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Last month, Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger won $3.7 million for a woman horribly injured in a Jet Ski incident. But as usual, the firm’s celebration of the win was muted. It didn’t take out advertisements, nor did it put out press releases. Unlike some personal injury firms, Walkup seems to do its best to stay out of the headlines, and focus on the heat of battle. Lawyers say the firm was defined by founder Bruce Walkup, who died 10 years ago. Unlike Melvin Belli, his flamboyant contemporary, Walkup took an understated approach, instilling a culture of gentlemanliness and integrity when he opened the firm’s doors in 1959. That culture, lawyers in and out of the firm say, explains how the firm has prospered over time while other renowned San Francisco personal injury firms — like Hoberg, Finger, Brown & Abramson and Cartwright, Slobodin, Bokelman, Borowsky, Wartnick, Moore & Harris — have folded or dispersed. The four-partner, 14-lawyer firm handles everything from product defects and medical malpractice to vehicle collisions, aviation accidents and workplace injuries. The firm takes maybe five to 10 new cases a month, all on contingency, and usually by referral from judges or other lawyers. “We have the luxury, because of our reputation, of having a lot of cases referred to us,” said partner Richard Schoenberger. “If we don’t have a very good sense that we will prevail, we don’t take a case.” PREPARATION IS FIRM’S HALLMARK The partners pick their spots through an informal review process that can sometimes be extensive. Former partner John Echeverria said the firm took more than eight months in the mid-1980s before taking a complicated class action against a Reno developer that they estimated would cost $300,000 to $500,000. Echeverria and former partner George Shelby moved to Reno for a year before bringing home a $9.5 million judgment. Shelby said two things set Walkup apart from other plaintiffs firms: the firm’s skill at screening cases and the preparation it pours into cases. Preparation, says JAMS neutral Daniel “Mike” Hanlon, “is their hallmark, why they are so successful.” Partner Paul Melodia says the firm has taken at least 31 cases to verdict, a few of which went to binding arbitration, since 1998: 22 ended in plaintiff verdicts, seven favored the defendant, and two cases ended with hung juries. For the 90 percent to 95 percent of cases that settle, it’s harder to define a win. “If the full value of a case is �X’ and your analysis is that you would lose the case 70 percent of the time and you settle for 30 cents on the dollar, is that a win?” Schoenberger said. “At the end of the day your client probably prevails under that scenario.” But Schoenberger said there’s another aspect to plaintiffs work that is particularly rewarding. “We go to trial and get the best verdicts we can,” Schoenberger said. “We also help guide people through tragedies in their life. It’s one of the things that I love about this job.” Walkup won’t reveal its revenue and profits. But Melodia says partners can earn what the top business litigators at bigger firms make. “I’ve seen statistics that partners at the big firms sometimes average $700,000 or $800,000 or $900,000 per year,” Melodia said. “That wouldn’t be unusual — or more than that — for an attorney [working] on a contingency fee basis in a good year.” Partner compensation is based on a formula that rewards partners a percentage of the verdicts or settlements they win. “Maybe one partner will make $2 million in one year and another $500,000,” Melodia said. The firm’s typical fee is one-third of an award or settlement. But that’s reduced in about half the cases because of referral fees — of 20 percent to 25 percent of the fee award — the firm pays to lawyers who send it cases. Schoenberger said in cases of catastrophic injuries where the liability is straightforward, there is plenty of coverage and the case can be resolved quickly, the firm often reduces the fee to 25 percent or less. The firm only charges a 40 percent fee when a case goes to trial. A class action against Reno Hilton Resort Corp., in which the firm won a $25.2 million verdict, is one such case. A jury found the hotel was negligent for having inadequate hand-washing rules that led to employees serving contaminated food. The 2002 verdict is now on appeal. “It was a tremendous, intense, long trial,” Schoenberger said, adding that the firm put several hundred thousand dollars into the case. THE WAY IN Over the years, most lawyers have joined Walkup as first-year associates. But sometimes the firm draws in laterals. Schoenberger was a deputy district attorney in Alameda County before he joined the firm in 1987, and associate Matthew Davis was a nine-year veteran deputy city attorney in San Francisco before he jumped to Walkup three years ago. Those who join the firm “are not people saying, �what’s my first-year salary?’” Schoenberger said. “It’s a very lucrative business, but after you cut your teeth.” Since Walkup is a small shop, there aren’t many opportunities for people to get their foot in the door. Melodia said the firm hires about five law clerks every summer and offers jobs to some. “More often than not someone comes along we’d like to practice with and if there is room we hire them,” Melodia said. And given the firm’s reputation, it attracts top talent. Melinda Derish spent 10 years as a pediatrician at Stanford Medical School before she decided to switch her scrubs for a law degree. When she was looking for a summer job during her second year at Boalt Hall School of Law, professors and lawyers that she knew recommended Walkup. “Everyone pointed me here,” she said. “It was just unanimous.” Davis, too, found Walkup to be a good fit when he decided to leave the city attorney’s office. “When I was at the city and a case came in against Walkup it was scary, because it was usually a good case and I knew it would be well litigated,” Davis said. At the same time, “the lawyers were very honest and ethical and easy to get along with.” Walkup doesn’t issue press releases and doesn’t have a publicist. Instead, it’s known by word of mouth, fed by a string of substantial verdicts. They include a $17 million verdict in 2001 against Bell Sports for the defective design of its bicycle helmet and a $57 million verdict against Western States Liquefied Petroleum Co. over the faulty installation of a propane tank that caused a deadly explosion. These are the kind of cases the firm has always handled; it seems the only things that have changed in the past 45 years are the names on the letterhead. Walkup alumni “are a who’s who of top-notch trial lawyers in Northern California,” said defense lawyer Vince McLorg. Among those who have left to start their own firms include E. Robert Wallach, Gerald Sterns, George Shelby, Ralph Bastian, Terry O’Reilly and John Echeverria. “The departures created voids that launched opportunities to keep us rejuvenated by talent,” Schoenberger said. “We’re a little akin to a well-run sports team with a blend of experienced and raw talent.” The former partners praise their old firm and say the partings were all friendly. A 30-year veteran of the firm, Echeverria left last year in order to practice exclusively in Reno, where he was spending 80 percent to 90 percent of his time. He continues to work with Walkup lawyers on cases and was at the firm recently getting ready to try a case. Shelby and Bastian left in 1993 to form Shelby & Bastian. Shelby said they wanted to cut back their practice and focus on mediation. Other partners have left seeking to establish an independent name. “The plaintiffs lawyer is a unique breed of cat,” said Sterns, who left the Walkup firm in 1977 to start his own shop. “It’s hard to keep a number of personalities like that under one roof. We’re all egomaniacs.” But the former partners have followed the tradition of their founder. Echeverria said that when partners leave firms there is generally a big fight over how to divide cases, but that never happened at Walkup. The firm always negotiates so a departing partner takes cases with him, Melodia said. “We’ve never had an ugly divorce.”

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