Securing the Rights of Others
The government is going to bulldoze your house in 90 days to make way for a new freeway. They offer you an insultingly small amount of money for your precious home. But you can’t fight the government — or can you? Top Washington condemnation attorney Mike Rodgers JD’68 says you can fight back and win big.
“Private property owners have some important constitutional rights that need to be protected,” said Rodgers, the founding partner of the Bellevue, Wash., condemnation law firm of Rodgers, Deutsch & Turner. “We make sure property owners get full and adequate compensation for their property or damage to their property.”
Rodgers has been a condemnation attorney since 1968 and has personally represented clients in more than 1,500 condemnation cases. His firm has only three attorneys, yet they successfully conclude 40 to 50 condemnation cases each year, three to four times more than any law firm in the state. In most instances, when the government slates land for condemnation, private property owners can’t stop the taking of their property. However, with the help of Rodgers and his partners, they can often double or even triple the amount of money they get paid for it. One of Rodgers’ clients, for instance, was an 80-year-old man who faced condemnation of his home by a local school district that needed the property for expansion. His family had owned the land for a hundred years. The elderly man was born and raised there. The school district offered him $350,000. With Rodgers’ help, the school district paid him $1 million.
“It was very satisfying for us because this was a retired fellow who didn’t have any resources other than his real estate,” said Rodgers. “He was one happy property owner.”
While he’s been incredibly successful as a condemnation attorney, his start in law was less than auspicious. As an undergraduate, he attended Washington State University where he readily admits, “I played around.” He took the LSAT, but his scores were only so-so. “As far as qualified candidates go, I was probably near the bottom,” he recalled. “So I was very pleased when Willamette said I was accepted in ’66.”
A month passed and then the unthinkable happened. Willamette sent a letter saying the class was oversubscribed and there was no room for him. “My girlfriend, Marcia, [now his wife] helped me write a detrimental reliance letter to Dean Seward Reese,” he said. “I told him how important it was for me to come to Willamette. I’d made plans to move to Salem. I urged him to reconsider his decision.”
Rodgers’ natural persuasive skills prevailed. Dean Reese wrote back, saying that due to Rodgers’ strong commitment to Willamette, they’d add another chair to the class. The first day he arrived on campus, Rodgers said, “seating was arranged in a way that looked like it had been that way for years. Sure enough, there was a chair that was different. It looked like it had no place in the class. Needless to say, I didn’t sit in that chair.”
Rodgers determined to prove he was worthy of his class seat. He roomed with Steve Thomas JD‘68, an academically strong student. “I became Steve’s shadow,” Rodgers recalled. “Every time Steve picked up a book, I picked up a book. When grades came out the first quarter, I was in the top third of my class.”
His career has rocketed skyward ever since. Rodgers’ uncle, also a condemnation attorney, advised him to seek out a government job for the practical experience and industry contacts. After graduating, Rodgers signed on as an assistant attorney general with the Washington State Department of Transportation. He condemned private property for highway projects across the state. “It gave me the opportunity to be in court all the time trying cases, perfecting my trial techniques, learning what works and what doesn’t in front of a jury,” he said.
The experience also made him realize the value of his education at Willamette. “The Socratic method of teaching at Willamette was really challenging and stressful for me during law school, but it was also the biggest benefit. It teaches you to analyze cases, answer questions and think on your feet in front of your classmates. That’s exactly how you have to think and perform when you’re in court.”
At the end of four years, Rodgers was ready to branch out into his own firm. One of his early successes came with the father of Daryl Deutsch JD’80. Daryl would later become a partner in the firm. “When I was with the state, we’d condemned some of Daryl’s dad’s property,” he explained. “He was a large landowner and, when I went into private practice, he retained my services. We had a big condemnation result for him the year after I started in private practice.”
That early success became one of many and necessitated expanding the firm. In 1978, Deutsch started clerking for Rodgers. When he graduated two years later, he joined the firm. In 1991, Rodgers kept the Willamette connection going when he hired John Paul Turner JD’91 to become the firm’s third partner. All three practice condemnation law exclusively.
After more than 30 years in condemnation law, Rodgers admits he spends a little more time playing golf and enjoying his grandchildren than when he started out. But the fire hasn’t gone out of his belly. He still gets excited about protecting the rights of private property owners. “It’s my hot button,” he said. “I love getting a great result for private property owners who don’t think they have the ability to stand up to the governmental agency taking the property. It’s satisfying to see a property owner walk way from the process fully compensated and knowing that the Constitution works.”
Mike Rodgers JD’68
“The Socratic method of teaching at Willamette teaches you to analyze cases, answer questions and think on your feet. That's exactly how you have to think and perform when you're in court.”