On May 24, 1919, Lady Willie Forbus is admitted to the Washington State Bar Association. She becomes one of the first women to practice law in Seattle, and for the next 10 years will be the only woman to maintain her own law practice in the city. A steadfast campaigner for the rights of women, children, and the disadvantaged, Forbus's advocacy is stoked by a hardscrabble childhood in the South and personal injustices experienced during her undergraduate and law-school years. Her outspokenness and a high-profile case will catapult her into politics, where after unsuccessful campaigns for other offices she will serve two terms in the state senate. Lady Willie Forbus will leave a legacy of advocating for the underdog during her senate service, subsequent activism, and throughout her 65-year career as a practicing attorney.
A Girl Named Lady
Born on August 24, 1892, Lady Willie was the second of Willie and Birdie Forbus's six children. As was the Southern custom for a girl named after her father, she received the name "Lady" in addition to his first name.
When Lady Willie was in her teens, the children were moved by their mother 150 miles away to the closest big town, where they would receive an education not possible at home. Willie and her one-year-older brother Sample became de facto parents to their siblings. When the monthly $25 check arrived from their parents, Sample took possession of the funds and told his sister what food and household goods to buy. This early experience made a significant and lasting impression on Lady Willie, who remarked in a 1976 interview that her championing of equal rights likely began due to the domestic discrimination she suffered as a girl.
While her three brothers received scholarships to college, such aid was not granted to women in the early twentieth century, so the Forbus sisters had to work their way through college. Lady Willie learned stenography in a three-week course and paid for her University of Mississippi education by working as a stenographer for a local judge.
When it came time to apply to law school in 1915, top-tier law schools were not accepting women, so Forbus applied to and was accepted at the University of Michigan. She again worked as a stenographer, but also bought a $1,000 life insurance policy that she borrowed against (and paid back each summer) to help finance her law degree.
One of three women enrolled at the University of Michigan law school, Lady Willie was the only one to graduate in the 1918 class of 50. Despite this accomplishment, a parting comment made by the dean stung Forbus: "Goodbye, Lady Willie, someday you'll make a good stenographer for some lawyer" (Hopkins).
Forbus believed her best chance at a career in law would be in the West, where, she hoped, the field was more open and progressive than in the South or East. She wrote letters to lawyers in several western cities, and was encouraged by a Seattle criminal lawyer named Walter Fulton.
The University of Michigan had to mail Forbus's diploma to her, as she departed for Seattle right after graduation. Unable to afford a berth, Forbus sat up for the three-night train journey, eating just one meal of bread, potatoes, and gravy each day. Arriving in Seattle, Forbus sought work as a law clerk, because the state legislature had passed a law two years earlier requiring lawyers who had not graduated from the University of Washington to clerk for one year before being admitted to practice. Forbus spent her year clerking at the firm of Donworth & Todd.
Member of the Bar
On May 24, 1919, Forbus was sworn in as a member of the Washington State Bar Association and thus a practicing attorney. Later that year she established her own practice in an office in the downtown Insurance Building. Although a few other women had practiced law in Seattle, they did so in firms run by men. Forbus's solo practice was the first woman-owned law firm in Seattle, and the only one until 1929.
Three years after she opened her practice, a high-profile case brought Forbus considerable public attention. In 1922 she represented the widow of a police officer who had been found shot to death in his car. The coroner's ruling that the officer committed suicide precluded his wife from receiving a pension. Forbus brought the case to a grand jury, which ruled the officer had in fact been murdered, allowing the widow to receive a pension.
That same year Forbus ran unsuccessfully for King County Prosecuting Attorney. Twenty years later in 1942, after two more unsuccessful campaigns, for King County Superior Court judgeships, she won the first of two terms in the state senate, where she was known for her tenacious advocacy of children's rights and equal opportunity for women.
While serving in the legislature, Forbus also worked as an assistant attorney general, but for most of her long legal career she maintained her own practice in Seattle. Sixty-five years after becoming a member of the bar, Forbus retired in 1984, the year she turned 92.