WSBA Pro Bono Awards: Heather Kirkwood

Heather Kirkwood

You can do a lot with 2,000 hours. You could become a licensed barber or cosmetologist and still have a few hundred hours to spare, you could hike the Pacific Coast Trail three times, or you could travel approximately 2 miles in Seattle traffic.

In just one year, two WSBA members devoted 2,000 hours each to help their clients at no cost. (Statewide in 2018, more than 3,000 WSBA members reported a combined 234,691 hours of pro bono work, which is about a solid month of no-charge legal help from each reporting member.)

To honor this incredible achievement, the WSBA held two surprise celebrations with the top pro bono reporters: Benjamin Flick and Heather Kirkwood. On Jan. 31, WSBA President Rajeev Majumdar, Interim Executive Director Terra Nevitt, staff, friends, and family came together to give thanks to Flick and Kirkwood for their incredible achievements.

In this blog, we take a look at how Kirkwood reported a full-time job’s worth of pro bono. Read the post about Flick and his extensive pro bono practice.

Heather Kirkwood’s Late-Career Calling

Heather Kirkwood doesn’t go out looking for pro bono work, but somehow it always manages to find her, whether they’re friends, relatives, or students she’s tutored. Kirkwood has actually wound up representing complete strangers she encounters out in the world, including people she’s sat next to on the bus or on a plane.

“In life, you meet people everywhere—absolutely everywhere—and many of them have problems and many of them have legal problems,” she said. “And I’ve always felt a moral obligation to help, if I can, those who are in need of my skills.”

In 2018, Kirkwood reported 2,000 hours of pro bono work, though she says it’s an underestimate. She said she’s rarely sought out pro bono cases, outside of working at legal clinics during law school. But she listens to people; she looks for ways to help where she can.

“My approach is more [that] I’m interested in getting facts right, I’m interested in understanding people, and I’m interested in finding solutions that work for everyone,” Kirkwood said. “… This was part of my upbringing: When people have a need and you could fill it, you did so. It wasn’t that you sought it out, but you were morally obligated to address issues that arose where you had special skills and expertise.”

Originally a native of British Columbia, Kirkwood moved to Washington when her father came here for dental school. After earning her bachelor’s from the University of Washington and J.D. at Harvard Law School, Kirkwood kicked off her legal career as a litigator for the Federal Trade Commission specializing in anti-trust and commercial litigation.

Kirkwood did not at first have expertise in the area of law in which she now devotes so much of her time, most of which has been off the clock. The specialty for which Kirkwood is now regarded as a highly sought expert and advocate came late in her career when Kirkwood was unexpectedly drawn into criminal law through a case involving one of her relatives, of which she ultimately got overturned, according to Seattle Met magazine. As more people sought her help, she was eventually approached with cases in which parents had been wrongly accused of abusing their children by shaking them. Years later, Kirkwood has not only exonerated countless parents, but is at the forefront of advocacy against misdiagnosis of so-called shaken baby syndrome.

Kirkwood developed a unique expertise in such cases, becoming a highly sought legal consultant for her ability to parse complex medical terminology and processes and expose cases in which accidental injuries and misdiagnosed injuries have resulted in unjust trauma and financial ruin for many families. In one case, Kirkwood shared as an example, doctors mistook marks from IV tubes and hospital tape as signs that an infant was abused.

At the time of this writing, Kirkwood was traveling between Oklahoma and Texas while working on another shaken baby syndrome case. She’s also been working with reporters to further shed light on the issue and attempt to dispel misconceptions.

Of course, Kirkwood said she couldn’t devote so much of her time to this cause without support. She thanked her husband, Jack, and their children for their sacrifices that allowed her to take on this cause regardless of finances.

Asked what drives her to give so much time toward these cases, Kirkwood said it’s “because there is a wrong here that needs to be corrected.”