Monday, January 14, 2013
Lawrence W. Crispo
Retired Jurist Continues Crusade for Profesionalism and ‘Civility’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
HE SIGN ON THE JUDGE’S BENCH HAD ONE WORD ON IT: “CIVILITY.”
While many bench officers, particularly in the civil courts, had bemoaned an increasing lack of the traditional graciousness and respect shown by attorneys toward each other, one judge had decided to take his views a step further.
Being literally reminded of the judge’s views on the subject every time they looked up might have had a salutary effect on the attorneys. But in talking to Lawrence Crispo, and to his friends and colleagues, one gets a strong sense that “civility” was not just a word impressed onto a piece of wood, but something deeper, an essential part of who he is.
Those who have known Crispo during his more than half-century as a litigator, bar activist, community leader, mentor, and adjudicator of disputes in the public and private sectors praise him for sticking to the principle that for the good of the profession and those it serves, lawyers must know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
It’s a role that might not have been predicted for Crispo, now at age 78—he quips that he is actually “55 and holding”—when you look back at where he came from.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y.—“Bed-Stuy” to the locals—has always been known as a tough place.
The Bedford part was home to one of the earliest pre-Civil War communities of free black people. As the 20th Century unfolded, large numbers of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in search of cheap rents and affordable transportation caused the population to swell.
For Larry Crispo’s mother—who came to this country with her parents when she was 10 years old—life took a particularly tough turn when her husband, a truck driver and musician, was killed in a work-related accident. The future judge was 2 1/2 years old at the time.
His mother remarried eventually, to a man from Southern California, and the family settled in the San Gabriel Valley.
He attended Cantwell, a Catholic boys high school in Montebello, then went on to another Catholic institution, Loyola University of Los Angeles. Majoring in political science, and minoring in philosophy, he says he planned to be a teacher.
But having married young and started a family, the father of four daughters and two sons explains, that was an unrealistic ambition, so he set his sights on the business world. Graduating in 1956, he accepted a position with the local telephone company, then known as Pacific Bell.
Enrolls in Law School
When he enrolled in the evening program at Loyola Law School that fall, he says, he was seeking a way “to rise up the corporate ladder,” not a path to a different career.
The rules of the time allowed him to qualify for the bar exam in the summer of 1960, even though he was a year shy of graduation. But there was someone who didn’t think that was a good idea, and that someone happened to be the chief administrator of the law school.
The Rev. Joseph J. Donovan, for whom a classroom building is now named, ran the school from 1927 to 1971. He was a man of strong beliefs, one of which was that students should graduate before sitting for the bar exam, regardless of what the state’s rules said.
As Crispo recounts, the stern Jesuit was so certain that Crispo was on the wayward path that he told him that if he took the exam early, he would not get his diploma, even if he were admitted to practice. But after Crispo explained his personal situation, and agreed to put off the exam until the next time it was administered—March 1961, three months before graduation—Donovan gave him what he calls a “grumbling agreement” that allowed him to begin practicing law while his classmates were studying for the summer exam.
He had, by the time he was admitted, left the telephone company to become an adjustor and investigator for Travelers Insurance Company. He explains that his original plan to be a corporate executive with a legal background, rather than a lawyer, had changed after a conversation over lunch with a prominent member of the local bench.
Crispo, who says he had never actually met a lawyer before he went to law school, had become friends with Michael Burke, a classmate and the son of Louis Burke. The elder Burke was a Superior Court judge at the time and later a state Supreme Court justice, and encouraged him to seek a job with one of the public agencies that were a traditional training ground for future litigators.
While waiting for bar results, he interviewed with the Los Angeles city attorney, the United States attorney, and Los Angeles County, which back then used a joint interview process that included the district attorney, public defender, and county counsel.
He was certainly confident, he says. He recalls that when he was asked at the county interview “When do you expect to pass the bar?” he responded. “I’ve already passed, I just haven’t been informed of it yet.”
The confidence was justified, as he received offers from all of the agencies. And once again, practicality and necessity drove his decision.
The Office of City Attorney was the only agency of the group that did not require a three-year commitment, which Crispo says he could not afford to give. So he took the job, and tried about 70 misdemeanor jury trials before moving into the private sector in which he would practice for the next three decades.
A discussion with Ron Marsh, a court reporter with whom he was friendly, proved fortuitous. Marsh was a friend of Roger Kelly, a prominent defense-side litigator, and said he would put in a good word if Crispo wanted to interview with Kelly’s firm, then known as Gilbert, Kelly & Thompson.
Crispo, who had met Kelly while in law school after helping the student bar association put together a discussion between Kelly and prominent plaintiffs’ lawyer Raoul Magana, jumped at the chance and eventually joined Kelly’s firm.
He stayed for several years, then left to form a two-man partnership, following which he joined the small but growing firm of Cummins, White & Breidenbach as its sixth lawyer.
‘You Really Ought to Join Us’
Crispo recounts that he had opposed the firm in court on multiple occasions, and had turned down entreaties from both Joseph Cummins and Francis Breidenbach to interview there. But it was at the courthouse one day that he ran into a friend from law school, William Rylaarsdam, who was already at Cummins White and told him “you really ought to join us.”
