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THE TOP 100…Reasons Why It’s Good That Lawyers Have Power

Daily Journal Extra
By Katrina Dewey

September 30, 2002

A few months back, the Johnnie question came up at an Algonquin gathering of high powered lawyers on Sunset Boulevard.

The heated discussion that ensued came to mind on a beautiful autumn afternoon that was perfect for watching football and contemplating lawyers. Specifically, the 100 included in this year’s list of the most powerful lawyers in California, the 150 more who deserved serious consideration, the approximately 1,000 nominated and the 21 who have made the list in each of its five years.

People say a lot of bad things about lawyers, and many of them are deserved. But what we all too often fail to pause and appreciate is the civility our country enjoys because of our system to resolve disputes. We are a society that reflects every face, language, religion and philosophy under the sun. Yet those differences do not ultimately divide us.

There are many, many reasons for that, including our form of government, our standard of living and our social mobility. Some of the credit should also go to lawyers.

The lawyers on this year’s Top 100 can be irascible jerks intent on turning the other side into mulch. They also are gentle and generous human beings who give more freely of their time and resources than almost any other group of individuals you could find.

Among them are lawyers who have brokered international peace accords, justices who have more widely opened the doors of our courts and advocates who have passionately persuaded on behalf of their clients.

That’s been a hallmark of our Top 100 for the five years of its existence: The lawyers who make it each year are the face of the law in our society. And while it’s easy to see the blemishes, overall it’s a face of dignity, compassion and commitment.

Our survey is not a scientific one any more than beauty is an objective measure. Still, we call hundreds of lawyers and take thousands of votes to derive the list of those counsel considered most “powerful” by their California peers.

The face of power in California law changes little from year to year. There are 21 titans who have made the list each year, who are denoted in the following pages in the larger, shaded boxes. Of the remaining 79 lawyers on this year’s list, 36 are first-timers.

This year’s rookies reflect the cases most on the minds of lawyers these days: the Catholic Church, corporate fraud, post-9/11 and the death penalty.

The breadth of lawyers nominated this year, as in the past, remains simply staggering – as does the source of their power.

Some have the power of ideas, like Erwin Chemerinsky and Laurence Lessig; the power of global business, like John Schulman, Ann Baskins and Robert Dell; the power to persuade of Tom Girardi, Ron Olson and Joe Cotchett; the power of compassion that fuels David Lash, Dan Grunfeld, Mark Rosenbaum and Eva Paterson; and the power of vision that has been the hallmark of Ron George, Larry Sonsini and Warren Christopher.

There are two important footnotes to this year’s list. One member passed away a few weeks back. But he was with us; Ira Yellin used his legal skills to change the landscape of downtown Los Angeles.

This was also the first year we had a member of the Top 100 ask to not be included in order to protect his privacy. We won’t tell you who he is so as not to further highlight this remarkable but complex man. We felt we had a duty to include him for two reasons: he was selected by his peers and his contributions reflect the finest tradition of lawyering.

Which brings us back to Johnnie. Mr. Cochran is on hiatus from this year’s list, falling off the radar of his California colleagues after a year spent on the national scene representing Enron workers and preparing a huge slave reparations lawsuit.

At the Algonquin dinner, public relations maven Michael Levine played the role of Dorothy Parker, inquiring with an upturned brow whether Cochran had done a great disservice to lawyers with his successful defense of O.J. – isn’t that why lawyers have such a bad reputation?

Each of you probably has your own answer to that question. But what’s inescapable as you read the tales of the Top 100 is the face of justice that emerges beyond any specific battle, and any particular side. These are the individuals who make sure the scoundrels who are caught are prosecuted fairly; that corporations, their employees and shareholders retain the most solid economic and ethical base; that the weak are not further marginalized by being deprived of justice in addition to means; and that our courts remain the repository of our belief in a better way to resolve our disputes.

If it’s true that, as we age, we get the face we deserve, this year’s fifth anniversary Top 100 should give lawyers a reason to smile.

…to Brian Panish’s entry

Brian J. Panish (Name Partner [at a Santa Monica law firm]) -After winning $4.9 billion against General Motors in 1999 (reduced to $1.2 billion), the product-liability litigator has kept the cases coming. He represents the families of victims in the crashes of Alaska Air flight 261 and of the charter plane carrying singer Aaliyah and nine others.

“What held true when he played defensive back in college still holds today: Anybody who strays into Brian Panish’s territory, pays.”

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