William Edlund.
William Edlund. (Courtesy photo)

SAN FRANCISCO — Litigator William Edlund, a fixture in the Bay Area legal community for more than 60 years, died Dec. 24 at California Pacific Medical Center. He was 87.

Edlund became one of the top litigators at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro during a 45-year tenure there, representing Chevron Corp. in billion-dollar ownership battles with Pennzoil and defending motion picture studios such as Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount and Universal against antitrust claims brought by theater owners. His work for Bank of America in a case against Timblerlane Lumber established the legal test for extraterritorial jurisdiction in antitrust cases.

Those kinds of cases made him a top-ranking litigator at what was then the largest law firm in the West. He and regular collaborator Allan Littman even formed a group that was known as Pillsbury’s Littman-Edlund Group. He and Littman joined Bartko Zankel Bunzel & Tarrant in 1998, where Edlund had maintained an active practice until failing ill a couple months ago.

Along with legal practice, Edlund was a frequent contributor to the Bay Area legal community’s social, political and cultural institutions. He had served as chairman of the California Judicial Nominees Evaluation, president of the Legal Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a director of the Bar Association of San Francisco and a delegate to both the California State Bar Convention and the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference.

Edlund used that stature to help people in need, be they litigation adversaries or simple mail room clerks. When Joseph L. Alioto ran into trouble with state bar prosecutors in the late 1980s, Edlund helped organize a defense fund. “They had become close as adversaries,” said Bartko partner Robert Bunzel. “Bill was one of the leading contributors to that cause.” And when Pillsbury let go longtime messenger Martin Macy in a 1998 belt tightening, Edlund and another Pillsbury alum, Clement Glynn, spearheaded an effort to raise $230,000 to cover his medical and living expense.

Edlund earned an economics degree from Stanford University in 1949, then got his JD at UC-Berkeley law school in 1953. During the 1980s, he unsuccessfully defended the Bohemian Club against state charges that it discriminated against women by refusing to employ them at its all-male retreat.

Former Northern District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, who worked with Edlund at Pillsbury in the 1970s and ‘80s, described his former colleague as a straight talker. “You never had to worry you were not going to get Bill’s opinion on the work you were doing—positive, negative or halfway in between—and that’s how it should be,” said Walker, who invited Edlund to his induction as a judge.

Ronald Van Buskirk, a longtime Pillsbury partner who is now the firm’s general counsel emeritus, called Edlund a master strategist. He recalled a mediation they teamed on where Edlund, based on nothing Van Buskirk could discern, abruptly raised their client’s settlement demand by a substantial amount. “As you can imagine, it was not well received by the other side,” Van Buskirk recalls. “What did we know that they didn’t?” he imagined them wondering. The next day, after some unfavorable testimony from one of the opponent’s executives, the opponent handed over a check for the full amount, Van Buskirk says.

Edlund had reached retirement age by the time he joined the Bartko firm in the late 1990s, but he and Littman maintained an active, national practice there. In 2010 the pair represented a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. who sued for unpaid deferred compensation when he left to work at a competing financial institution. The two argued to JAMS arbitrator James Warren it was an illegal restraint of competition under California law.

“It was such a forceful presentation—these two guys in their 80s—Warren awarded punitive damages,” Bunzel said. The total award of $3 million led the Bartko firm to bring a class action on behalf of financial advisers at other banks that netted a $17 million settlement, all of the unpaid compensation.

“He wouldn’t settle that case unless they received back everything that was taken from them, because that was the right thing to do,” said Bunzel.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup knew Edlund through litigation circles, the Northern District Historical Society, and a regular social event among judges and litigators that may or may not involve a certain card game. “He had a million stories and a memory that reached back all the way to the ‘50s. It was a joy to me because I’m old enough to have practiced with some of the people of that era.”

Alsup said he has encountered many thousands of lawyers in his 25 years of practice and 17 on the bench. Edlund was “one of those rare lawyers who stand for excellence and integrity and extreme loyalty to the court system. He really had a reverence to the court system.”

Bunzel said friends, family and legal colleagues would be advised soon regarding a date for a celebration of Edlund’s life and his contribution to the profession.