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35 Years of Law

Author: Ray Holley
January, 2010 Issue

NorthBay biz talks to the principals of three legal firms—O’Brien Watters & Davis, Brayton Purcell and Gan Van Male—about the last 35 years in Northern California law.

As the North Bay has grown and developed over the last 35 years, leading law firms have evolved along with it. To get a sense of how the legal industry has fared, we interviewed three prominent local firms.

O’Brien Watters & Davis, LLP

3510 Unocal Place
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
(707) 545-7010
8 full-time attorneys
20 staff members

The firm was founded in 1982 when a larger firm split up. The original four partners were John O’Brien, Michael Watters, Daniel Davis and Laurence Sawyer (who left the firm to become a Sonoma County Superior Court judge). In fact, Watters notes, the firm has been a fertile training ground for public servants, with three judges and a State Assemblymember (Noreen Evans) among its former partners and associates.

“Noreen Evans was our first associate when we started the firm,” says Watters, “and she was the first female attorney hired to do civil litigation in Sonoma County.” The firm’s second associate became Sonoma County’s first female Superior Court Judge.

O’Brien Watters & Davis didn’t set out to hire lawyers on their way to public service, and “we don’t claim credit for their success,” says Watters. “But we’re proud of our hiring decisions.”

Partners are also heavily involved in volunteer work, serving on boards of directors of a who’s who of local charities. “We always want to be good citizens of the community and give back,” Watters says.

What was it like when they founded the firm? According to Davis, who specializes in business and tax law, the makeup of clients was much different than now. “A lot of businesses, especially in Santa Rosa, tended to be old family businesses. I was in the 20-30 Club, and a large percentage of the guys were working for their fathers or grandfathers. They tended to be your clients just like their fathers were.” Davis says businesses are now “more entrepreneurial, there are more new people.”

“The economy was just coming back from a recession,” adds Watters. “There was a lot of economic turbulence, but it was getting better. It turned out we stayed busy.”

Remembers Davis, “When we started out, we had plans to grow and we grew pretty rapidly over time. In the mid-1980s, we were the largest law firm between San Francisco and Portland, along the coastal area [not including Sacramento].”

The firm is no longer the largest in the North Bay, but is still considered a leading firm with a variety of specialties. Has diversity of service helped? “It did—and still does,” says Watters. “Business law and litigation are a good mix, and we recognize each area of the law is interdependent.”

Watters cites trust and mutual affection among the partners as a factor in the firm’s continued success. “When one aspect of our business goes up, another might drop down, but we have a true partnership and we value each others’ contributions. As long as it doesn’t create a conflict of interest, we can be each other’s number one referral choice.”

O’Brien Watters & Davis places a strong emphasis on training. “We won’t hire new lawyers without having an existing partner agree to train them,” Watters explains. “We have a formal training program that takes 16 months. Our focus isn’t just on being good lawyers and making a good living. We want to train the next generation of good lawyers.”

What about challenges? “We have to react to the changing business model,” Watters says. “How does one become more than a one-generation law firm?”

Davis adds, “Had you asked us back then what we’d be doing in 2009, we’d have said we’d be the senior partners in a firm run by younger people. That hasn’t worked out.”

“We didn’t count on their interest in going out on their own,” Watters says. “We have no complaints [about lawyers leaving for other opportunities], but that’s how it went.”

The firm has handled a series of high-profile business deals, including the merger of the Petaluma Dairy Cooperative (California Gold) into Dairy Farmers of America, which at the time was the largest merger in Sonoma County history.

Technology has also had an impact. “In 1982, we had a mag card machine [which captured a secretary’s typing onto a magnetic card, thus acting as a technological bridge between an electric typewriter and a word processor],” says Davis. “We bought our first computer in 1983 and we bought one of the first printers that would print on cut sheets of paper [instead of a roll of paper].” The firm recently expanded and shrunk its law library at the same time, downsizing the physical space for a library but expanding access to data by bringing in more digital resources.

How do they define success? “Our success is measured in client retention and providing a quality product,” Davis says.

Watters adds, “We’re still a people business—that hasn’t changed—and I think people’s expectations haven’t changed. They want timely service and quality work at a reasonable cost. We have a high percentage of return business. People remember when you stick up for them, when you stay in there with them.”

Brayton Purcell

222 Rush Landing
Novato, CA 94945
(415) 898-1555
44 full-time attorneys
275 staff members

Focused on plaintiff law and trials for injured people, Brayton Purcell was founded in Novato in 1983 by three attorneys. Two of the founders are now retired, while Al Brayton has been with the firm since its inception. Under Brayton’s management, the firm has prospered. In 2002, it won the largest asbestos-related case in California history, $33.7 million for an electrician who contracted a fatal disease from exposure to asbestos.

Brayton served on the Board of Governors for Consumer Attorneys of California, has testified before Congress on asbestos-related issues and served on the 2009 bankruptcy committee for Chrysler. He also serves as a trustee regarding asbestos trusts.

Gil Purcell joined the firm in 1995 and became a senior trial partner in 2000. He serves on the board of governors for Consumer Attorneys of California and is presently one of its directors. He’s also a Diplomat in American Board of Trial Advocates and is board certified by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy in civil trials.

How has personal injury law changed? According to Purcell, “Many things are the same, many are different. The fundamentals of our cases haven’t changed. We represent consumers who’ve been injured or suffered a loss.”