The partnership wasn’t working out, he says, so after a sit-down with his partner, he met with the Cummins firm. After discussion, an accord was reached—Crispo would join the firm as an associate, but would leave after a year if he didn’t make partner.
The relationship worked out rather well, as he became a partner in six months and stayed one for 27 years, as the firm went through several name changes, eventually becoming Breidenbach, Swainston, Crispo and Way.
Daniel Buckley, who joined the firm in 1980 and is now supervising civil court judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court, remains an admirer.
Crispo, he relates, “was very open and always displayed respect for the new lawyer,” and gave the younger lawyers significant responsibility. “He wanted to be a mentor,” Buckley says.
In the courtroom, he explains, Crispo was a “high energy” advocate who established credibility with judges, opposing counsel, and juries. “There’s not a false bone in his body,” Buckley comments, adding that “juries loved him, clients loved him, and he was able to get great cases and do well with the cases.”
Rylaarsdam, who bought Crispo’s Alhambra home when Crispo moved his growing family to San Gabriel, is now a Fourth District Court of Appeal justice, and has fond memories of the days he and Crispo worked together.
“I’m a great admirer of Larry,” the jurist says. “He’s a terrific person, and was a terrific lawyer and a very effective judge, and he’s been very supportive of other lawyers.”
Crispo has long manifested that support through his involvement in bar groups. He was part of the State Bar discipline system when it was an all-volunteer entity, a longtime and very active member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and a member of the State Bar Board of Governors from 1990 to 1993, when he passed on the opportunity to run for president as he was advancing in the judicial selection process.
He was an advocate of the American Board of Trial Advocates and served on the organization’s national board. He also served as chairman of the State Bar’s Client Relations Committee, president of the local Italian American Lawyers Association, governor of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers, judicial liaison to the Beverly Hills Bar Association and president of the Wilshire Bar Association.
David Bloom, a litigator who is also a former WBA president and is still active in the group, credits Crispo—whom he has known since they were on the opposite sides of a legal malpractice case in the 1970s—with having been “one of the strong advocates to keep the Wilshire Bar Association going” after demographics changed and many lawyers followed their institutional clients out of the area.
His admiration extends to Crispo’s skills as a judge and mediator.
“Larry is professional to a fault,” he says. “He’s able to be civil and he’s wise enough not to get temperamentally involved in the foray that is unfolding.”
‘The Darker Side of Life’
While Crispo’s practice was largely focused on business litigation, pharmaceutical litigation, and medical and legal malpractice, he also put his experience as a young prosecutor and as someone who had “seen the darker side of life,” as he puts it, to work. He served on the local federal indigent criminal defense panel and handled several criminal cases for paying clients, including one of the county’s highest-profile cases of the 1960s.
Paul Perveler, a former Los Angeles police officer, and his girlfriend Kristina Cromwell were accused of murdering their respective spouses. The prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, argued that the pair were after $100,000 in insurance proceeds, and later based his book “Till Death Do Us Part” on the case, although the defendants’ real names were not used.
Cromwell’s family hired Crispo to defend her, but decided before trial that he wasn’t experienced enough, and brought in prominent San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli to take over.
“That obviously didn’t work out too well,” Crispo comments, since Cromwell was convicted, as was Perveler. Cromwell drew a life sentence and was released on parole in 1976, and subsequently testified at a parole hearing for Perveler that not only had they conspired to kill her husband, but Perveler told her that he had been planning to kill his wife even before he met Cromwell, and that he had also tried unsuccessfully to kill his parents and his previous spouse.
Perveler, now 75, had his death sentence reduced to life imprisonment when the state Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, and remains incarcerated.
Civil Service Commission
One of Crispo’s clients at the firm was the city in which he was living, San Gabriel, which he represented in trial and appellate courts and where he was also a longtime member of the Civil Service Commission. Crispo remained at the firm until 1994, when he was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
He spent 10 years on the court, having been initially assigned to Pomona. It was primarily a criminal assignment, but he also did a great deal of civil work.
He enjoyed the assignment, he says, but it was a long drive from his Pasadena home. He had requested a downtown assignment because he had always practiced there, he says, and—after a brief sojourn in Alhambra—was sent to what is now the Foltz Criminal Justice Center and later to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.
It was a lot of work, he says, noting that he was usually in chambers around 7 a.m., reviewing cases before promptly taking the bench at 8:30 a.m., and then worked in chambers into the evening after hearing the day’s workload. But it was rewarding, he reflects, because it was an opportunity to promote good lawyering.
This is where the civility sign came in.
“I felt that it would be kind of an important thing for me to highlight—the idea that it’s important on a personal and professional level that we treat each other with respect and dignity,” he explains.
His face makes a rare scowl as he is reminded of comments that once appeared in a legal publication, ostensibly from lawyers suggesting that he was overly prone to impose sanctions.
As a lawyer, he says, he found it upsetting when a judge would schedule a calendar call for 8:30 a.m., only to keep a courtroom full of lawyers waiting until 9 or 9:15. “So as a judge, my view was—and is— that if counsel is going to be late, pick up the phone and say you’re going to be late,” he explains.
