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Ask anyone who’s the best trial lawyer or the best IP litigator in California, and you’ll probably hear the names of well-known, $700-per-hour senior rainmakers at California’s largest law firms. But there are a great many superb lawyers practicing outside the headlines at smaller firms all over the state or in more junior positions at the megafirms. They may not have the same name recognition � but they also don’t usually come with the same price tag. To come up with the names of some hidden gems among outside employment lawyers, we surveyed in-house counsel at large, medium and small companies all over the state. We took their recommendations and cross-checked them with mediators and plaintiff attorneys who specialize in employment law. The result: a select list of four attorneys � two in San Diego (at the same firm, no less), one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. All four began at big firms before striking out on their own. We don’t mean to suggest that these are the only great lower-profile attorneys who are practicing employment law in California. No doubt there are many others. But we’re nonetheless pleased to identify a few who may be flying under the radar. Eight years ago, Fred Plevin and Michael Sullivan were practicing employment law at what was then known as Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. The firm was growing rapidly and becoming a national player but the pressure to raise billing rates was threatening to squeeze the employment lawyers’ government entity clients. So Plevin and Sullivan, along with partner Richard Paul and associate E. Joseph Connaughton, broke away and formed their own San Diego-based employment law boutique. In-house attorneys at the University of California are glad they did. “They are in the very top tier of attorneys with whom I have ever worked,” says UC counsel Christopher Patti, who estimates that lawyers at Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton have represented the university in some 500 cases. “Fred and Mike are both outstanding lawyers: smart, diligent and efficient with virtually unerring tactical and strategic judgment.” Eric Behrens, UC’s section leader for commercial litigation, is also enthusiastic about the firm. Plevin, he says, “is a good writer, which is important for the university. It’s important for everybody, but we’d hate for someone who represents us not to write well.” Behrens is also very high on name partner Paul, with whom he has worked closely. The firm represents other clients besides government agencies. Companies such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, Biogen Idec and Circuit City also populate the client roster. A senior vice president at a large corporate client describes Sullivan as a “first-rate labor/employment lawyer who is smart, responsive, strategic and easy to work with. He routinely achieves exceptional results in an efficient and cost-effective manner.” That’s the goal, says Plevin, the firm’s managing partner. Give sophisticated clients the kind of quality they’re used to getting at a big firm, but at a lower cost. Plevin estimates he bills at least $100 an hour less than some big-firm employment counsel. Plevin’s strategic decisions are made with cost in mind, says Ivette Pena, a counsel for the Los Angeles Superior Court who has worked with Plevin on several employment matters. “He’s aggressive and zealous in his advocacy but sensitive to the needs of the client,” she says. “He doesn’t let his ego get in the way of the best result.” And while this may sound strange for a law firm, the lawyers at Paul, Plevin try not to be too legal. “Clients hate it when they call you up and they’ve got to deal with whether this person is exempt or non-exempt, and what you do is recite the legal principles for them,” says Sullivan. “That’s not very helpful to them.” Instead, if a client were to ask, “Is this person an independent contractor?” the answer might be, “No, but here’s how you can make them an independent contractor,” he says. As part of that practical approach, Plevin regularly puts on a seminar for clients that he calls “The Seven Habits of Frequently Sued Managers.” Those habits include “Hire quickly, not carefully,” “Blow off requests for leave or accommodation” and “Avoid at all costs confrontation.” At the moment, Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton numbers 18 attorneys. Plevin contends that the firm at that size has more depth and expertise than the employment departments at some big firms. Not that they’re knocking big firms. “My style of practice is taking bits and pieces from seven or eight partners at Gray Cary who were terrific lawyers,” says Sullivan. “We certainly are a small firm but we never try to think of ourselves as a small firm,” he adds. “We try to think of ourselves as excellent as is possible, and try to do work as good or better than done elsewhere.” Susan Roos elicits the ultimate compliment from an in-house attorney: She should charge more for her services. “Her rates are incredibly reasonable,” says John “Rick” Runkel, former general counsel at VISX, an eye-surgery technology company. “Susie and her staff rewrote our employee guidelines and manuals and handled a series of employment issues at a fraction of the cost I would have expected from a large-firm lawyer. I actually told her she needs to raise her rates.” Runkle may be slightly biased since the two worked together many years ago at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. But a mediator and a plaintiff attorney who have seen Roos in action and talked about her in exchange for anonymity, vouch for her skills. “She’s got a very good book of business,” says the mediator. “She’s a good lawyer � assertive, hardworking, focused.” “She’s aggressive and she knows what she’s doing,” says the plaintiff attorney. “She can be pushy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Essentially I think she’s reasonable in the end.” The plaintiff attorney’s assessment is echoed by Runkel. “If necessary, she can play hardball with the best of them, but she strives to incorporate the rule of reason into her advice,” he says. Roos is a partner at San Francisco’s Cook & Roos, which has recently been undergoing a