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At the head of the table in a Financial District law office in San Francisco sits James Davis, an exceptionally tall drag queen with Morgan Fairchild looks and Dolly Parton hair who goes by the name of Miss Elaine Lancaster. Quietly at his side is Gary Cloutier, the gentlemanly gay rights lawyer who has filed a discrimination suit for Davis against San Francisco’s swanky Clift Hotel. According to Davis, a Clift manager made the mistake of denying him a room last October when he showed up in full drag immediately after co-hosting the city’s outrageous Exotic Erotic Halloween Ball with former basketball star Dennis Rodman. A gaggle of reporters has shown up for the impromptu press conference that Cloutier, a partner in Wotman & Cloutier, has called. Cloutier, a councilman in Vallejo, Calif., when he’s not lawyering, seems a bit uncomfortable with the publicity blitz, but makes an acute side observation just before Davis tells his story. “Paul would have loved this,” he says, grinning. “I’m sure he’s looking down from above smiling right now.” Cloutier’s talking about Paul Wotman, his former law partner who died on Christmas Day of AIDS-related non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Wotman was splashy, constantly holding press conferences to announce lawsuits, and frequently taking clients on national talk shows hosted by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. He loved the spotlight and routinely used publicity as a settlement tactic. Wotman also was the firm’s founder and marquee name, nationally known since 1991 when he won $5.3 million — the largest award ever in a gay discrimination case — for a man fired by Shell Oil Co. And his death at the young age of 49 gave Cloutier and the firm’s other two attorneys pause to wonder about the fate of Wotman & Cloutier. “I am nowhere as known or notorious as Paul,” says Cloutier, an Al Gore type of guy not likely to mimic Wotman’s P.T. Barnum style. “I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to survive. We even thought about dissolving the law firm.” Four months after Wotman’s death, though, the firm is still cranking with about 20 active cases and fielding as many as three to four telephone calls and two e-mails a week from potential clients. The 39-year-old Cloutier is even taking the opportunity to revamp the firm in his own image. He has moved the main office out of pricey San Francisco to rent-reasonable Vallejo, and he’s planning to open a branch in Palm Springs, currently experiencing a gay boom so intense that it’s been dubbed “Castro South.” But perhaps most important, Cloutier has decided to take the almost radical step of cutting down on publicity, taking fewer cases overall and pushing for trial rather than settlement. Events like the press conference for Miss Elaine Lancaster will pop up far less frequently. That’s a big change for a firm that has been fueled by publicity since its inception, and it’s not very Wotmanesque — which is exactly what the soft-spoken Cloutier has in mind. “Paul was a showman. My style is not quite the same,” Cloutier says. “Except in cases where we think there is an important public policy statement to be made, we’re not going to publicize a lawsuit. “If I never went on ‘Oprah’ in my life,” he adds, “I couldn’t care less.” Cloutier’s no fool, though. He’s keeping the Wotman name in the firm’s moniker. And his contemporaries say that’s a wise idea. “As the big boys know,” Berkeley civil rights lawyer Alice Philipson says, “names become associated with a certain kind of case and people and clients. “It’s important that they either keep the name Wotman,” she adds, “or they refer to him in their materials, like saying, ‘The firm is now Black, White & Green, following in the tradition of our founder, Paul Wotman.’ “ Losing the Wotman name was never a consideration, Cloutier says. The firm has a contractual right to it, and Wotman’s estate is getting paid a certain percentage of the profits for six months after his death. “Paul is an important legacy, and I’m happy to continue that by keeping his name,” Cloutier says. “And I’m not going to lie, it’s not bad for business. His name has a definite value.” Revenues for the firm average about $1 million a year, he says. Moving the main office to Vallejo, meanwhile, serves two purposes: It gets the firm out of San Francisco’s hair-raising rental market, and it gives Cloutier time to fulfill his councilman duties for a term that expires in 2003. “There is no way I can be on the City Council and be in San Francisco full time,” he points out. “Frequently I’ve got to make time in the mornings to attend meetings, and you’ve got to do the fish fries … and everything else.” Currently, Cloutier, lawyer John Furstenthal and administrative assistant John Voyles — an activist who participated in the White House Conference on AIDS with then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 — occupy a tiny, windowless office in downtown Vallejo. Lawyer Clarice Liu operates out of a small office on Bush Street in San Francisco’s Financial District. The Vallejo trio will likely move soon to Mare Island, a local