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For nearly 30 years Oakland’s Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld has dominated the world of union-side labor law, boasting an unparalleled concentration of lawyers and clients. In 1999, however, the firm lost what many considered to be its �lan vital when founder Victor Van Bourg died of a heart attack at age 68. And in May, the firm was forced to drop the Van Bourg name as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The settlement, which stemmed from allegations that Van Bourg helped cover up expenditures at the international ironworkers union, not only wiped Van Bourg’s name off of the firm’s masthead, but left a black spot on his own legacy as a paladin of the proletariat. But while these events have proved a sad chapter for members of the firm, they don’t appear to have undermined the house that Van Bourg built. Attorneys in the labor world say the firm remains one of the pre-eminent forces in the world of labor law. “They’re still the 800-pound gorilla in labor law in the Bay Area,” says Mark Thierman, of Reno’s Thierman Law Firm. With 40 lawyers and four offices, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld — as it’s now called — is one of the largest union-side labor firms in the country. Locally, the firm is more than twice the size of its closest competitors, a group that includes San Francisco’s 14-attorney Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain and the 15-attorney Leonard Carder firm. The firm boasts a broad base of more than 400 union clients, which includes carpenter unions, service workers unions and Teamsters. Altogether, its union clients account for more than 1 million workers. Partners at the firm say they haven’t lost a single client as a result of the settlement with the DOJ. In fact, some clients have even made symbolic gestures to reaffirm their support for the firm in the wake of the settlement. A couple of clients, including the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, passed resolutions vowing to continue referring to the firm as Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld in all future communications and correspondences. Other union clients have reportedly proposed naming buildings they own after Van Bourg. Of course, this show of solidarity owes something to the general mistrust of the government that pervades many unions. But it’s also a testimony to the firm’s solid relationships with its clients, and the loyalty it has earned. Chuck Mack, the secretary treasurer of the 4,500-member Teamsters Local 70 union based in Oakland, said his group intends to continue working with the firm, just as it has for more than a quarter of a century. “What Victor Van Bourg did does not shake my confidence in the other partners at the firm,” says Mack. “We have a lot of respect for them and a lot of confidence in their ability.” Mack cited the firm’s aggressive legal representation and its demonstrated dedication to the labor movement. Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld does a large share of work for the unions at a flat rate, rather than billing by the hour. And some attorneys make it a common practice not to charge clients for things like phone calls asking for advice. Clearly, it’s a business model that’s not designed to maximize profits. Name partner Stewart Weinberg won’t disclose the firm’s financial figures but notes that some partners earn less than the $125,000 that first-year associates at the top corporate firms bring home. “We promise everybody that nobody will become wealthy, and we’ve lived up to that promise,” Weinberg joked. Weinberg, who co-founded the firm with Van Bourg in 1974, contends that aside from the name change, recent events have had no effect on the firm whatsoever. Likewise, he says, the firm has managed to carry on after Van Bourg’s death four years ago without any major blows to its business. “The firm is bigger than any one of us,” he says. While Van Bourg was a powerful and irreplaceable force at the firm, he routinely worked alongside other attorneys, thus making it easy to transition his practice after his death, says Weinberg. And Van Bourg had officially ceased serving as the firm’s managing partner in the mid-1980s, spending a lot of time working in Washington, D.C., in his last years. The firm is currently chaired by name partner Michael Roger, who declined comment, along with a three-member management committee. According to partner Ellyn Moscowitz, the firm has actually grown, adding a handful of lawyers and dozens of clients, since Van Bourg’s death. And the firm has continued to diversify its practice, by branching out into other areas of law that are related to its traditional base of labor litigation and trust fund work. Among the most significant new areas of work is the 3-year-old wage-and-hour practice headed up by Moscowitz. The group concentrates on unpaid overtime class actions, a type of litigation that has become especially popular within the plaintiffs bar in the past few years. For the Weinberg firm, wage-and-hour work is a natural fit. The firm goes after non-union employers (often flagged by its union clients) that aren’t paying workers overtime or otherwise violating wage-and-hour codes. In addition to seeking back pay, the suits seek to unionize the shops at issue. “It really is something we see as improving [workers'] lives,” says Moscowitz. So far, the firm has won more than 50 union contracts and about $5 million in back wages for workers through settlements of suits it has brought, says Moscowitz. And the work has been a boon to the firm as well. According to Moscowitz, wage-and-hour work accounted for about 10 percent of the firm’s income last year. Weinberg, Roger & Ronsenfeld also recently launched a bankruptcy group, an outgrowth of its well-established trust fund practice. The bankruptcy group, created two years ago by Christian Raisner, serves as creditors’ counsel, representing the trust funds and pension plans at companies that file for bankruptcy court protection. These inroads into new practices have allowed the firm to continue growing while preserving Van Bourg’s dedication to the labor movement, say attorneys at the firm. And while the Van Bourg name is no longer affiliated with the firm, Van Bourg’s philosophy continues to drive the lawyers who work there. “Victor really established a legacy for this office about what it means to be a union labor lawyer,” says Moscowitz. “Everybody here sees it as a cause, not a job.”

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