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Matt Gonzalez, the just-departed president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and erstwhile Green Party mayoral candidate, wants the law firm he’ll open in March to be the next Keker & Van Nest. His new partner is banking on it. G. Whitney Leigh, who has been a partner at Keker since the beginning of 2004, was Gonzalez’s roommate at Stanford Law School and later both were San Francisco public defenders. He wants his new job to mirror the one he’s leaving. “Keker started out with two former public defenders who wanted to go to trial,” said Leigh. “If the quality of our work in the areas that we practice can approach anything near the quality of Keker, we’ll be happy.” Gonzalez said he and Leigh share a key trait with John Keker and Bill Brockett, who founded the highly regarded litigation boutique in 1978: “They knew they were good trial lawyers. Trial lawyers are not that common. Lawyers willing to say ‘We’re going to try this case’ have a real advantage.” Robert Van Nest echoed the comparison to Keker and Brockett. “It’s exactly how we started — two lawyers who were good friends and former public defenders who liked to go to trial and had good reputations,” he said. “The one difference is that Gonzalez has been successful in politics, and John” — who failed in a bid for a supervisor’s post in the 1970s — “hasn’t.” Leigh and Gonzalez are keen on being in the courtroom, and both have built reputations as effective trial lawyers. “They’re smart, clever people. They fight hard,” said John Dwyer, an assistant San Francisco district attorney who was a frequent adversary of Leigh and Gonzalez when they were public defenders. “Whitney makes a more dramatic appearance, and Matt makes a more aggressive appearance.” Once Gonzalez & Leigh opens its Pine Street offices on March 1, Leigh said he will focus mainly on developing the firm’s civil practice, since he expects criminal work to come on its own. In fact, Gonzalez says he already has several clients, whom he declines to name. The firm’s other partners will be Nima Nami, currently a solo civil attorney specializing in financial transactions, and Bryan Vereschagin, an associate at Morison-Knox, Holden, Melendez & Prough in Walnut Creek who currently specializes in insurance fraud litigation. At Gonzalez & Leigh, he plans to represent plaintiffs in personal injury suits and toxic torts. “We’re willing to fight on principle. It’s not going to be cheap settlements,” he said. “We’re going to go to the mat on our cases.” Enrique Pearce, who managed Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign, will start at the firm as an associate. In addition to litigation, Leigh said he expects to do election work for “progressive causes” with the goal of helping groups like the Green Party gain equal legal footing with the more established parties. This would entail “pro bono, and maybe paid work on a lower level,” he said. At Keker, Leigh had handled both civil litigation and criminal defense. Recent cases, he said, range from intellectual property suits to employment defense. “The cases we get are so broad. The firm sort of prides itself on its ability to generalize,” he said. Van Nest and Leigh both pointed to the pro bono defense of Zula Jones as one of the most memorable in Leigh’s time at Keker. Jones, a San Francisco human rights commissioner, had 16 federal fraud counts dismissed in late 2003. Leigh and Van Nest also pointed to an appellate judgment that got San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera disqualified from a case for a conflict of interest. In San Francisco v. Cobra Solutions, A103479, the First District Court of Appeal ruled last June that because Herrera represented Cobra in private practice, he could not represent the city in the case. The California Supreme Court will hear the case this year. While Gonzalez was reluctant to discuss individual clients he represented as a public defender, Dwyer recalls a case in the late ’90s in which Gonzalez defended a man who committed a string of robberies in San Francisco. The defendant, who was on federal probation, had — just before the robberies — asked a federal judge to incarcerate him because he could not control his impulse to steal. “This guy wanted help, didn’t get it and went into the deep,” said Dwyer. Gonzalez did an exhaustive workup using federal court documents to make his case. Dwyer said the case was unwinnable, but that Gonzalez’s extra efforts convinced a jury to keep the client’s sentence short. “A lot of people wouldn’t do that,” Dwyer said. “To make someone who commits a string of robberies sympathetic is very, very difficult.”

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