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Michèle Pearson March 15, 2021

I grew up in a time when “being a girl” was enough to keep you out of certain professions. As a young child, I greatly admired a local doctor who had figured out how to get me healthy after long bouts with sore throats and resulting infections. I just thought, “Wow, that’s what I want to do when I grow a doctor...figure things out and help kids like me”. Well, I was roundly discouraged when the grown ups in my life educated me about my chances. After all, I was a “girl”. 

Many years passed, most of them filled with family hardships. I grew up with a profound sense that justice and fairness were not at my disposal. Still, I yearned for it, and thought that there must be a way, for me, as well as for others.

Then, at 21 years old, I found myself widowed with an infant daughter, and although I had found a good job from which I was given maternity leave, I slammed up against this new reality with a much more open mind regarding future career prospects. While considering possibilities, I had an experience that brought me face to face with the option of a legal career. I had wondered about it off and on...I knew that an uncle had become a lawyer, but the profession held mystery and uncertainty. But the more I learned, the more I thought it might be a perfect fit for me. I carried this dream for many, many years as I climbed the corporate ladder, gaining my undergraduate degree in between Fortune 500 boardrooms and flights to Silicon Valley.

Going back to the experience that next led me to a legal career, it unfolded after I vacated my first apartment and prepared to move to my first home with my daughter. I had lived in the apartment, which was the second story in an old home, for two years. After I moved in, we sanded the floors, wallpapered and painted, put in new light fixtures, and laid a new kitchen floor. Eventually, the elderly original owners sold the old house to a young couple, and they became my new landlords. But these new folks were not the old folks.

I packed up for the move, employing the sweat and toil of several helpful friends, and left the sweet apartment in tip top shape, sweeping, disinfecting, cleaning the appliances, and shining up just about everything we could. After his final inspection, I collected my deposit check from the landlord and then drove off down the road to the new house. I put the deposit check into my account and went about the business of running my household. Within the next week, I received a “insufficient funds” notice from my bank. As I continued pawing through the mail on that day, I saw that there were actually four such notices. I had never bounced a check in my life, and to say I kept close tabs on my finances is an understatement. Making a drive to the bank, which to this day I cannot recall (rage will do that), I quickly learned that the new landlord at the apartment had stopped payment on my deposit check. There was no cause for them to do this. Incensed, I immediately planned the retrieval of the money. Someone at the bank suggested I “take the landlord to small claims court”. After the landlord told me to take a “long walk off a short pier”, I went to the library.

I took out two books on representing yourself in small claims court. I did everything they suggested: I went to the courthouse and made the claim, sent the notice to my landlord, gathered my evidence, and arranged for live witnesses in addition to writing and preparing affidavits from those who could not make the court date. On the day that my claim was heard, I organized my case, and waited my turn with two of my witnesses as the judge worked through his docket. I saw my landlords arrive.

The judge called my case, and cued me to begin. I was so nervous. Standing at the table in the well of the courtroom, I made my argument, and then proffered every receipt for any improvement I had made in the apartment (yes, I had them all). Additionally, I examined two witnesses who told the judge how clean and tidy the apartment was, including that “you could have eaten off the floor” when we left. I also gave the judge two affidavits from others attesting to the same. Each of the landlord’s defenses were shut down by my irrefutable evidence. 

The judge not only awarded me all of my deposit, but each of the fees for the bounced checks, and for all the improvements I had made in the apartment. After he read his ruling, he removed his glasses, looked at me over his bench and said, “You ought to be a lawyer”. I was jubilant...I clearly remember my little high heels clicking down the courthouse’s marble hallway as I and my witnesses made our way out into the sun. It took another couple of decades, but I did do it. I have had the chance to teach trial skills to other lawyers, edit the Washington State plaintiffs’ bar publication, and help hundreds of clients. I made my dream happen.