A significant change, he continues, is in “the constellation of defendants. Many defendants have filed for bankruptcy owing to the tens of thousands of consumers injured or killed by their product. There’s been an uptick in other defendants involved in the supply of defective products responsible for injury.”

Purcell cites an example of how liability for damage can be interpreted: “Let’s say I’m a pump manufacturer, and I send out a manual that details how to repair and maintain the pump I sell. The manual recommends a type and brand brand of asbestos packing material, made by another company, to be used in all repairs. As a pump manufacturer, I don’t manufacture asbestos-containing packing materials, but I’ve specified their use.” Purcell’s point is: How does the court system decide who’s liable for asbestos injuries sufferred by a worker who repaired a pump using that material?

Brayton Purcell is also dedicated to and heavily involved with individual smokers’ lawsuits against tobacco companies, as well as suits related to exposure to toxic chemicals, elder abuse and injured workers. “We respond to the needs of people coming to us asking for our help,” Purcell says. “We want to be responsive to their needs. Court access to address grievances and defendant accountability are core value pillars to us.”

The firm’s work is primarily with individuals. “You need to be very careful with class-actions, they can be abused,” says Purcell. “We tend to be more focused on individuals. And, it’s rewarding to help people access the courts and get redress for their injuries.”

According to Purcell, he and Brayton are interested in how government actions impact personal injury law and liability issues. “There’s been pressure from Congress—it amounts to corporate welfare—to protect corporations from being held accountable for their actions.” He notes the Bush Administration was especially oriented to protect corporations from lawsuits by individuals who felt they’d been wronged.

Purcell says he is “mostly happy” with the Obama Administration so far, but is concerned about large asset sales by car companies to deny remedies to people injured in unsafe vehicles. “They let these companies walk away from accountability to people injured by cars that aren’t crash-worthy, yet ultimately agreed to stand behind car parts warranties. It amounts to corporate welfare and a ‘parts over people’ philosophy.”

Purcell is concerned that other large companies could seek to “walk away from their responsibilities” by getting a taxpayer-sponsored bailout like the car companies. “It could be an unfortunate pattern.”

What are the major achievements of the firm? Purcell cites “widespread remedies for people and families who’ve had bad things happen to them. Our clients are hard working, often blue collar, salt of the earth people and their families who suffer catastrophic loss when some company cut corners. We measure our worth when we know a family realizes the lawyering on their behalf made a difference in their case outcome.”

Gaw Van Male

1000 Main Street, Third Floor
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 252-9000
20 full-time attorneys
27 staff members

In 1972, Napa attorney Jim Jones hired a young lawyer named Dave Gaw and, within 90 days, made him a partner. A year later, the firm of Jones & Gaw hired Nick Van Male. According to Gaw, with three attorneys, they were then the third-largest firm in town.

“In the early 1970s, there were 40 or less lawyers in Napa County, and with very few exceptions, everybody did everything,” says Gaw. This included taking turns acting as low-paid public defenders for indigent defendants in criminal cases.

“It was a pretty unsophisticated practice of law,” Gaw recalls. “Napa was a very blue collar area. The main employers were Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Kaiser Steel and Queen of the Valley Hospital. Napa was a cattle and farming community—there were more cattle than vineyards.”

Even then, wealthy families were drawn to Napa’s scenery and weather but, Gaw says, “they went to San Francisco for their lawyering.”

When Van Male and Gaw split off from Jones in 1973, Gaw says, “It was very congenial, but we were just trying to survive at first. We had a lot of clients who were fighting over property lines.”

The firm grew. Gaw and Van Male brought Wyman Smith on as a partner in 1975, continued to add attorneys and expertise, and is now the second-largest firm in Napa County.

“We had this vision about specialization,” Gaw says. “We wanted to change how law was practiced in Napa County. We all developed our specialized fields, and we’ve become fully specialized. Now, people come from all over the state to use our services, although most of our clients are still in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.”

With a solid position in the community, members of the firm are able to get involved in local charities and other institutions. Many of the attorneys’ profiles list extensive community involvement, which is supported by the partners.

In addition to the specialization trend, how has being a lawyer changed in Napa County? According to Gaw, “In the 1970s and ’80s, [many new attorneys] wanted to come to Napa County for the quality of life. In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone wanted high compensation, so they went to Los Angeles and San Francisco and worked for the big firms. Now it’s switched back—people want to come here again.”

The decision to grow, specialize and diversify has been good for the big firms in Napa, but presents challenges to new lawyers. “In some ways, it’s like the old days again,” Gaw says. “There are just three large firms in Napa County, and we can’t hire all the young lawyers. So they start their own firms and try to take on everything, just like we did. A lot of people are hanging out their shingles.”

What’s in store for the future? According to Gaw, “As the younger generations take over businesses like wineries, they have different expectations. They want specialized services. They want you to be Internet-savvy and have sophisticated computer systems. We have to listen to our young lawyers when they tell us what we have to change.”

Gaw sees that the need for specialization will continue, in part due to a significant demographic shift in the North Bay. “”We’re unique in that there’s such wealth concentrated in rural areas. People don’t want to risk their wealth with someone who’s not an estate planning specialist, for example.

“The North Bay will continue to have wealth and will continue to have agriculture and industry. It’s a good place to be a lawyer. If you want good quality of life and you don’t want to work 20 hours a day, be a lawyer in the North Bay.”



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