It’s not necessarily the high-dollar cases that stick with longtime trial lawyer Victoria Vreeland. It’s the emotional ones.
The cases involving young professionals who’ve just stepped into their first adult jobs and are sexually harassed. It’s the child sex abuse, age or gender discrimination cases; even religious issues are floating to the forefront. Vreeland said it’s cases like the one brought against the Cincinnati Bengals football team that involved 15 players gang raping a 35-year-old woman from Spokane at a Doubletree Suites hotel in Tukwila; those are the ones that ignite a fire in her.
“That was horrific,” she said during an interview at her stunning Bellevue office with a view of sea-green, glass office buildings and jagged mountains as the backdrop. “And somewhat shocking to me — the way the public responded. The first thing, in sex harassment and discrimination, and certainly sexual assault and child sex abuse cases, the first thing is they vilify the plaintiff, and that makes me furious. Or they’ll say she’s making it up. Really? Yeah, there are a few false accusations, but by and large the vast majority are truthful.”
Vreeland fights for the people as one of Washington’s top trial lawyers and employment and civil rights attorneys. She’s changing the world one person at a time — a 1960s worldview, as she describes it. And for more than 40 years, she’s been winning battles against discrimination and employer abuse, but the war of injustice she’s been fighting continually manifests in new cases.
“I can’t believe this is still going on,” she said, of the discrimination and employment cases she routinely gets. “Sometimes I think, didn’t we fight this fight already? And it’s coming back? In some ways it seems to be worse. The injustice just keeps me going. I think sometimes, well maybe I should retire, and my kids say, ‘Oh, you’d do the same thing you’re doing now. You just wouldn’t get paid for it.’”
So she forges on.
Pushing Gender Expectations
Upon graduating law school at Gonzaga University, she joined the Washington State Court of Appeals as its first female clerk, and was swiftly added to the office coffee-making schedule, accompanied by all the female secretaries, but not the male staff.
Instead of raising offense to the explicit gender-based task, Vreeland bought one of the newly released Mr. Coffee machines and called a meeting to show everyone the latest office addition. Everyone who uses the last cup of coffee has to make the next batch, she said.
“All the women secretaries thought it was funny that not only did I not have to make coffee, but everyone has to make their own cup,” she said.
“I felt I needed some kind of degree, or more powerful credentials to even be heard … Women weren’t given a lot of credence.”
The obvious gender discrimination became apparent as she was pursuing her law degree. One banker questioned her birth control methods, fearing that if they gave her a student loan, she would get pregnant and drop out.
She says one of the most infuriating events was when she was denied work as a law office secretary because she was an unmarried mother and was instructed to stay home and take care of her child. It’s just how he felt, the male interviewer told her, even though she was the top candidate.
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, women generally were meek shadows behind men. The women she knew were astute and had degrees, but were expected to marry, have children, and stay home. Vreeland always pushed against those ideals. She was a tomboy in grade school and got into fights with the boys. She wasn’t going to do anything just because she should.
As a young adult, Vreeland didn’t want to be beholden to anyone but herself.
“I felt I needed some kind of degree, or more powerful credentials to even be heard,” she said. “Things would happen in the community and I would call up the government, and they would say, ‘Who are you?’ Women weren’t given a lot of credence.”
So she put herself through law school with her 2-year-old son in tow. She was in her early 20s, recently divorced, rolling pennies to do the laundry, and washing clothes in her sink. She worked countless odd jobs, sleeping only a few hours a night to make ends meet.
Her voracious attitude toward school landed her a summer internship at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., where she helped handle the Watergate scandal, the May Day riots and injuries derived from the Nevada nuclear testing. The experience helped form the foundation for the work she’s doing today, providing exposure to the inner workings of government and how it plays an important role in enforcing laws that help people.
Early on in her career, she realized she had a perspective none of the male lawyers could offer. She helped persuade judges to rule in favor of equal pay for women and educated insurance companies about sex crimes.
Her efforts with the Attorney General’s office aided in the passage of the Victims Rights Bill, and now every county in Washington has a victims’ resources unit. It’s one of the reasons she’s so passionate about the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. She was involved with the center for many years, and now it’s one of the largest in the nation.
Fighting the Good Fight
Her career catapulted in 1997, after the jury awarded her plaintiff $11.7 million in a retaliation and gender discrimination case against Johnson & Johnson. It was the largest jury verdict for a single plaintiff in the region, she said, and she started taking more discrimination cases.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was about winning,” she said. “We just wanted to be right that these people did something bad. Then you go back to work the next day, and you do it all over again.”
Vreeland opened her own law firm in 2011: Vreeland Law, PLLC. She serves on the Gender and Justice Commission for the State Supreme Court and recently joined the Hanford Challenge Board, aiding in whistleblower cases against giant contract companies that mistreat employees.
“If I see something in society, I try to be aware of my surroundings and what’s going on. I would step up and say something if I saw something wrong, in a cordial manner, but if I had to, I’m not afraid to fight.”
She said the most rewarding part of her job is making connections with her clients. With the people she helps, she hopes they know someone will always be there to listen, and there will be accountability. Vreeland is fiery in her pursuit for justice. She said she’s taken on judges and lawyers — nobody gets a free pass.
In 2007, she was awarded Trial Lawyer of the Year and the Myra Bradwell Award, a Gonzaga University School of Law accolade presented to those who have helped advance the rights of women. She’s won a flurry of other awards, but Trial Lawyer of the Year was special.
“I say, we all work like dogs,” she said. “You skip a lot of fun things. You work really hard and get through a trial and get a good result, and there’s no one there to clap other than your client. And you go back to work the next day and start over. Being acknowledged by your peers that you’re doing a good job was incredible.”
Vreeland has always been a whirlwind in her work and personal life, beckoning the question: How does she do it all? “You just do,” she said. She always went to her sons’ ball games and home-room meetings. She plays the piano, binge-watches Netflix, and has held Mariners season tickets for years — she has the game schedule hanging in her office. She’s found balance by doing it all. Her energy seems endless, but she doesn’t do anything because she should, which allowed her to hang on to everything that matters while shedding the things that don’t.
She is a fighter in every sense of the word.
“Someone in law school said, ‘When there’s a wrong, there’s got to be a remedy,’” she said of how her career has impacted her. “I think there’s got to be a way to fix things. If I see something in society, I try to be aware of my surroundings and what’s going on. I would step up and say something if I saw something wrong, in a cordial manner, but if I had to, I’m not afraid to fight.”