Lawyer Limelight: Gretchen Freeman Cappio

Lawyering has always been a matter of passion for Gretchen Freeman Cappio. In college she was exposed to nascent democracies internationally, and grew a deep respect for the American legal system. Her father was a law professor, and he imparted in her the ability of a lawyer to make a real difference in the lives of individuals, and society at large.

“I’ve only got so many years on this earth,” says Cappio, “and I want to leave it a better place for my children and everyone else.”

Cappio handles complex litigation, including class actions, with an emphasis on multidistrict cases with a public interest component. She has been involved in negotiations leading to several well-known settlements, including the Volkswagen emissions litigation and most recently, the litigation against Mylan and Pfizer relating to the pricing of EpiPens. Courts across the nation have recognized her leadership. She has been appointed to represent plaintiffs in many cases including in litigation involving automotive defects, banking misconduct, and data security, among others.

Cappio joined top plaintiffs’ firm Keller Rohrback straight out of law school and hasn’t looked back. She is now a member of the Executive Committee. When she had her first child, she struggled with the impossible decision of where to invest her energies, wishing she could split herself in two. The firm’s management showed compassion and foresight, and together they figured out solutions so she could be there for her family – and they could keep this top litigator on board.

Cappio, who received her J.D. from University of Washington School of Law, is a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America.

Lawdragon: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

Gretchen F. Cappio: I’m an incredibly lucky person because my first mentor in law was also my father, John P. Freeman. He was a distinguished law professor at the University of South Carolina for 35 years. As a child, I didn’t know much about the substance of what my dad did, but I did appreciate that when people were really hurting or in need, they called on him. And he made a palpable difference, solving problems in his dogged, charitable, no-nonsense, inimitable style. When he passed away a few months ago, the letters pouring in from the dozens and dozens of people whom he had helped reminded our family of what huge shoes he left to fill.

I admit, while I looked up to my dad tremendously, as a young person, I was a little reluctant to see myself as a lawyer. But one of the things that stands out to me even today is how effective he was at sharing his love for the law. Whenever I would ask him how he knew something, he would usually say, “That’s the kind of thing you learn in law school.” And whether or not someone practices law, “No one ever regrets getting a law degree.”

As I started to think about career options, I felt more and more drawn to seriously consider law as a practical way to help people and to solve major problems that affect our society.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

GC: I absolutely adored my college experience. I met some of my very best, lifelong friends and mentors in college. 

In a stroke of total luck, I won the roommate lottery. I was matched with someone who became one of my best college friends as a freshman year roommate. Her family is South African, but because of Apartheid, they hadn’t been able to live in South Africa for much of her childhood. To date myself, President Mandela was elected while we were in college. I was thrilled to be able to visit my friend’s amazing family and to revel in the new day dawning in South Africa.

I’ve only got so many years on this earth, and I want to leave it a better place for my children and everyone else.

While at Dartmouth, I had the opportunity to study in Kenya where I was matched with a fabulous host family that I am still close to today. Over lively dinnertime conversations in Nairobi, we discussed our respective countries’ political systems. My host family opened my eyes to how lucky I was to be an American and to be able to enjoy many of the civil liberties that I had taken for granted growing up. I was reminded of how unique the American Constitution really is, piquing an interest in me to explore that more.

Throughout all of my college travels, my eyes were opened to what makes America special and why our Constitution is regarded as a hallowed document in emerging democracies worldwide. I wanted to protect what makes our country special.

LD: Why did you choose plaintiffs’ litigation? And for that matter, complex litigation? What was the draw for you?

GC: Like I said, I was a little reluctant to commit to law school, but I went ahead and took the LSAT while in Nairobi and applied to schools all over the United States. Adam, my then husband-to-be, was pulling for the University of Washington because he really wanted to work for a particular software company in Seattle, which he ended up doing.

The summer after my first year of law school I worked at a big law firm primarily representing major corporations. “I wasn’t feeling it,” as my kids would say. It wasn’t until the summer after my second year of law school that I truly fell in love with law. As a summer associate, I worked for a law firm practicing large scale plaintiffs’ litigation. They were heavily involved in the Big Tobacco litigation at the time. I loved being invited to meetings to strategize with lawyers who are now nationally renowned and respected, mapping out how to try that case before the first trial started in Washington state. I was hooked.

I began to understand how plaintiffs’ litigation has the capacity to bring hidden facts to light and to effect real change. Complex litigation provides a vehicle for people or governments with fewer resources to hold wrongdoers accountable, and win. I started seeing myself as a plaintiffs’ lawyer, and I’ve never looked back.

LD: How did you find Keller Rohrback, and what spoke to you about it?

GC: I’m a rare and fortunate lawyer that my first job out of law school is still a great fit 23 years later. I remember writing in my cover letter for on-campus interviews that I wanted to practice complex litigation on the plaintiffs’ side, and that is what I have done every single day of my career. The lawyer who interviewed me that day was Lynn Sarko, Keller Rohrback’s managing partner of 31 years and, to this day, an important mentor to me and many others.

