(253) 593-8363 nroberts@connelly-law.com

Nate Roberts, WSAJ President, and Colleen Durkin Peterson, President-elect, have been plaintiff attorneys from the beginning. In Colleen’s case, that’s true in a literal sense. “I say I grew up in WSAJ,” says Colleen. “At least one summer family vacation was going to be going to the Conventions and hanging out with other attorneys’ kids, and it was great.”

Nate began at Connelly Law, where he still practices, during law school. I asked him if he ever wished that he’d worked on “the other side.” “There are moments when I think it would be somewhat useful, when you’re negotiating or whatever, to be able to think like an insurance defense lawyer,” he said, “or know what some of those conversations between the lawyers and the carriers actually sound like, but there’s absolutely no part of me that wishes I had done that work for any great length of time.”

When you talk to Nate and Colleen about this organization that’s been a part of their lives for so long, excitement for the next generation of trial lawyers comes up a lot. “I think having that constant hunger, where can the next batch of trial lawyers come from, how are we going to stay strong in the coming years and decades so we can continue to be a force to be reckoned with,” says Nate, “are the kinds of things that if you start thinking about them, they’ll keep you up at night.”

“I remember going to Conventions as a law student,” Nate continues, “and meeting Gerhard [Letzing] and others, and being a little bit intimidated, because there were all these established trial lawyers there, and everybody’s sort of a name, they have a practice, they’ve got verdicts, and just kind of walking around as a law student feeling like you’re among giants. It’s cool to think that when Colleen and I are chairing our Conventions the next year or two, maybe there will be somebody there that’s an intimidated first-year law student, or a child of some trial lawyer, who in the next couple decades will end up as a member or maybe even on the Board or in the Presidency. Then Colleen and I can sail off into the sunset, step back. And hopefully the mission’s still being fulfilled then, too.”

nate roberts at age seven
Nate Roberts at age seven

Colleen says she enjoys thinking about the fact that “the next generation of trial lawyers is within our group, and they are eager to learn. As with all generations, their skill sets are different, so it’s still I think very important to remember our institutional history because we’re building on that, and I also really look forward to continuing to learn from the founding members, but as they retire, the next generation of lawyers is ready to kind of pick up that torch and build upon the foundation that they have all set for us. That’s exciting for me to see, and to get to meet more members and younger members; I guess I’m not technically a young member anymore, but it’s inspiring, and I like having that long view of this organization.”

I asked Colleen and Nate, given their stories of being awed by legendary attorneys when they were young, if they had any words of wisdom about intimidation and impostor syndrome. “It’s natural to be intimidated,” says Nate, “but at the same time, don’t be. Because WSAJ is not only a tremendous professional resource, it’s like a family. And almost to a one, our members are so gracious with their time, and are willing to contribute to help bring people up, whether it’s in their firm or some other firm, and unite in that common cause of trying to make our state better and more just. So I would say to the younger folks, don’t hesitate to get involved, don’t hesitate to reach out, and you’ll be nothing but surprised by how quickly people are, or how willing people are, to drop what they’re doing or carve time out of their calendars to make time to help you out and bring you up. That’s kind of the ethos of WSAJ, I think.” Colleen agrees: “It’s kind of crazy to go and be in a room with, or to work with, people whose cases you’re learning about in law school, and that’s just a testament to the quality of lawyers that WSAJ has,” she says. “But it is intimidating, a little bit, and I remember going to a lot of these Conventions when I was younger and saying, ‘Ooh, I want to be like David Ball, I want to be like Don Keenan,’ and my dad would always say, ‘Just be you and you’ll be fine.’ The only person he ever said I should mimic would be Becky Roe, I remember. But I think as soon as you can, get comfortable with ‘just be you,’ because WSAJ has got you. Everyone’s going to help, we’re all rowing in the same boat, in the same direction, for civil justice, for our injured clients. And this is not work for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of help. And that’s what our membership is here for, so I think just be you, because WSAJ’s got you.

nate roberts and wife carly
Nate Roberts and wife Carly
colleen durkin peterson and her father
Colleen Durkin Peterson and her father, longtime EAGLE John Durkin
colleen durkin peterson
Colleen Durkin Peterson

Nate says that spirit of sharing and generosity is one of the things that makes WSAJ unique. “I think lawyers are highly competitive,” he says, “and I think a lot of times the first instinct might be to keep your resources close to the vest, for fear that you’re going to give away your own secret sauce, or that the person you’re helping out one day is going to be taking all of your cases the next; I think the reason that WSAJ’s culture is so directly contrary to that is that people are leading by example, and people are very generous with their time and their skills, their work product, you name it. Putting on seminars, uploading documents to the brief bank… and when you’ve been the beneficiary of that, you find yourself in a position where you can pay it back or pay it forward or whatever it might be. That’s what I think really makes our Association unique.”

Both Colleen and Nate say that their favorite WSAJ event of the year is Winter Conference/Holly Ball. “I just like that whole day,” says Colleen. “The CLE is usually a trial skills CLE, and so that is always fun because you hear from people who have had some recent successes and it’s all different practice areas, and their willingness to come and share what worked for them in a certain trial. It’s like what Nate said, everyone is very generous with their time and their talents, and any time we have an opportunity to add more tools to our tool belt, I’m all for it. So I enjoy that, and then just hanging out with everybody that evening, it seems like everybody enjoys Holly Ball, which is like one big firm Christmas party.”

“It’s the best of what WSAJ does,” Nate says about Winter Conference and Holly Ball, “because our members are committed to being the best trial lawyers they can become, and even the greats in the profession never rest on their laurels, they’re always figuring out how to become better, so we have these great CLE programs where everybody’s sharing knowledge and skills for the betterment of our clients and ourselves as trial lawyers. And then afterwards we all go party. And I think that’s what makes WSAJ so cool, you know, it’s the work hard, play hard mentality.”

I ask them about their kids; is there any indication that there are future lawyers in their family? Colleen tells me that her six-year-old daughter Malia wants to be a scientist and her four-year-old son Mikey wants to be a basketball player, so no legal aspirations at the moment; Nate’s answer is similar, but he says his four-year-old daughter Abigail is starting to understand the heart of what he does.

“This morning,” says Nate, “I said to my daughter, ‘Have a good day, I love you, be sure to be kind and cooperative and nice to your little brother,’ and she goes, ‘I love you too, Daddy. Be good with your clients!’”

Raphaela Weissman is WSAJ’s Editorial, Law School, and Programs Coordinator, and the Managing Editor of Trial News.