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When Bay Area employment law specialists are asked who stands out on the plaintiffs side of the bar, the answer often begins with five words: “Well, Cliff Palefsky — of course.” Palefsky’s position at the top is a no-brainer. He has been a force of nature in California’s employment bar for nearly a quarter of a century. He helped win one of the first big wrongful discharge verdicts in the early 1980s. He co-founded the National Employment Lawyers Association. And he never tires of battling on behalf of aggrieved workers, whether in court, before the Legislature or in the media. “He’s like a hurricane when he hits,” says one mediator who has had cases with him. “He’s so dedicated, and he has endless energy.” For the past 15 years, much of Palefsky’s energy has been devoted to the issue of mandatory arbitration agreements. To say that he deplores them would be an understatement. Palefsky was co-counsel on one of the plaintiff bar’s biggest court victories on the issue — the Ninth Circuit’s 1998 ruling in Duffield v. Robertson Stephens, 144 F.3d 1182 (a decision that was overruled last year by an en banc panel). He has lobbied against mandatory arbitration in Sacramento, helping get a package of reforms passed in 2002. And he’s been the chief public spokesman against mandatory arbitration: a search of Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle archives yields more than 30 articles quoting Palefsky on the subject. “We’ve made it a civil rights issue,” Palefsky says. “Money from mandatory arbitration has corrupted the process.” Although Palefsky is still passionate about the issue, he acknowledges that abuses are fewer now. He credits the California Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, 24 Cal.4th 83, of adding some fairness to the process. “It took away the lying, the cheating,” says Palefsky who, naturally, filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. The exploding popularity of mediation also has helped. Mediation “works phenomenally well in employment cases,” Palefsky says. It fits with his philosophy of “getting clients out of litigation and back on their feet as soon as possible.” Although the truest of true believers, Palefsky, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, is liked and admired by management-side defense lawyers. “He’s a highly professional person who’s easy to get along with,” says one. “He’s not demanding exorbitant settlements, but he’s not selling out his clients to get some dollars today.” There was one mild criticism. “Cliff gets emotionally attached to his cases the way others don’t,” says one defense lawyer. “Sometimes it’s a plus and sometimes it isn’t.” Palefsky acknowledges the tendency, particularly on the mandatory arbitration issue. “I have to [get involved]. I can’t help myself,” he says. Palefsky, 50, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., says a defining moment in his youth was the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, in which 38 witnesses failed to intervene or call police. “I’m not going to be one of those people,” says Palefsky, “who stood by and watched.”

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