If a lawyer didn’t do that, he explains, rather than impose formal sanctions, “I would say ‘okay, what’s your favorite charity’, and the lawyer would say ‘the Red Cross’ or whatever, and I would say ‘okay, I want you to donate $25 to charity, and the next time you come back, show me the cancelled check.’ And I had no problems.”
He did, he acknowledges, once issue an order to show cause after a lawyer filed points and authorities that were so totally inconsistent with what the cases actually said that they appeared to be a deliberate effort to mislead the court. But he discharged the OSC after reviewing the response and concluding that “the guy was basically a lazy lawyer” who had pulled citations from some treatises and hadn’t really read the cases.
‘New Challenges, New Adventures’
Crispo left the court for private judging in 2004. He told the MetNews at the time that it was “time to move to new challenges, new adventures.”
“I miss the…challenge of working with the lawyers to move cases forward,” he says, and the opportunity to mentor young lawyers like the more than 140 men and women—he still keeps a list of their names—who served as his judicial externs.
One of those externs is now a judge herself.
Working with Crispo was an “excellent learning experience,” Superior Court Judge Geanene Yriarte says. The jurist, who went on to work as a prosecutor for more than 11 years before gaining her own judicial appointment, and who has primarily heard criminal cases on the bench, says it was a great entrée into civil law.
It also, she notes, led to an opportunity to co-author a published legal article, as she, Crispo, and another Loyola graduate, Jill Slansky, teamed to write Jury Nullification: Law Versus Anarchy, for the November 1997 issue of the Loyola Law Review.
Aaron Kahn, a litigation associate at White & Case who externed with Crispo shortly before he left the bench, says he still relishes the hands-on education he got by working with the gregarious jurist. “He makes you part of the process,” Kahn explains, having the students sit in on chambers and courtroom conferences and inviting their questions about what they’ve seen and heard.
Kahn says that working with Crispo—who he first became aware of years earlier when the judge oversaw a business lawsuit involving Kahn’s family—helped confirm his decision to pursue a career in civil ligation, and that the judge’s recommendation helped steer him toward the firm he has worked for the past seven years.
Crispo “really enjoyed litigation,” Kahn says. “He saw each case as a whole new opportunity to learn something about the world.”
Kahn recalls with fond memories “the bagel seminar”—the early morning coffee-shop meetings at which the judge expounded on the cases and fielded externs’ questions.
“The bonus [was] that he knew every judge in the courthouse and many of the lawyers,” and they would often stop by and chat. “So, many of [us] learned about family law from the family law judges,” even though Crispo didn’t handle those cases.
“It was invaluable for a second- or third-year law student,” Kahn says.
Lawyers and law students aren’t the only people Crispo has mentored. While on the Superior Court, he explains, he was a regular participant in community outreach, visiting schools, often in areas where none of the children had ever met a lawyer, let alone a judge.
He still chuckles about one of those visits, where he discovered that the teacher shared his passion for singing, and joined him in a couple of duets. When they finished, one of the pupils paid Crispo what he recalls as the ultimate compliment: “You sing real good for a judge.”
He was so flattered, he stayed for lunch. One gracious student even shared his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Crispo recalls.
His interest in music has been life-long, he explains. He grew up singing in glee clubs and church choirs and was part of a men’s chorus at Loyola and a barbershop quartet in the San Gabriel Valley.
He has sung at numerous bar functions over the years. Attorney Phil Bartenetti, who followed him as IALA president in 1985, says Crispo has “never met an opportunity to sing that he didn’t take.”
An opera buff, he visits Italy every few years, although “one of the great failings of my life,” he says, is that he never gained fluency in the language of his ancestors. He recalls with a smile, but with a hint of frustration, a failed effort to visit his idol, Luciano Pavarotti, who famously once declared his Modena estate always open to his fans, although it wasn’t on the day Crispo arrived at the gate.
Even in his sixth decade in law, Crispo maintains a busy schedule. He does private judging, both independently and through two provider organizations, and remains active in several groups, including the American Inns of Court, which promotes professional education and ethics.
Private judging, he notes, has given him opportunities to do things he could never have done on the public bench, including moderate a Native American tribal council meeting in a dispute over gaming issues. The meeting, he notes, ended with a prayer thanking the Great Spirit for giving the tribe the wisdom to choose him as the moderator.
Another time, he notes, he and two retired judges from other parts of the country were retained by a litigation consultant in Bethesda, Md. to preside over a mock arbitration proceeding that was used to prepare lawyers for the actual arbitration of a massive business dispute. One interesting aspect, he explains, is that prior to hearing the matter and being debriefed, the panel wasn’t told whether they were working for the plaintiffs’ or the defendants’ lawyers.
While he continues to maintain a busy schedule of arbitrations, mediations, and the like, Crispo says he’s glad that his professional life is less busy than it was as a trial judge.
“There’s a difference between working three days a week and working six days a week,” he explains, adding that he is now perfectly happy to start a proceeding at 9 or 10 a.m. if that’s what the attorneys want to do.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company