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Monday, July 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A mission of excellence propels lawyer to power

Seattle Times business reporter

Stephen Graham was one of the top corporate lawyers in Seattle when he turned 50, but he couldn't do one push-up, and his blood pressure was rising.

A year later, after workouts with his "torture artist," he can do 50 pushups and outrun his trainer up 21 flights of stairs.

"Anything Steve wants to do, he finds a way to do it," said Joanne Graham, his wife of nearly 28 years.

Getting in shape has been one of the smaller things Graham has proven to himself and the world. He grew up in an almost entirely white Midwestern town, a tall, skinny black kid who could have been an outcast but instead became a popular prom entertainer. He went to college and did well enough to get into Yale Law School. And in the work world, without a mentor starting out, he pushed himself on a path to become one of the most prominent biotech and high-tech attorneys in Seattle.

These days he has a reputation as a hard-driving perfectionist who can tell the power elite, with poise, what it can and can't do in complex, multimillion-dollar deals.

"He's the best lawyer I've ever dealt with," says Kirby Cramer, a former director of Immunex who has served on more than 20 corporate boards.

Now Graham is taking on his biggest challenge.

Two years ago, he was lured away from Seattle's biggest law firm, Perkins Coie, to start a new Seattle office for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a national firm with lofty ambitions. He has hired about 20 attorneys bent on turning Orrick into Seattle's "go-to" firm for complex financial deals.

In his office, he demands "standards of excellence that know no equal" and "across-the-board respect" and equal opportunity for women and people of color. It's done quietly, though. People who have known him 20 years or more have barely heard him talk about race or discrimination, even though he carries around plenty of stories.

"Being a victim might be a way to get something, but that something isn't respect," Graham said.

Graham was born in 1951 in Houston, the middle child of three. His father, Frederick, was dean of engineering at Prairie View A&M, an all-black school in Texas.

The Grahams moved to Ames, Iowa, when Steve was in third grade, as his father pursued his doctorate at Iowa State University. He deeply admired his father.

"He really instilled in us that you don't complain," Graham said. "You work through problems, you work hard, and you must be respectable."

Steve met his future wife in seventh grade. He shot spit wads behind the teacher's back, and Joanne laughed. They started dating their junior year of high school, standing out as an interracial couple in the Midwest in the 1970s.

Graham was an A and B student. He liked history and art but picked law as a career because he liked to debate and wanted to make money and be respected in the community. Plus, he said he wanted to "know the rules of the game" to protect himself.

Graham felt that need, despite living in a small town that sheltered him from the social upheaval of the 1960s. Although people weren't hostile to him, he did see stereotypes: In Little League, people assumed that because he was black, he was a good athlete and was put in center field, even though he couldn't catch the ball well.

Still, he fit in. He stayed home and attended Iowa State.

Yale Law School was a different world. He met East Coast elites who listened to classical music, traveled, had gone to top private schools — all foreign things. He believed he had potential, but he was intimidated.

He pushed to dispel the notion that he was there only because of affirmative action, and he sought mentors to teach him the ways of the world. He and Joanne married after his first year of law school.

After graduating in 1976, the Grahams moved to Seattle because of the city's racial tolerance. He started as an associate at Perkins Coie, where he had interned the summer before.

Tolerance runs thin

The city seemed to be tolerant, but sometimes Graham wondered how much. One time, he was invited to the home of a white lawyer — not from Perkins — and heard a crack about someone being "dumb as a darky."

As a young lawyer, he says he was not invited to as many client meetings as his peers were.

Another time, he says he handled every aspect of a deal, but when papers needed to be signed in New York, a white male associate who had nothing to do with it was sent instead.

Robert Giles, managing partner of Perkins Coie, said some of Graham's complaints are common for young attorneys. Graham was given opportunities to excel, and he did.

"We felt we worked extremely hard with Steve to build his career, and we were glad to see him become very successful," Giles said. "I wish he was still here."

Early on, Graham said, he felt isolated as the only black attorney in the office and one of only a few in Seattle. He said he had no black confidantes and thought he had no future. Even today, only 1.6 percent of attorneys in Washington are black, according to the Washington State Bar Association.

To get ahead, Graham says he believed he had no margin for error. He thought that if he made a mistake, "it would be confirmation of what some people already believed, which was that African Americans weren't as capable."

There was no exact point when his star began to rise, he said. Clients noticed his work and requested him. When he was a fourth-year associate, Tom Alberg, a prominent partner at Perkins who is now a top Seattle venture capitalist, began mentoring him and exposed him to clients like Immunex.

Graham made partner in 1983, becoming one of the first black men to achieve that distinction in Seattle. His relationships bloomed at Immunex, where he earned respect of people who now run Corixa, Targeted Genetics, and Frazier & Company.

Cramer, the former Immunex director, remembers Graham making his mark when Immunex faced a hostile takeover bid in 1995. Directors were emotional, hurling four-letter words, wondering whether they could resist a low-ball offer.

"Steve was like the calm in the storm," Cramer said. "He knew exactly what the options were, how to proceed. He acted like a good chief of staff, giving advice to the president."

A position of influence

Graham's career advanced. By early 2000, Graham had snagged a spot on Perkins' powerful executive committee and was one of its top-paid attorneys. The one thing he said he lacked was influence to shape the firm. When Orrick gave him that shot, he agonized for a month over whether to leave. He finally did, on March 27, 2000, and three associates followed him. All but one large client came along.

"Wherever Steve Graham goes, I go," said H. Stewart Parker, chief executive of Targeted Genetics.

Graham spends his days working in a ninth-floor office in the Millennium Tower in downtown Seattle and at his home study in the Leschi neighborhood, 10 minutes away. He has an autographed photo of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron on his office wall, and sometimes listens to opera CDs while he works.

Graham wears crisply pressed shirts, and his wife teases him for tucking them in on weekends. Partners at Orrick are among the best paid in the country at an average of more than $760,000 a year. Graham said he's paid "well above the average."

He's always ready to work, encouraging clients to reach him by cellphone and Blackberry communicator, which make him available "24/7." His family can tell: Joanne sometimes has to remind him to "drop the lawyer bit."

In his spare time, he follows the Mariners, enjoys fine wine, and loves to cook and eat Italian food, especially his filleted chicken breast with black-olive sauce.

Joanne said he's been motivated to support his family and, despite his frenzied schedule, has missed "maybe three" of his three children's activities ever, she said.

Running firm his way

These days, Graham says he's energized by running a firm his way.

Parker, a top client, said the firm has good teamwork and attorneys who "seem to genuinely like each other."

Still, Graham can be tough to handle. Since March, three associates have left Orrick. To that, he says, "Not everyone shares our values."

Finding people isn't the only difficulty. The stalled economy has cut down on deal-making. Competition is fierce with California-based firms and with former colleagues.

Graham sounds as if he relishes the pressure. Joanne said he now works harder than before, which was "terribly hard," but he says the goal is worthy.

"If you can build an office that knows no equal in terms of standard of excellence, where you've got teamwork and mutual respect and an appreciation for ethnic and cultural diversity," Graham said, "to me, it would be a lasting achievement."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com.

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