medical malpractice cases.

Jack notes that the task was initially daunting. “We had to raise $7.6 million,” he recalls. “The Association really jelled to make it happen. I will never forget the night it all came together. The attack on the trial bar had been unprecedented, and wrong, and getting everyone to work together to defeat it was a real source of pride.”

In keeping with Jack’s strong sense of obligation to give back to his community, he has coached swimming and water polo, served on a number of local and state boards, and has worked as a mentor to countless young people (both inside and outside the legal profession). He serves as a trustee of the Tacoma library system, worked to keep professional baseball in Tacoma, and is an owner of the Mariners’ AAA farm team, the Tacoma Rainiers.

The proud father of nine children, aged 6 to 24, Jack states that one of his great difficulties is finding the time necessary to be the best dad he can be. It’s a constant struggle. Perhaps the largest defining factor in both his work and home life is Jack’s Irish-Catholic faith. Despite its centrality, Jack doesn’t wear religion on his sleeve. One of his favorite quotes is by St. Francis, “Preach the gospel in everything you do and, if necessary, speak.”

His wife Angela notes that he is also a voracious reader. “He always has about 12 books going at once,” she says. “His nightstand and desks are covered with books. He’s never happier than when he is in bookstore, library or sitting by the fire reading a book.” Jack loves philosophy, politics and music. He recently bought a piano and plays every night before he goes to bed.

Back at the office, one of the things Jack most enjoys is mentoring and building teams of attorneys to work with him. During his time at GTH, he built a first-tier group of plaintiffs’ attorneys in a firm previously dominated by insurance defense work. In 2006, Jack and colleague Lincoln Beauregard left GTH and started Connelly Law Offices. The firm currently stands at seven attorneys.

Even as it grows, the firm has stayed true to Jack’s legacy – looking for cases that will drive positive change in society. Jack has always felt particularly gratified when policies or directives were changed as a result of one of his cases: the way group homes are run; directives and criterion for supervising convicted criminals; and DSHS policies setting the standard of care for protecting vulnerable adults. The injunctive relief entered in a 53-plaintiff, school district racial discrimination case is used as a model by school districts across the country.

The firm is now expanding and looking forward to opening a Seattle branch office on the top floor of the Smith Tower. Jack likes the classic nature of the tower and feels that it fits very well with the firm’s 1870s building in Tacoma.

“I really like the Smith Tower,” Jack says. “It’s a beautiful building. We need to find another picture of Joan for the entrance. She gives us our inspiration, and our depth.”

Nathan Roberts has been a friend, colleague and partner of Jack Connelly since joining Connelly Law Offices in 2006. Since that time, Connelly and Roberts have litigated a large number of cases together, settling many and trying several others to seven-figure verdicts