Diane Clarkson learned at an early age that life can be unfair, and that when opportunities came her way it was her job to make the most of them.
“I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve gotten,” says the 54-year-old Tacoma attorney.
That included studying classical French composers abroad, earning a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and becoming a deputy prosecutor in Pierce County about 23 years ago.
Recently, her peers chose her as the next president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
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That makes her the first black president of the organization, and the first minority woman to lead the group.
“I hadn’t really thought of it like that,” she told The News Tribune recently. “That would be significant to me, and almost overwhelming at the same time.”
Clarkson was elected in February, and will serve as vice president this year before taking over the organization in 2017.
“She’s someone who listens well to different opinions and has a way of basically sticking to the issues rather than getting caught up with personalities,” said current president Matthew Thomas. “She’s good at focusing on issues, and that’s important in an organization like ours.”
The role of the local bar association is to encourage “professionalism, community service and collegiality among lawyers,” according to its mission statement.
The association facilitates a pro bono program, periodically evaluates the county’s judges, offers lawyers to speak about legal issues at community events and in general gets attorneys together outside the courtroom.
It differs from the Washington State Bar Association in that it does not license the state’s lawyers or run a disciplinary system for attorneys.
Clarkson was raised by a single mother who worked as an accountant for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C.
Her mother ended up locked in a federal office building for several days during the 1968 riots in the district, while a neighbor cared for her three children, including Clarkson.
After that the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where Clarkson’s grandparents lived.
Schools were being desegregated, and Clarkson went to Chalkville Elementary School in Birmingham after the change. She remembers being excited for what she expected would come with it: new school books, field trips.
She particularly looked forward to a trip to the state capitol in Montgomery, but Gov. George Wallace canceled it after the school integrated.
Later on, they did get to go, but: “It took an act of Congress to pull that trip off,” Clarkson said.
She still has the photo of the class on the steps of the capitol.
“Growing up in the South, I think I had sort of gotten used to disappointment and rejection,” she said.
That’s not to say she didn’t expect things to come her way, she said, just that she knew she wouldn’t always get what she wanted.
“When they started integration, it was harsh,” Clarkson said. “The Klan marched. Flags were burned. It was huge.”
Her teacher at Chalkville told the class she didn’t want the new students there, but was going to do her job.
Clarkson remembers one of her peers targeting the teacher with some of his pranks and having strong ideas about justice.
The boy, Leon, who was white, made fake snakes pop out of drawers, brought dissected frogs to the lunch table and once put a tack in the teacher’s chair.
When the teacher blamed the black students in the class, Leon was outraged, and told her it was him.
“I think Leon was taking up our cause as the black kids in the class,” Clarkson said. “He always took credit.”
After going on to major in English, French and music at Berea College in Kentucky, Clarkson went to law school.
She heard after she graduated that minority attorneys were being hired in Washington state, so she moved across the country and eventually started working at the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
She handled drug and sex crimes, supervised the office’s domestic violence unit and worked on the robbery and assault team.
“It’s a privilege to be a prosecutor,” Clarkson told The News Tribune. “It’s the trust of the public. I come from a background where we don’t trust the man or the establishment. It’s important that people of color are part of the decisions that are being made.”
Probably in part because of her early experiences, Clarkson said, she was surprised to win her first election for a bar leadership position a couple years ago, when she was voted to the board of trustees.
“That was a big deal to me,” she said. “It was the legal community saying: ‘Diane, we’re behind you, we support you, let’s get it done.’ ”
Being chosen by her peers for that position meant a great deal to her, she said, “because it came at the height of me being marginalized” within the Prosecutor’s Office.
A 2015 whistleblower investigation of Prosecutor Mark Lindquist found that Clarkson was transferred to juvenile court after she made public statements in favor of the Pierce County Minority Bar Association having a role in evaluating judicial candidates.
The investigation concluded that Lindquist transferred Clarkson as punishment for speaking out. Lindquist later apologized to Clarkson for his treatment of her, according to records. Their relationship remains cool.
After being a trustee of the bar association, Clarkson was chosen as the organization’s president-elect in February. She and Thomas, the current president, will work together this year.
“I think we’re going to be a pretty dynamic duo,” Clarkson said.
One of their goals is to make the 1,400-member group more inclusive. It’s had few minority attorneys, and until recently public defenders weren’t as involved as other lawyers.
More public defenders are participating this year, and Clarkson hopes to recruit more lawyers from the minority bar association.
Getting those new members to help out on committees and otherwise be active in the group is one of her goals.
Another mission is to attract more attorneys from underrepresented communities.
“That’s really going to be good,” Thomas said, “and it’s good to have Diane in that high-profile position to do that.”
Thomas said he and Clarkson also are focused on keeping attorneys engaged in continuing education classes.
The state bar association no longer requires attorneys to attend continuing education classes in person. Instead, the requirements can be met online.
“We want to keep doing that (in person), and we’re worried that people will be less likely to go,” Thomas said.
He and Clarkson have known each other since the 1990s, when they worked at the Prosecutor’s Office and before he went on to become a federal prosecutor.
Clarkson compared Thomas to a “modern-day Abe Lincoln,” because of his integrity, at which he laughed and said he thinks the same of her.
She’s a tough prosecutor but a fair one, he said, and he appreciates her frankness and honesty in bar discussions.
“She’s got a good character and she’s just the type of person, when you meet her, she’s interested in people and what they’re doing,” Thomas said. “And she’s an honest person. People trust her.”
Joseph Evans, president of the minority bar association, said Clarkson helped get him involved with the group. And as a public defender, he said he sees her as a very fair prosecutor.
“She seeks justice,” he said. “She does the right thing.”
Clarkson has a husband of 22 years and two adult children.
She’s played piano since she was young, and music finds its way into her work with the justice system. She recently led a music session with youths who had trouble with the law, introducing them to djembe drums, instruments from West Africa.
“We talked about making life choices, directing frustration and music,” she said.
It was the kids who struggled most in the beginning, who wanted to be there the least, she said, who had the most rhythm in the end.