former Navy shipyard property, where they will occupy a building that once was a junior officer’s quarters. There was some worry that leaving gay-filled San Francisco would hurt the firm’s business, but that hasn’t happened. “We don’t really need to meet the clients face to face, except for the first time, and we can do that in our San Francisco office,” Cloutier says. “From our perspective, we’re a statewide law firm, so whether the office is here [in Vallejo] or in Los Angeles or in San Francisco isn’t really relevant.” If an office is opened in Palm Springs, Cloutier says, former partner Geoffrey Kors, who lives there, might come back to manage it. Cloutier said 2000 was a tough year, what with Wotman rapidly declining in health. Wotman would gamely visit the office in San Francisco in the months before he died, Cloutier says, but was way too sick to work. Cloutier says he knew the end was near the day Wotman — a publicity hound if there ever was one — told an assistant to throw out his beloved cache of news clippings. “I think he was saying, ‘I’m going to be dead in two or three weeks,’ ” says Cloutier, who didn’t have the heart to get rid of the clippings. They’re still in the office as a memorial of sorts. Berkeley lawyer Philipson, who represented Wotman in his waning days, says it was important to Wotman that he drop by the office now and then. “The last year of his life was spent somewhat on maintaining the appearance of an active litigator,” she says, “so that the firm thrived and the important civil rights work moved forward despite his inability to actually do the work.” Wotman had his critics, of course, but the power of his name was undoubtedly more of a blessing than a curse. The same was true of Melvin Belli, says San Francisco’s Steven Fabbro, who partnered with the legendary lawyer for years before a nasty breakup sent them separate ways. “People either loved or hated him,” Fabbro notes, “but, nonetheless, everyone knew him and he got a lot of cases.” The same was true for Wotman, whom Clarence & Snell partner Nanci Clarence called “a lightning rod for attention for issues near and dear to him.” Clarence, partnered for years with famed civil rights lawyer Thomas Steel, who died of AIDS in 1998, says that for a small firm to survive the death of such a significant rainmaker, the remaining lawyers must function as an integrated group and have a broader case base. “It’s not a very great time for civil rights law firms,” she says, because of new laws that make it harder to get paid. “They will have to sustain themselves through some more steady source of fees.” Cloutier says the Wotman firm does some personal injury work on the side, but isn’t worried about lack of work because gay discrimination isn’t slacking off. “It’s still a growth industry, because it’s still socially acceptable for people to discriminate against gays and lesbians,” he notes. “We’re still living in a day when the law is antique, in that there are only 11 states that have laws on sexual-orientation discrimination.” As examples, Cloutier points to two of his firm’s cases filed just last year, one in San Francisco federal court and the other in San Francisco Superior Court. Both involved businessmen who claim they were snubbed or treated with disrespect after their bosses discovered their sexual orientation. Cloutier has issued a multimillion-dollar settlement demand in one of the cases. “And,” he says, “that almost compels it to trial.” That’s important to Cloutier, because he worries that the firm had gotten a reputation as settling too quickly. In fact, some of Wotman’s contemporaries complained while Wotman was still practicing that he pushed for settlement to the detriment of getting a judgment that could advance civil rights law. “What we’re really looking to do now,” Cloutier says, “is take higher-impact cases and try them before a jury and point out that we’re not a law firm that’s willing to settle.” Along that line, he wants to be choosier about what cases he takes. If potential clients don’t have enough evidence to back a claim, they will be turned down. However, that could have a downside. “Fewer cases mean greater risks,” he says. “You may not have a great year, but if you succeed, the sky’s the limit.” The biggest case Cloutier ever took to trial ended with mixed results. An HIV-positive man who sued a UC-San Francisco doctor for refusing to conduct shoulder-replacement surgery was awarded $166,000 in 1999, but jurors rejected his claim of discrimination, which eliminated punitive damages. Still, cases of that sort are the ones Cloutier hopes to take to trial. And he’s confident that the suit he filed for Miss Elaine Lancaster is not only winnable, but also could further the civil rights agenda. “It’s an important principle,” he says, “because people shouldn’t be treated differently because of their appearance or their gender identity.” He also feels that the case — with a flashy plaintiff standing up for transgender rights — deserved the old Wotman publicity treatment. Just don’t expect it too often. “We now prefer,” he says, “to do business in a quieter style.”

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