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The Consumer Attorneys of California has had a rough couple of years — Sacramento isn’t exactly the friendliest environment for trial lawyers. Fortunately, the group’s incoming president prides himself on being able to negotiate his way through contentious situations. “Ninety-eight percent of cases that go into the court system settle,” said Frank Pitre, who is taking the helm of the CAOC as its new president. “Even if at the outset you have people at polar opposites of an issue, once they get the chance to thoroughly investigate the claims and thoroughly investigate the evidence, 98 percent of the time they can reach a compromise. … If that works in that kind of an arena, why can’t that work in Sacramento?” Getting skeptical lawmakers to find middle ground with the 3,000-strong trial lawyer group won’t be easy, but the Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy partner is used to tough opposition. He has won multimillion-dollar verdicts against corporate giants and served on plaintiff committees that worked out settlements associated with major airplane crashes. Peers say he is a leader and a consensus-builder, able to elicit group solutions to complex problems. The son of Sicilian immigrants, Pitre spent his second year of law school working pre-dawn hours in his parents’ San Francisco produce business before heading off to class. Impressed by his diligence and focus, partner Joseph Cotchett hired Pitre right out of law school. “He’s not an A student, he’s a B+ student,” declared Cotchett, a high-profile donor to Democratic causes. “But he’ll run faster than any A student you’ll find.” Pitre will have his work cut out for him, says former CAOC president Richard Simons. “He’s going to be facing two things,” said Simons, a partner in the Hayward firm Furtado, Jaspovice & Simons. “Number one is the need to address the role of the civil justice system and the plaintiff bar in the public arena and all the adverse impressions that are out there.” Secondly, Simons said, is a series of political challenges, including a possible fee-cap initiative and the tort reform agenda of the governor. Pitre would need to juggle this, he said, while “trying to keep the justice system intact and healthy.” It’s a lot for the new CAOC president to face, Simons acknowledged. “It’s a real big challenge, and Frank [Pitre] has got both the experience and training to do a great job.” At the group’s 44th annual meeting this weekend in Hollywood, Pitre will succeed outgoing president Sharon Arkin. A partner with Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson, her one-year term included the departure of two longtime CAOC players — executive director Robin Brewer and political operative Richie Ross, who handled the Proposition 64 campaign for the CAOC. The measure, which passed last year, put restrictions on suits brought under the state’s Unfair Competition Law. Brewer’s replacement, Michael Reyna, the former chairman and CEO of the federal Farm Credit Administration, came on board in July. Ross has not been officially replaced. The CAOC continues to use the services of its own in-house advocates as well as those of veteran lobbyist Don Green. In addition to personnel changes, the CAOC this year endured the second consecutive veto of a Medi-Cal liens bill. It also dealt with a threatened attempt by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America to put an initiative aimed at capping contingency fees on the state ballot. PhRMA ultimately met with CAOC leaders and agreed to withdraw their plans, though Arkin and other CAOC leaders say they’re prepared for other pro-business groups — emboldened by the tort-reform rhetoric of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his allies — to attempt a similar fee cap initiative in the coming year. Should that happen, Pitre said, he and the CAOC are ready. “I am impressed with the character, resilience and perseverance of people in this organization,” Pitre said. “If they are faced with an initiative that would attempt to cap fees or cap damages, whoever it is will be met with a strong, cohesive and aggressive strategy.” Few within the CAOC doubt the need for strategy. Since the election of Schwarzenegger, California trial lawyers have gotten an increasingly chilly reception in Sacramento. With term limits claiming all but a few of the capital’s lawyer/lawmakers — giving more power to the so-called “mod squad” — members of the Democratic caucus are hesitant to vote for bills dubbed “job killers” by business and corporate interests. The governor himself has indicated his tort-reform sympathies in a myriad of ways, including his willingness to veto CAOC-sponsored bills, his support of Prop 64, which last year weakened California Business and Professions Code �17200, and his insertion of language into the 2004-2005 budget that sought to capture 75 percent of punitive damages for the state. Some CAOC leaders say Schwarzenegger’s drubbing in last week’s special election may prompt some genuine interest in fence-mending. Others are not hopeful. “I think you have to look. When all is said and done, there is going to be saber-rattling — and not much else,” said Raymond Boucher, the 2006 president-elect who will take the helm after Pitre next November. Pitre said the key to building new coalitions in the Legislature is outreach and education by getting “real people” who have used the court system for redress to “tell real stories” about their experiences in a variety of community forums. For the past year, Pitre has been involved with organizing a newly formed group, the Civil Justice Research and Education Project. He says it was created by “lawyers and other professionals” to battle the anti-lawyer message put out by corporate America. Pitre said he also wants to “reach out to all of our members and give them an opportunity to tell me where they want this organization to go.” Comprised of members who are contentious by nature, the CAOC also increasingly encompasses a diverse group of businesses, including huge firms and small operations. The job of representing all these interests is never easy, say past presidents of the group. “It’s always important for our organization to hang together,” said Bruce Broillet, the CAOC’s 2001 president. “To get all those people to coalesce around issues and move forward as a united front requires someone with the talent, reputation and integrity of a Frank Pitre.” Partner Cotchett made it clear that Pitre is a man who doggedly pursues his goals. Cotchett gave him high marks for being focused and single-minded, likening him to “those horses in Central Park who wear blinders. You couldn’t get then to turn down Park Avenue if you tried.”

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