When Councilmember Tom Rasmussen questioned Sheley Secrest, a lawyer and one of eight finalists for Sally Clark’s open council seat, Friday night, he seemed hung up on one thing: “I’m curious as to your status in the bar association?”
“Inactive,” replied Secrest, who has built an impressive resume outside the legal profession.
“Inactive?” asked Rasmussen, also a lawyer. “I’m inactive because I’m on the council and not actively practicing law. So you’re saying you are inactive as well?” Secrest replied yes.
But contrary to what she told the Seattle City Council, Secrest’s membership in the bar association is not inactive, which is a voluntary standing according to the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) website. The bar association site says she was suspended from practicing law in 2012 for disciplinary reasons. And, although that was only a 60-day suspension, she has not applied to change her status.
When asked later by Crosscut about her council statement, she said she had misspoken, not realizing at first the exact import of Rasmussen's question.
Secrest works as a policy analyst for the Metropolitan Urban League of Seattle, a position that does not require a license to practice law. She is clearly a dedicated activist at heart, leading city employees in a “Black Lives Matter” walk out last February, speaking out against the new King County Juvenile Detention Center, helping obtain Washington’s moratorium on the death penalty and, at Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Affordable Housing Town Hall Thursday night, speaking in favor of rent control and maximum linkage fees on developers.
During her presentation to the council Friday night, she spoke of displacement in the central district and the need to understand nuances in each Seattle community. “We in the African American community don’t ride bikes as much,” she said of the city’s transportation efforts. “For us, our cars are a status symbol.”
Secrest has been something of a crowd favorite, with onlookers cheering her answers Friday night. In withdrawing from contention, former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck told Crosscut she was “outstanding” and that he hoped to see her chosen.
Secrest received her law degree from Seattle University in 2004, quickly going to work for the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, researching civil rights allegations.
In 2005, she went to work as a public defender for the Racial Disparity Project in Seattle, advocating to the Seattle City Council for better police relations with communities like Pioneer Square, the Central District and Rainier Beach.
In 2007, she formed a private firm under the name of the Law Offices of Sheley J.M. Secrest LLC, investigating labor law and race discrimination complaints. It was related to this work that she was suspended.
In May 2009, WSBA records show, Secrest was paid $3,500 to represent a man in a child custody case. The case dragged on, a not-unusual circumstance, with the final trial eventually set for June 21, 2010.
However, in early 2010, Secrest’s business telephone number and e-mail address became inactive. Her client was not given her new contact information. He eventually reached out to a friend of Secrest’s to get in touch and, according to the WSBA account, Secrest e-mailed her client in late January 2010 and apologized.
But during the six-month period between October 2009 and March 2010, Secrest did not appear at five hearings on her client’s behalf. She sent another lawyer in her place to three, but no one represented her client for two.
Then, in May 2010, Secrest was suspended for failing to comply with her mandatory continuing legal education requirements. She was told on May 27, but did not inform her client until nearly a month later on June 19 – two days before the custody case's June 21 trial.
According to the WSBA account, Secrest told her client that a different lawyer she knew would finish his case. However, that replacement lawyer testified that, while she had offered to help, she was not prepared to defend Secrest’s client.
As a result, no attorney appeared on behalf of Secrest’s client on the June 21 court date. “Although [Secrest’s client],” reads WSBA’s discipline notice, “had physical custody of his son for approximately nine months at the trial on June 21, 2010, the Court ordered that Mother would regain physical custody of Client A’s son and allowed Mother to relocate.”
The WSBA filed suit against Secrest for lack of diligence, poor communication, terminating representation and violating rules of professional conduct. She told Crosscut that her case was settled out of court in 2012 for a 60-day suspension.
Shortly after her settlement, Secrest went to work as a policy analyst for the Alliance for a Just Society, saying she wanted to work for clients before they entered the legal system.
That position did not require a law degree and Secrest said she never got around to reactivating her standing. she said, “I am currently inactive simply because I haven’t changed my status back.” She said she recently filed her paperwork so she could begin practicing again.
When asked if she felt she should have been more clear before the council about the suspension, she said, “Only afterwards when I saw [Rasmussen’s] face and I saw there was a disconnect there. When he said, ‘I’m inactive and you’re inactive’ I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m not practicing right now’ so I said yes. I hope he doesn’t think that I was trying to deny a suspension.”
Neither Rasmussen nor Council President Tim Burgess returned calls for comment.
This story was originally posted at 12:30 p.m. April 25.