transformation. Partner John Cook is taking of counsel status and the firm is adding Morgan, Lewis & Bockius of counsel Tracy Thompson. The firm will now be known as Cook Roos Wilbur & Thompson. Although the firm numbers only seven attorneys, it represents some very large clients: Lockheed Martin, Gap Inc., 3Com, Mervyn’s and Micron Technology, among others. It also does labor and employment work for international law firms Baker & McKenzie (post-Rena Weeks) and White & Case. How does Cook & Roos beat out the big firms? “Our rates are lower,” says Roos. “They get a more experienced lawyer at a reduced rate.” Roos, who is married to Wilson Sonsini CEO John Roos, also touts her firm’s team approach. She often consults with other lawyers in her firm � and, as a member of the international Worklaw Network, sometimes with employment lawyers from all over the country. But she says she never bills that time. And as for being an occasional hardball player? “Obviously, I want to represent my clients as best as I can,” she says. “At the same time, I don’t want to pick fights, have discovery disputes. I like at the end of the case to be friends with the person on the other side. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t.” As for Runkel’s advice on raising her billing rates, “I try to raise my rates every January,” says Roos, sounding only slightly exasperated. “I’m way below where people in my class are but I still believe I have a healthy billable rate. I think we’re really reasonable compared to our competition.” Richard Amador’s biggest courtroom claim to fame came last year, when a judge ruled that Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton had overbilled Amador’s client, the city of South Gate, by some $800,000. The case made a big splash in the media when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shook opined that Sheppard’s fees transcended “beyond the stratosphere into deep outer space.” Amador says he used the ruling to leverage about $2 million in refunds from various law firms to South Gate. But that case was sui generis for Amador, whose practice more typically focuses on employment matters for clients such as Wells Fargo Bank, Comerica Bank, California State University, Yahoo and Harley-Davidson. “Richard can be a very aggressive litigator when appropriate,” says an in-house attorney at a big corporate client. “He is the only attorney I’ve ever permitted to bring a malicious prosecution lawsuit for us.” Amador brings a strong presence not only in court but in internal discussions as well, according to this client. “He does not equivocate. If he thinks he can get summary judgment in a case, he’ll tell you instead of saying that it ‘might’ be possible. Richard also has the right gravitas when dealing with our internal clients.” The in-house lawyer’s opinion tracks Amador’s philosophy: “The most important thing is to do excellent work. Beyond that, it’s about taking care of clients,” he says. “One of the things that seems to resonate with my clients a lot, I do what needs to be done to win � not everything that can be done.” Amador thinks some lawyers are too worried about being second-guessed or sued for malpractice if they don’t serve every possible interrogatory or take every conceivable deposition. “I could be wrong but it’s going to be a heck of a lot cheaper and faster to do it this way,” he sometimes tells his clients. “I’ve been able to get really, really outstanding results for my clients, and that gets you the trust.” Amador co-founded his Los Angeles firm, Sanchez & Amador, about 12 years ago with partner David Sanchez. Amador had been an associate at Loeb & Loeb and Sanchez, who practices corporate law, had worked at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. Amador says the firm has been in a growing mode and recently recruited for three new positions. Amador is a member of the 2006 steering committee of the California Minority Counsel Program and has been a recipient of the State Bar of California’s Wiley M. Manuel award for pro bono legal services. Most of all, he’s happy to be practicing. “I really love what I do,” he says. Along with the four lawyers profiled above, a couple of other employment lawyers seemed deserving of honorable mentions. In-house attorneys at Golden West Financial commend Malcolm Heinicke, at Munger, Tolles & Olson. “Malcolm knows labor law inside out,” says Michael Roster, Golden West’s GC. “He doesn’t hem and haw about what the issues are even though some areas may be gray. If there are gray areas, usually because of ambiguities in the law, he tells you so but then gives sound advice as to what to consider doing in light of the ambiguities. Adds Roster: “When Malcolm meets with the HR and business people, he quickly earns their confidence. He draws out the facts with a precise focus on what counts.” Heinicke has been a lawyer less than 10 years. He made partner at Munger, Tolles as a sixth-year in 2003. He is president-elect of the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Barristers Club and serves as chairman of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. With Heinicke, clients also get the bonus of one of the West Coast’s top litigation shops behind him, Roster notes. “As with everyone else at Munger, Malcolm staffs matters leanly but with people who know what they are doing,” says Roster. “He and his team always stay focused on outcomes and solutions.” Linda Lawson, managing partner at 17-lawyer Meserve, Mumper & Hughes in Los Angeles, is a favorite of an in-house attorney at another large financial institution. “The phrase that best describes her is ‘business minded,’” says this attorney, who asked to remain anonymous. “She understands how her in-house legal clients and business clients look at issues. She understands that there is a cost associated with everything that happens in litigation and will help her client make the cost/benefit analysis. Ultimately, she helps her clients make the best business decisions.” Lawson has a traditional management-side employment practice and also represents insurance companies in matters relating to life, health and disability coverage and ERISA. Scott Graham is editor in chief at The Recorder, which publishes GC California.

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