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In the minds of Bay Area trust and estate experts, the top attorneys aren’t individuals but firms or practice groups. Asked to name the top trust and estate practitioners in the Bay Area, judges, mediators and lawyers often speak of: Dominic Campisi, Thomas Latham and Charles Wolff at Evans, Latham and Campisi; John McDonnell Jr., Bette Epstein and Betty Orvell at Reed Smith Crosby Heafey; and Max Gutierrez Jr. and W. Scott Thomas at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Gutierrez, 73, enjoys near legendary status in the Bay Area probate and family law areas, and is still very visible as a speaker and author. But for pure estate planning, the probate experts surveyed by The Recorder gave the edge to his 54-year-old partner, Thomas. As one longtime probate expert put it, Thomas is “very background, very quiet, very private. But he does estate planning for some of the who’s who in San Francisco society.” Among those clients would be Jo Schuman Silver, producer of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” who has relied on Thomas for 15 years. “He is probably one of the brightest men I’ve ever met in my life,” Schuman said. “He just gets it. He can explain the most complicated, arcane tax things in terms a layperson can pick up.” Thomas has an undergraduate degree from Stanford, a J.D. from Hastings College of the Law, and an LL.M. from Golden Gate University School of Law. He worked at Chevron Corp. for two years doing international tax work. Then came the opportunity to join Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and work with Gutierrez. “Clearly, Max was a mentor and a good one,” Thomas said. Many of Thomas’ clients are CEOs or other successful executives. They start with Thomas for estate planning, and if a contract, real estate or labor matter arises, he refers them to other Morgan, Lewis departments. “In some sense we act as general counsel to individuals,” he said. His work is about 50 percent planning, 30 percent estate administration and 20 percent litigation. As a litigator, Thomas played a key role in the most notorious will contest in recent California history: He represented the charitable beneficiaries –essentially the University of California — in the dispute over DHL Worldwide Express founder Larry Hillblom’s $500-plus million estate. The case ultimately settled, with some of the money going to four individuals who claimed to be Hillblom’s children. Thomas says the litigation, which required monthly 19-hour flights to Saipan, was grueling but ultimately satisfying for two reasons: “one, great cocktail stories, and two, we saved several hundred million dollars for California medical research.”

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