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Brad Seligman made millions early in his career at a small California law firm — so much money that it made him uncomfortable. That discomfort has transformed the former hippie into one of the country’s most recognized class action attorneys, taking on Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and other companies in lawsuits charging that employers discriminated against their female workers. Seligman’s vehicle for battling discrimination is The Impact Fund, a nonprofit legal services agency he founded in 1992 with $1.25 million he earned in 12 years of private practice. “I made a lot more money than I ever thought I would make,” Seligman said. “It was more money than I needed and more money than I ever wanted … I wanted to get rid of it as fast as possible.” The Wal-Mart and Costco cases, if proven or settled, promise to generate millions in legal fees, but Seligman said that any money he generates in the lawsuits, both of which are pending in federal court here, would go back into the coffers of his Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit. “I won’t personally make any money from the cases,” said Seligman, who turns 53 Wednesday, and who draws a salary of $73,000, a minuscule sum for a class action lawyer. When The Impact Fund began, he spent much of his time coaching lawyers and fund-raising, and over the years has given more than $3 million to other public-interest lawyers representing the environment, the poor, minorities and women. Guy Saperstein, the retired Oakland civil rights attorney who hired Seligman to join his small firm more than two decades ago, said Seligman was among the sharpest lawyers he’s ever known. “He’s going to do the biggest and most important things and not be afraid or intimidated about it,” Saperstein said. “That’s what this guy wants to do is have an impact.” Saperstein remembered a young Seligman — long hair, scrubby beard and shabby clothing — and recalls warning clients that his new associate, who would later become a partner, could handle the job despite his unkempt appearance. “He wasn’t the best dresser,” Saperstein said. “During a performance appraisal, I asked him: ‘Would you be offended if I took you to my tailor to buy a couple of suits?’” Seligman grew up in Los Angeles and was a national debating champion in high school. His father died the day he graduated high school in 1969 and Seligman drifted for a while, unsure of his future. But he always thought he would be an attorney, like his father, a one-time federal prosecutor at Nuremberg who finished his career as an entertainment executive. “I got swept into the ends of the ’60s and was part of the counterculture for a while and spent a number of years dropping in and out of schools and exploring a lot of other things like writing music and Russian literature,” he said. But the bills began to mount. So he got serious, enrolling at Sonoma State University where, in 1975, he graduated with an English degree. Three years later, he finished at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “I gave myself a long talking to,” the father of three recalled. “That’s when I decided I was gonna give this law thing a chance, but it had to be consistent with my political values.” With Saperstein, Seligman sued companies on behalf of those wrongly fired or discriminated in the workplace. In 1992, they had a huge win, earning millions in legal fees when they settled a lawsuit with State Farm for $250 million. The giant insurance company was accused of failing to hire female agents in California. That was about the time Seligman grew tired of the push to generate legal fees. So, he opened The Impact Fund and for the next decade or so immersed himself in fund-raising, offering advice to other attorneys and giving money to public-interest causes. But several years ago, Seligman decided he wanted more time in the courtroom again. With the assistance of Impact Fund beneficiaries and private attorneys, he began taking the lead in what would become the nation’s largest class action sex discrimination case. In 2001, he sued Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the United States. He filed what became a class action suit representing as many as 1.6 million current and former workers who Seligman says were paid less than their male counterparts and were denied promotions on account of their gender. The case is currently before a federal appeals court; Wal-Mart is fighting a San Francisco federal judge’s order approving class action status for the lawsuit. The Costco case, in which the Issaquah, Wash.-based warehouse chain is accused of passing over women for managerial roles, was filed earlier this month in federal court here and has not yet had a hearing. Both firms deny a pattern of gender discrimination. John Fox, chairman of employment practice at Fenwick & West in Mountain View, Calif., said if Seligman is successful in those cases, he expects to see him donate more money to more causes. For Fox, who defends companies’ employment practices, that means he could find himself opposing Seligman or others funded by him in court. “I should be careful for what I wish for,” Fox quipped. “There is a crusader spirit about him.” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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