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Bette Epstein is working on her third career. She was a personnel director for retailer Joseph Magnin in her 20s and a marriage and family counselor in her 30s. While in divorce court to support a counseling client, she looked at the lawyers and thought, “I can do what those people are doing.” Before long she was attending USF law school. Today, the Reed Smith Crosby Heafey partner is one of the most highly regarded trust and estate litigators in the Bay Area — and she says her background in counseling and human resources has been a key to her success. Mediators and judicial officers with experience in the probate area named more than a dozen lawyers as among the best in the field. Two other members of the Reed Smith trust and estate group — John McDonnell Jr. (whom Epstein counts as a mentor) and Betty Orvell — were among those receiving plaudits. But the consensus seemed to be that if you’re talking about litigation, Epstein is the go-to choice. “She’s smart, ready to address issues in a fresh way,” says one mediator who knows her work. “She doesn’t get married to her case.” Laurence Padway, an Alameda practitioner who tried a high-profile case against Epstein earlier this year, described her as both “a dangerous adversary” and a consummate professional. “She’s extremely well-prepared, certainly knows probate law as well as anybody,” Padway said. “We had a case where there was a lot of acrimony between the clients, and sometimes that spills over into acrimony between the attorneys, but that didn’t happen at all.” Like traditional family law, probate litigation tends to be emotionally charged. The fights are driven more by family dynamics than by money, Epstein says. “I try to help my clients view it as objectively as possible. I say, do they want to see all their inheritance go to pay my law firm’s fees? And sometimes they say yes.” She tries to take her clients beyond the emotions and back to common sense. “Sometimes I say I’m an expensive psychotherapist,” she jokes. Epstein, 59, also represents professional trustees such as Mechanics Bank and charitable organizations such as the Red Cross of the Bay Area. Her clients also include seven of California’s 21 regional centers — nonprofit corporations created by state law to serve people with autism, cerebral palsy and other neurological disabilities. Epstein has been representing the regional centers since she was a first-year associate — “when a partner came to me and said, ‘Do you know what aversion therapy is?’”

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