By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
When small business owners need expert repair, be it plumbing or electrical work, if they’re skilled, they DIY, or they call in the experts — the plumber or electrician.
Likewise, when small business owners are overwhelmed with understanding the maze of rules and laws imposed by the state and all the risks and insurance requirements, they typically rely on the expert — an experienced attorney. Not John Laney.
After his first year at the Seattle University School of Law, Laney was in the top 6 percent of his class of 357 students. Laney made the dean’s list, was the associate editor of the school’s law review, and graduated magna cum laude. Stoel Rives, LLP, the sixth largest law firm in Seattle, recruited Laney out of law school. People who know the rigors of law school understand Laney’s achievements puts him in an elite class of attorneys.
Laney is also the only Filipino American attorney at his law firm with Fortune 500 clients practicing in the area of mergers, acquisitions, and debt financing. “You won’t find other Filipino Americans doing high-end corporate work. It’s just me.”
The legal community has recognized Laney’s achievements numerous times. Washington Super Lawyers has named him a “rising star” for the past three years. Lawyers of Color included him on its “Hot List” in 2013. But being honored by the Northwest Asian Weekly is “quite a bit more monumental to me than being honored by a legal publication.” Laney explained legal magazines appeal to a closed community — attorneys, whereas the Northwest Asian Weekly’s audience is much broader. Laney said he is “incredibly humbled.” “This paper is always in our house. It’s one of those things we always pick up when we go to the Asian market. I want our kids to realize that if your mother worked in a cafeteria and your father worked in a shipyard, you can still do anything you want to do.”
Laney’s interest in kids is understandable. He and his wife have seven daughters and a son. He rattled off their ages — 16, 15, 14, 12, 10, eight (Laney’s son), six, and four. His kids go to Catholic school, where the joke is he has the most kids at the school. Laney was 20 when he had his first child, while attending the University of Washington and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. He had a child to care for, while attending college and co-owned and operated an adult care home. He had no time for extracurricular activities and wasn’t able to experience a “college lifestyle.” Laney laughed about how he saw students sleeping in and participating in activities outside of school — luxuries he couldn’t afford.
When Laney decided to go to law school, he sold the care home he co-owned and went to school at night, while continuing to work in the adult home care industry during the day.
Laney also took advantage of every opportunity to get involved in externships and internships and landed a three-month stint at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He worked in the criminal division, felony unit, prosecuting elder abuse and sex crimes.
All the awful facts he poured over all day long, particularly the ones involving crimes against children, stuck with him and he wasn’t able to go home and “turn that off.” At the time, Laney was the father of six girls, all under 10 years old. He was grateful that the cases that needed to, went to trial, and a lot of times, he got to see justice happen right before his eyes. But ultimately, Laney chose not to pursue criminal law.
Laney was born in Washington and went to Redmond Junior High and Lake Washington High School. His mother is from the Philippines, and his father from Washington. They were one of the few Filipino families living on the Eastside at that time.
Filipino Americans are typically small business owners and do not have the resources to support Laney’s fee structure, so he doesn’t work with many Filipino American companies. He does, however, take a serious role in mentoring. He’s a board member of the Asian Bar Association of Washington Student Scholarship Foundation. Laney recalled a recent $10,000 scholarship awarded to a woman from India who was unable to qualify for any federal grants because she was undocumented and had no idea of her status until she applied for college. As a result, she struggled to pay the enormous cost of higher education. Awarding the (Takuji) Yamashita scholarship to this woman was particularly meaningful to Laney.
Takuji Yamashita immigrated to the United States from Japan and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1902. Despite passing the bar exam, the Washington State Supreme Court held that Yamashita was ineligible to become an American citizen because of his Asian ancestry and he was not allowed to practice law.
Ninety-nine years later, in 2001, the decision was overturned, and the Washington State Supreme Court admitted Yamashita to the bar posthumously (Yamashita died in 1959).
As part of mentoring, Laney now has three Asian American attorneys working for him at Stoel Rives. Ten years ago, when Laney started, no Asian Americans were practicing in his area of law, so he’s pleased he’s played a role in helping to diversify the firm.
If Laney had a magic wand to change laws that would help the Filipino community, he’d focus on immigration. “I don’t really understand the immigration policies. I don’t understand why my relatives have to wait 20 years to come to the United States, especially given the fact that his grandfather served in the U.S. Army. His grandfather was promised a right to immigrate, but ended up having to be on the waitlist like everybody else, and so did his grandfather’s children.
Benefits promised for serving in the U.S. military have started to trickle out now, but Filipino veterans are a “dying class,” said Laney. He explained that military service records of Filipino veterans were destroyed decades ago in a fire. Sadly, most Filipino veterans didn’t keep their paper records from the 1940s, mostly because if they were caught by the Japanese with documents of their U.S. military service, they’d be condemned to death.
While Laney does a lot of work for clients that people are not familiar with — mostly solar and wind projects — most people recognize companies like Darigold or Method.
He’s helped Darigold with a lot of their corporate transactions and financing and gets excited when he sees their trucks on the road and/or sees new Darigold products in the stores. His wife knows not to buy other products, he shared. Laney appreciates Darigold keeping their plant on Rainier Avenue and what that means to the local community.
Method is another client, and he respects Method because it is very thoughtful about what’s going on in the world and he likes that it is environmentally conscientious and focused on sustainability. “It’s something I see a lot in friends’ bathrooms,” he laughed.
John Laney will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 2 at the House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle from 6–9 p.m.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.