Liz Hutchinson, The Denver Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division Chair

by Haley Hemen

While many of us spent the pandemic emptying our Netflix queues, attorney Liz Hutchinson and her husband John experienced the birth of their first child with all the complications and precautions mandated by the pandemic. “Giving birth in the pandemic was both beautiful and isolating,” Hutchinson says. “John and I have been with Caleb every moment of close to the first year of his life. We would never have had this time together as a new family of three in non-pandemic times – we were always on the go. It forced us to slow down and just enjoy the gift of presence.”

Gift as it was, in many ways presence was its own challenge. “To be candid, it has been really hard balancing our careers with full-time parent duties. Because of the pandemic, we did not have child care for Caleb for the first 10 months of his life.”

Hutchinson met her husband when they were both high school teachers volunteering during their faculty day of service. Hutchinson had just returned from backpacking through Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, and John had spent time doing tropical reforestation work in Australia. They hit it off right away and were married about three years later.

Hutchinson taught social justice at Presentation High School in San Jose, CA, her alma mater. “I think one can only teach about injustice for so long until they are ready to do something about it.” For Hutchinson at age 25, that meant law school. “I always had a legal career in the back of my mind as an option given my interest in politics and addressing inequity, but I was not certain that I was going to study law. However, after teaching social justice for three years, I knew education was not my vocation or role in the justice movement – I wanted to take a more active role. There was no better training on how to meaningfully effect change, in my view, than going to law school. Whether you choose to practice law in the traditional sense or not, law school gives you the tools to work in any industry and with any group of people. You learn how laws are actually written, why and how words matter, and the impact that laws can have, intentional or not. It also teaches you how to think, write, and communicate better than any training I have ever had.”

And Hutchinson really took advantage of her time in law school. “After teaching, it was wonderful to be back in the student’s seat. I soaked it all in – the classes, the student organizations, the externships, and the service opportunities. At the time, I was focused on environmental and natural resources law, so I externed with the US Department of Justice in environmental enforcement and defense, with the EPA in the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and with the US Department of the Interior Office of the Solicitor – Rocky Mountain Region. I also spent my 1L summer in Alaska with the Native American Rights Fund focusing on indigenous rights. In addition, I externed for Senior Judge John Kane of the US District Court for the District of Colorado and Judge Elizabeth Weishaupl of the 18th Judicial District, as well as then-State Senator Mike Johnston. I am grateful for each one of those experiences, as they each taught me something very different about the practice of law. I also gained experience in each of the three branches of government, and gleaned insight into how each of them works. I was also president of the Natural Resources and Environmental Law Society and traveled to Navajo Nation as part of DU’s Alternative Spring Break Program.”

After graduation, Hutchinson first clerked for now-retired Judge John Webb of the Colorado Court of Appeals, then spent a year with Justice Will Hood of the Colorado Supreme Court, and then a year with Judge Greg Phillips of the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. “When I graduated, I had no intention of taking on three clerkships, but you simply don’t turn down the opportunity to serve the Colorado Supreme Court or the Tenth Circuit. Each clerkship offered such tremendous learning opportunities, as well as life-long mentors. Through these clerkships, I learned how to think like a judge and, practically speaking, preserve issues as a trial lawyer for appeal and tee-up motions for future appellate briefs. I also learned the importance of professionalism and collegiality. The Colorado Supreme Court in particular prides itself on being a collegial court. I learned so much from watching how the justices thoughtfully, and respectfully, disagreed with one another. While we may have intellectual quarrels, lawyers should always rise above and maintain a level of professional decorum and respect for the opposing party. I have not always lived up to this standard, but I do my best to do so every day. Sometimes that means walking away and taking a deep breath before responding or engaging with opposing counsel. Whatever it takes, I try to remember my integrity is always more important than my ego.”

In addition, between clerking and private practice, Hutchinson took a couple years to give back as a Staff Attorney and Pro Bono Coordinator at Equal Justice Wyoming. “I knew I had my whole life to build a career in private practice, so I was not in a rush to make that transition. Accordingly, I wanted to take time to address access-to-justice issues and grow a statewide pro bono program in Wyoming. It deepened my personal commitment to service work, even today in private practice. My philosophy is that, at any given time, every attorney should have at least one active pro bono case. It’s part of our professional responsibility to the rule of law, and to our marginalized community members. Since joining Shook, I have focused my pro bono practice on asylum work for those fleeing gender- and political-based violence. It has been rewarding for me, and impactful for my clients. It’s also a tremendous learning opportunity for young lawyers in private practice – pro bono work may get you into a courtroom faster than any of your corporate clients! Whatever your passion may be, find it and dedicate time to it. It will remind you why you went to law school in the first place, as well as the incredible impact that you can have on your community.”

These experiences, including a service-learning trip to the US/Mexico border helped focus the area to which she would dedicate her pro bono practice: to those fleeing gender- and political-based violence. “My heart will always be with justice work,” says Hutchinson. “But I needed an emotional break from it. What people don’t often talk about is the secondary trauma that attorneys and social workers (and others) face when working with people in trauma and people experiencing poverty. It hit a point where I knew I just couldn’t keep it up. I had private practice in the back of my mind for years because I was drawn to the challenge of sophisticated clients and high-stakes litigation.”

Given her upbringing in Silicon Valley, business litigation at a large, national litigation firm like Shook, Hardy and Bacon was the perfect fit. “I have been able to work on cases ranging from biometric privacy to medical-device product liability, as well as traditional commercial litigation and trade secret cases. It has been wonderfully challenging and engaging. But I’m also with a firm that encourages civic and political involvement, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion work, so my desire to maintain a solid pro bono practice and stay involved in the local bar has only been met with positive reinforcement, encouragement, and billable credit. Private practice allows you to move through work that touches on all three branches of government, as well as the private sector. It can be wonderfully fulfilling, all things considered.”

Moving into private practice also afforded Hutchinson a bit more flexibility in terms of networking than judicial-bar relationships, which she used to take advantage of the opportunities that the DBA-YLD offered. And, on the recommendation of good friend and then chair-elect of the DBA-YLD, Matt Broderick, she applied to be on the DBA-YLD Executive Council. “I couldn’t turn him down – it was an opportunity for me to give back, to continue my work in the pro bono space, and to rebuild friendships and professional relationships that I had not given enough attention to while spending time in the courts. After even just a few months being in private practice and a part of the Executive Council, I fell in love with the energy of the team and the potential to serve so many young and new-to-practice attorneys in the Denver Metro Area. I wanted to run for chair to see that mission through – particularly after COVID, this is a time to step into leadership and rebuild community. I can’t wait for all that we can accomplish together over the 2021-22 year.”

As chair, Hutchinson sees the year ahead as an opportunity to reinvent bar membership and how members view the DBA-YLD. “I want to create and foster an inclusive community of young and new-to-practice attorneys where we can build professional relationships, bounce ideas off one another, support one another’s professional development, and cultivate friendships. As part of this, our members can expect in person and virtual networking opportunities, small group dinner discussions, CLEs focused on professional development of young lawyers, and opportunities to give back. My call to action for all young lawyers is to step into leadership and to get involved. The DBA-YLD membership is what you make it, and we can’t wait to get to know you.”