Cathy Silak is a true Idaho trailblazer who boasts one of the most distinguished legal careers in the state.
In 1990, Silak was appointed by Gov. Cecil D. Andrus as the first woman judge on the Idaho Court of Appeals. She was appointed in 1993 to the Idaho Supreme Court and became the Court’s Vice-Chief Justice in 1997, serving on the court until 2000.
In addition, Silak paved the way for future generations of attorneys as founding dean of Idaho’s Concordia University School of Law from 2008 to 2016. She went on to become the school’s vice president of community engagement.
Silak has also had a long career with Hawley Troxell, joining the firm in 1984 and making partner in 1988. In 2001, she resumed her partnership with Hawley Troxell, where she is currently a member of the litigation practice group with focuses on appellate and mediation practice.
These achievements earned Silak the Idaho Business Review’s highest distinction, the Icon award, in 2018, the inaugural year of the honor.
On Feb. 11, Silak will draw on her history of breaking down barriers when she serves as moderator of the Idaho Business Review’s Breakfast Series panel on diversity and inclusion.
She recently sat down with the Idaho Business Out Loud podcast to discuss diversity in the legal field in an episode that will publish on Feb. 5. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a practicing attorney here in Boise, Idaho at Hawley Troxell. And before that I was the founding dean of Concordia University School of Law and also a judge for 10 years on both the Idaho Court of Appeals and the Idaho Supreme Court. My area of practice is litigation, so I cover lots of different areas including employment law.
Right now what’s happening in terms of diversity based lawsuits in Idaho?
Well, the Idaho Human Rights commission is the primary agency of the state where if people do have complaints that they were discriminated against on the basis of race or their ethnicity or other factors, they would go to the Human Rights Commission, which would conduct an investigation.
I don’t believe these suits are more numerous here than in other states. There are also of course sexual harassment complaints that are made too. The Human Rights Commission, they handle a lot of these. They would be the predominant one because on the federal level it is the EOC, which perhaps some of our listeners are more familiar with. But the Idaho Human Rights Commission performs that function on the state level and actually has some delegated authority from the EOC.
When you’re an at-will state, how can you prove that a hiring or lack of hiring was based on a diversity issue?
That’s an excellent question. So an at-will state means that typically employees in the state of Idaho are not on contract, so they don’t have a contracted right to their employment. So an employer, for example, could be downsizing or the employer might be restructuring. That employee might end up out of a job, but in some circumstances there might be a claim that the employee was let go for some reason that is protected under state and federal laws such as racial or ethnic categorizations. In that case, they would have to prove that that was the dominant basis for the termination. And it can become very factually intense with a lot of oral testimony for example, or records from the employer. I haven’t even mentioned disability rights, but of course that is another aspect too.
Something that I want to talk about is Add the Words. How likely do you think it is to pass this year and what effect will such a law have on Idaho’s LGBTQ community?
It would have a terrific effect on the LGBTQ community. I think that people are fearful of harassment. I know as a woman in a profession, if anyone seems to harass someone in my profession, it’s a source of great concern and that can certainly happen to a variety of people. So adding the words and training that in our statutes that that type of discrimination and harassment is unlawful, would be enormously important. I do hope that the legislature takes this step. But it’s hard to predict. I think when people become more and more familiar with people in the LGBT community – having friends, having family – then some of those barriers fall. But I think it’s incumbent upon the citizenry to make it known to their legislators how important this issue is to them.
To focus in on your industry, what’s happening in terms of making Idaho lawyers more diverse?
So one of the trends that I’ve seen over the course of my career in Idaho since the early 1980’s has been that we are gradually becoming more diversified in terms of more women lawyers. Women lawyers in the state when I first started practicing here were very, very small in number. They were a small but a good group of people – excellent colleagues that I enjoyed very much, legendary figures like Edith Miller Klein, Justice Linda Copple Trout, Justice Karen Lansing. So we’ve had wonderful women lawyers in the state for many years. The number of attorneys of diversity is somewhat smaller, but nevertheless it is a growing number. For example, there is an African American judge in Canyon County. Perhaps a lot of people may not know that.
When I was dean at Concordia University, we (and of course other law schools do this) tried to make scholarships available and tried to do really good recruitment of Hispanic, African American, Native American students and students of other ethnicities.
There’s a lot of importance to reaching out, not just sitting back and relying on these applicants to come to you. It’s incumbent on the firms and the law schools to reach out to these types of lawyers or future lawyers. But by recruiting at a diversity of law schools, by really looking at the qualifications, there are really no barriers that I think any of the firms put up. I think it’s more a question of really seeking out the diversity of the applicants.
How is Idaho’s legal education going?
I think Idaho’s legal education is very vibrant. We have two law schools here in Boise and the Boise area and I think that’s helped enormously. Speaking for Concordia University School of Law, one of the accomplishments I am very proud of is our housing clinic, which helps low income tenants. They provide free legal assistance to people who are facing eviction and other tenant related issues. It’s really terrific. And the University of Idaho College of Law I know has outreach clinics. So what you see happening is that students preparing to practice law really gain experience in the profession by serving in these clinics and a variety of other opportunities. That experience based learning is a really great aspect. Plus it serves the community at the same time.
And the same thing is going on in Moscow, Idaho, where the University of Idaho is based. So I’m very proud of how our legal education is going in the state. And I would also note, I think we’re becoming a mecca for students around the country. The person that I’m mentoring at Concordia right now is from Arizona and she was very attracted to our area to go to law school. So I think we’ll see people coming and perhaps even remaining and adding their diverse voices to our legal community.
Do you have any advice to businesses trying to improve their recruitment and hiring processes?
You know, I’ve been engaged in this type of work since the early 1980’s when I worked at what was then Morrison Knudsen. So I remember at that corporation we had a wonderful HR department headed by an African American woman. And the philosophy was we must reach out to candidates. We must find the best qualified candidates, but make sure that that applicant group includes people of color and people of diverse backgrounds. So I would say to reach out, even if you have to maybe send out messages to other parts of the country and go to those other parts of the country. I think that’s important and it makes our own valley more diverse and therefore a more inclusive and more welcoming state.