“You’re not from around these parts, are you, stranger?”
As two recent transitions have caused me to recall, that cliché from an old Western was my perception when I first transitioned from the Old Country to the Nordman firm in July 2000.
The very first week, at the government center after an appearance, two Ventura lawyers emerged from another department. “Can you believe that guy?!?” said one about opposing counsel that day. “Yeah!” responded the other. “Where does he think he is? North Los Angeles?” As we rode down the elevator they laughed: “Maybe they should put up an inspection station on the 101 to intercept lawyers from LA.”
I, however, had an infiltration plan. I joined the Ventura County Bar Association. But at my first event, a VCTLA dinner, I introduced myself to the attorney in front of me at check-in. “Oh,” he said. “You must be that carpetbagger who just joined the big firm in the Emerald Tower.” The plan had not started well at all.
Fortunately, one of my new partners, Randy George, took me to lunch to console me, in Ventura Harbor, on a beautiful fall day, and we sat outside. Randy ran into one of his colleagues and exchanged pleasantries. Then, to my surprise, they actually talked about real things beyond pleasantries. As I shared with my wife Leslie that night, that never happened in the Old Country.
And, in the Old Country, if they talked at all, it might be about how that morning they took a power breakfast with some movie star client at the Polo Lounge. Here, it might be about how that morning they had been surfing at Rincon. And, they wouldn’t be affected, “gnarly, dude” surfers – just real lawyers who liked to surf.
A little later, I had to cover a settlement conference, where I first met Judge David Long. About a month after that, I was in the cafeteria. Judge Long wandered through and said with a smile: “Good morning, Joel, good to see you again.” When I got home that night I told Leslie: “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.” I mean, in the Old Country, the chances of ever seeing a judge again were pretty slim, and here one already knew me by my first name?
Encouraged, I decided to resume the infiltration plan, and joined Inns of Court, where I could meet litigation attorneys who I would be seeing in court. In the Old Country, you hardly ever saw opposing counsel a second time. Here, people did battle in court with each other regularly. Sure, familiarity can breed some measure of contempt. But, I was amazed and even excited at how, overall, opposing attorneys here treated one another not only with respect and civility, but often with good humor.
As my transition progressed, I also began to notice the differences in the legal issues that shape community life here. I handled cases involving our agricultural industry. Strawberries – who grew them, their profit margins, who picked them, and how lemons and avocados were giving way to them. Row crops – how workers in that industry were housed and compensated. Water – where it came from, how it was being used, and the important yet delicate balance between the needs of our more than $2 billion agricultural industry and our native plants and wildlife, including steelhead and red legged frogs. I learned about issues from operating wineries to issues that remain from the “tiling” that made the Oxnard Plain one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world. Development – to SOAR or not to SOAR. And I learned about businesses and industries that thrived here, and the workers and families at the core of their successes.
The transition continued with joining the VCBA Board, where I met more attorneys who practiced in areas other than litigation. I began to perceive far more than I ever had in the Old Country how other areas of law are so important to the community in which we live, including the criminal justice system, juvenile and dependency practices, family law, immigration, employment and labor law and, yes, even animal law. Involvement with the board also opened my eyes far more than ever to the importance of diversity in the bar paralleling the diversity of our community – and how important it is for the bar to strive to serve all of our community’s diverse needs.
And that brings me to the two recent transitions that have revived these ancient reflections – the passing of Emeritus Attorney Earl Price and the enrobing of Judge Gilbert Romero.
Price was one of our Volunteer Lawyer Services Program emeritus attorneys, and he personally over the years raised several hundred thousand dollars to support the program. He was keenly aware of how necessary it is for our community of lawyers to help provide access to justice to all members of our community. While people of kindred spirit certainly reside in the Old Country, upon hearing of Earl’s passing I realized how fortunate we were to have had Earl among us in Ventura, and how fortunate I was to have gotten to know, work with and be inspired by him, no matter for how briefly.
Judge Romero’s enrobing ceremony, where I had the honor of speaking on behalf of the VCBA, was a very special event – an overflow crowd, a family beaming with pride, dignitaries recognizing his accomplishments, an entire bench turning out to welcome their newest member. Nothing like the ceremonies I had seen in the Old Country.
Truly inspiring as well were the comments of District Attorney Greg Totten about Judge Romero – his growing up in the roughest parts of our community, the challenges he faced and the courage with which he faced them. Mr. Totten also quoted Judge Romero recalling – and it should be a lesson for all of us – how he came to realize that, while he could not change his past, he could make sure it did not dictate his future. Mr. Totten added that, while Judge Romero graduated from the finest legal institution in the land, Hastings, he still returned to his roots where he became the outstanding citizen and role model that led to his appointment to the bench.
These two transitions are what has caused me to reflect again upon my own transitions, perceptions and changes that began when I first came to Ventura, and how I have been inspired and positively affected by so many whom I continue to meet and work with here.
Transitions in life are inevitable, and the changes in perceptions they can bring should be embraced. As an old dog, I embrace change slower than most. But, I am encouraged by what I have learned so far. Just the other day, I made a first contact with opposing counsel from the Old Country, and he was surprisingly civil. I caught myself thinking: “Where does he think he’s from South Ventura?”
Joel Mark is the managing partner at Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton LLP in Oxnard. Any similarities between the “Old Country” and some big city such as Los Angeles are purely coincidental. Hastings, however, is for real.