Fortunately, law schools are increasingly focusing on what makes attorneys satisfied long-term in their practices, and a major part of that for me and my colleagues is feeling like our values and our work are aligned. It’s fulfilling to practice at Keller Rohrback alongside attorneys who are all committed to using the law to make the world more equitable and better than we found it. My colleagues are talented, kind and generous people. I feel so lucky to have found a law firm that feels like home, and I don’t take that for granted.

LD: How has Keller Rohrback changed since the start of your career?

GC: Over the last 23 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the world and in our country – I think we’ve all seen enough changes in the past few years with the Covid-19 pandemic and in the latest Supreme Court term to last a lifetime! As a law firm, Keller Rohrback has matured and adapted within the larger national context. As a part of the firm’s Executive Committee, I’m proud to have had a hand in leading our firm through some of that growth. As lawyers we have unique responsibilities, and it’s important to the long-term integrity of our profession to guard against the politicization of the practice of law and the justice system, and to ensure, regardless of political affiliation, that we apply laws fairly and problem solve collaboratively to address people’s real needs.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?

GC: It’s a privilege to represent people who are willing to stick their necks out to take on the issues that matter to them. I strive to give my clients an authentic voice in our legal system, one that’s informed by my knowledge and experiences over the past 23 years. I do my best to be prepared, remain down to earth, provide practical solutions and look for the fun in practicing law every day. It also makes a difference that I represent people in cases that I believe in.

Complex plaintiffs' litigation provides a vehicle for people or governments with fewer resources to hold wrongdoers accountable, and win.

In working with other professionals, I bring respect for others and the legal system, creativity, a sense of humor and a commonsense outlook to the practice of law. I try to extend that perspective to colleagues, including staff, and opposing counsel. As a young lawyer, my dad taught me to always try to pay it forward, to take other lawyers’ calls, and to do my best to serve my clients with the utmost integrity. He often said the only proper response when a reasonable professional courtesy is requested is, “Of course.” I try to say the same thing.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

GC: “Hamilton” by Lin Manuel Miranda is a work of genius and is by far my favorite work of art about a lawyer and the American experiment. I have watched it on stage an embarrassing number of times. It gives me hope, and it touches me as a lawyer, as a parent and as a citizen. It also reminds me that I really wish I could carry a tune. I cannot.

LD: Can you describe a memorable challenge, hardship or failure you experienced in your career? What did you learn from it and how did you overcome?

GC: Without a doubt, the hardest experience I’ve ever had as a lawyer was becoming a parent. I ached to be two people. One of the people I wanted to be was the parent who could spend all my time and energy raising my girls, who are, in addition to my spouse, my favorite people on the planet. I also wanted to be a full-time, fully devoted attorney. I was very short on role models for figuring out this conundrum. Holding my four-month-old baby daughter in my arms, I literally had no idea how to reconcile these two competing, overwhelmingly strong pulls. And that’s when I ended up in the most important conversation of my career to date.

When I told our managing partner, Lynn Sarko, how I was feeling, I was neither composed nor professional. Instead, I was a raw mess of nerves. But I sputtered out enough for Lynn to respond with the most transformative sentence I can imagine someone in my position hearing: “Our firm is in it with you for the long haul.” Those words gave me the courage to work with my family and my law firm to figure out a feasible, flexible plan, or really a series of plans.

I am so grateful for the opportunity I was given to spend meaningful time with my children when they were young, and to have a robust career today. Now that I am more senior at the firm, and am the third woman and second mother to serve on the Executive Committee, I am determined to pay it forward for the next generation of parents who need to hear those words. I want to validate and normalize the choices parents make, no matter what they are. I am proud to have helped support other parent attorneys as a founding board member of the Mother Attorney Mentoring Association (MAMA). Overall, I work alongside our Executive Committee to ensure our firm honors the daily practice of creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming space that validates, celebrates and accepts everyone.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled? Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is more memorable for certain reasons?

GC: Throughout my time at Keller Rohrback, many cases stand out as favorites. I loved being involved every step of the way in the Volkswagen Diesel litigation – from filing the second case in the country to presenting the notice plan before Judge Breyer at a settlement approval hearing. I was fortunate to serve on the settlement team of that case – to be “in the room where it happens.”

As a mother and a woman lawyer, I especially value my experience representing the plaintiff class in Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co., (W.D. Wash. 2001). A remarkable decision for its time, Judge Robert Lasnik’s opinion held that when an otherwise extensive health plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men, the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a “gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate healthcare need uncovered” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Little did I know that 21 years later, the law surrounding the most basic health care needs of women would remain so unsettled and under attack.

LD: What do you do for fun outside the office?

GC: I’m fortunate to love spending time with my family, including my husband, two daughters Beatrice and Julia, ages 20 and 17, and two Labrador retrievers, Nellie and Willow. I love traveling and exploring the outdoors, especially in the beautiful Pacific Northwest where I’ve lived since 1996, and South Carolina, where I grew up. I also enjoy cooking and eating delicious food, spending time with dear friends, and reading the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. And I try to never miss a Pink Martini concert.