Ethics expert Professor John Strait retires

April 3, 2017
John Strait
John Strait

"If anyone's going to go to jail, make sure it's the client and not you."

That, in a nutshell, is the advice Professor John Strait has given to countless law students and practicing lawyers in more than four decades of teaching, serving on numerous ethics committees, speaking to community groups, and leading CLEs.

As Professor Strait prepares to retire at the end of this academic year, he reflected on his long career of working to build a bridge between academia and the practicing bar and bench, and remembered with pride the thousands of students he taught who went on to become talented, hard-working lawyers.

His teaching career started with his creation of innovative clinical courses in trial advocacy and later evolved into his widely respected expertise on professional responsibility.

Seattle University School of Law will celebrate Professor Strait at a retirement reception on April 19 at 5:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

After retirement, Professor Strait will continue to serve as a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, advising students who need help with character and fitness hearings for the bar, giving presentations to first-year students on professional responsibility, and continuing to provide preventive pro bono ethics advice to lawyers and judges.

"I can't teach anyone to be ethical. It's clearly an internal process," he said. "But what I can do is teach you the issues and situations where ethical questions are likely to come into play. That way, you're trained to see it coming."

Professor Strait's interest in ethics began with what he calls "a total screw-up" he made early in his career, while working for The Defender Association (TDA) in King County in the early 1970s. He took on a case with four co-defendants and, after getting the case dismissed for one of them, he won acquittals for the other three by having them blame the first defendant. The first defendant was furious, and Strait suddenly realized the inherent conflict of interest in such a situation.

He later headed the appellate law reform unit at TDA.

He drafted professional responsibility training materials, which he then presented at the National Legal Aid and Defender conference. He later refined those materials with the help of executives at the Legal Services Corporation and became known in the public defender community for his insights and thoughtful treatment of ethics issues.

Professor Strait grew up in San Francisco and studied at University of California, Davis, where he was active in the antiwar movement and Cesar Chavez's campaign for farmworkers' rights. He then attended Yale Law School and graduated as one of about 200 Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellows.

He was assigned to Portland, Oregon, where he represented clients and tried to develop test cases that could be used to challenge unfair or unjust laws. In one case, he helped draft state legislation that made it harder for car dealers to profit from selling repossessed vehicles and then brought a class action to enforce the new law on behalf of 6,000 low-income clients.

"I tend to think of things systemically," he said. "And I started to think about how to train other lawyers."

That naturally led to an interest in teaching and he joined the faculty of the brand new University of Puget Sound Law School in 1974, starting in the law school's third academic year. (The law school joined Seattle University 20 years later.) At that time, law schools primarily focused on doctrine and analysis; the idea of real-life lawyering via clinic courses was the great frontier, and Strait ventured forth with enthusiasm.

Over the years he taught clinical courses that dealt with misdemeanors (defense and prosecution), post-conviction appeals, pardons, criminal code drafting, Indian law, and professional responsibility. He also taught lecture courses in criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law, evidence, federal courts and jurisdictions, federal white-collar crime, and professional responsibility. He has received awards from both the Washington Bar Association and the American Bar Association for his contributions to the profession.

"Practicing lawyers and the academic world used to avoid each other, and I've tried to change that," he said. "I see the academic world as making the bar and bench better practitioners and the practicing world as making the academics more relevant."

But of all the work he's done in 43 years on the faculty, Professor Strait is proudest of the law students he's helped overcome challenges to their character and fitness applications to the bar, either because of their criminal records or other problems.

"We honor people who have overcome troubled periods in their life. These students have worked hard to change and they think of the old person they used to be as somebody else," he said. "I'm so proud of the tremendous contributions they've made to the legal community."

Dean Annette Clark '89 urged friends and alumni to join the law school in celebrating Professor Strait's career.

"John has done this law school, and the greater legal community, an invaluable service over the course of the last 43 years and will continue to be an important voice," she said. "We're all better lawyers and legal educators for having worked with him."

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