Thursday, January 14, 2016
From Small Town Girl to Top Notch Big City Lawyer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
hirty miles south-southwest of Bakersfield—40 miles if you’re driving—sits an oil town of less than 10,000 people called Taft.
It originally was called Moro, but the tiny populace was afraid of being confused with Morro Bay, so they added one letter to the name and it became Moron, or so the story goes. But when they decided to open a post office, the government said they couldn’t use it, so they took the name of the then-president of the United States.
Taft “is a small town, with all that implies,” native daughter Edith Matthai says. “It has its advantages. It has its disadvantages.”
It “was a great place to grow up,” she reflects. But Matthai, keenly aware of what lie outside it, says she “knew as soon as I got outside of high school, I would be going somewhere else.”
After a couple of detours, that somewhere else turned out to be Los Angeles. And the legal community here has been delighting in that choice ever since.
Matthai has been a major figure of that community, serving as president the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the California Defense Counsel, the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel and the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. She has also chaired the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability, is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and is a member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which reviews the qualifications of potential appointees to the federal bench.
She is a past member of the California Judicial Council and of its Advisory Committee on Civil Jury Instructions. Her term on the council, from 2010 to 2013, included membership on the oversight committee for the later-abandoned Central Case Management System.
Being a MetNews Person of the Year is only the latest of many honors she has received in recognition of effort and excellence within, and on behalf, of the profession she has been a member of for 30 years. In 2008, she was named by the Litigation Section of the California State Bar as the California Trial Lawyer of the Year; in 2013, she was the first woman named the CAL-ABOTA Trial Lawyer of the Year; and in 2014 she won the County Bar’s highest honor, the Shattuck-Price Award.
Profession Not Envisioned
But as a female, and growing up in a small town, it was difficult to see herself as any kind of lawyer, Matthai says.
Her father taught music at the local high school, which had a close relationship with Taft College, the two-year school next door. He eventually became dean of the college.
Matthai’s mother was a Colorado native who taught physical education, among other subjects.
They met at UC Berkeley before World War II, and settled in Taft because the oil boom—and the fact that the laws of the day allowed wealthy school districts to keep their tax dollars at home—meant they could earn the highest teaching salaries in the state.
With husband James Robie.
Those revenues also enabled the district to build swimming pools and tennis courts for its students. The town also had a movie theater, Matthai recalls, along with a recreation center where she went roller skating on Saturdays.
But her parents were both from elsewhere, so she grew up visiting places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, went on a summer bus tour of the United States during her junior year, and went to Girl Scout camps. She also traveled as a member of the high school tennis team.
Taft was about as different from ethnically and economically diverse Los Angeles as it could possibly be. “Everything revolved around the oil companies,” Matthai says, and the exclusion of African Americans from the labor force made the town as white as any in the Jim Crow south. That didn’t change until the late 1960s or early 1970s when the junior college decided to elevate its level of football competition and began to recruit players nationally, she says,
Matthai recalls a “horrible” incident in June 1975 when local residents tried to run the black players out of town by accusing them of sexual misconduct with local girls. The effort failed, and the school became California’s dominant junior college football power before being hit with a recruiting scandal and budget cuts in the 1990s.
She was admitted to UC Santa Barbara, where she had what she describes as a “college experience that was probably not like a lot of people’s college experience.”
For one thing, rioters burned down the Bank of America branch near the campus her freshman year. She remembers law enforcement from Los Angeles being trucked in and “shooting tear gas all over the place.”
“I was not there when the bank was burned,” she says. “Please let me emphasize that.”
For another thing, she had just married—the marriage was brief and ended in divorce around the time she started law school—and lived in married student housing before moving to Painted Cave in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
But in the midst of the tumult, she graduated in three years, majoring in sociology. She achieved good grades, she says, “but I would often do the reading in class and show up for the examination.”
She hadn’t thought about law school, she says. Like many of her generation, she watched television shows like “Perry Mason” when she was a child, but the thought of emulating what she watched on the screen was far from her mind.
“I had never met a lawyer,” she explains. “Girls from Taft didn’t grow up to be lawyers.”
But two things pushed her in the direction of becoming a lawyer, she recalls.
A reading assignment during her senior year proved fateful, she explains.
A visiting professor asked the class to report on a popular book at the time, “The Population Bomb” by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich. The author predicted the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other social upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth, including creation of tax disincentives for large families, incentives for sterilization, and increased access to abortion.
The book sold over two million copies, and many of Matthai’s fellow students were impressed with its contents. Matthai wasn’t.
She criticized the premise that “there’s never going to be any progress,” she recounts. History, she wrote, shows that predictions of mass disaster rarely come to pass.
The professor was impressed, she recounts, and told her to think about going to law school.
Besides, she needed a job, so she took one as a legal assistant.
Her employer was Steve Balash Jr., who had just left the District Attorney’s Office for a solo practice in Santa Barbara. He did criminal defense and some family law out of a small office.
“It was just two rooms,” she recalls, one for her and one for him. There was no intercom, so they would just shout across the office.
She used an old-fashioned typewriter, and made carbon copies of correspondence.
“He paid me when he could,” she says with a smile, and sometimes she’d get a little extra.
“It worked out just fine,” she adds, noting that an employer “could never get away with that…today” because of wage-and-hour laws.
She loved the work, she says, so she took the LSAT and applied to law schools. Hastings College of the Law placed her on its admissions waiting list.
Unable to afford to wait, she says, so she flew up to San Francisco and told the admissions officer she needed to know whether she was going to be admitted or not. She apparently pled her case convincingly, because she was promised a spot.
Matthai “enjoyed [law school] thoroughly,” she says, clerking for a labor law firm until a transit strike “shut down San Francisco” and she decided “this just wasn’t for me.”
She also did a moot court presentation in her second year. The judge, San Francisco attorney Robert Leiff, was sufficiently impressed and promised her a summer clerkship.
But when she showed up after the spring term, Matthai recites, Leiff said:
“Who the hell are you?”
He wasn’t so sure he needed a summer clerk, but she insisted that he honor his word, and “he ultimately decided he really” did need help, Matthai recalls.
She wound up working there not only all summer, but nearly fulltime her senior year.
There were opportunities in San Francisco in 1976, Matthai says, but it was clear to her she would have been stuck in a library ”for the next few years” of her life if she stayed there. So she headed to Los Angeles instead, to be an associate in the litigation defense firm then known as Cummins White & Breidenbach.
Met Future Husband
It was there that she met “a wonderful young man named James Robie,” who had worked at the firm since his law school days. They moved in together in April 1977 and were married in May 1982.
The law firm, meanwhile, split into two entities, one of which was Breidenbach Swainston Yokaitis & Crispo, which Matthai and Robie joined.
They abruptly departed the firm in late 1986, Matthai recounts.
It was in September of that year, while she was in trial, that the male lawyers in the firm went off on what she calls “a boys’ weekend.” Her objections to the extracurricular activity, she says, were likely the trigger for the firm’s decision to ask her husband to leave, even though “he was the highest billing partner in the firm.”
It was not an auspicious time to leave high-paying jobs. Their daughter, Leigh Robie—now an associate at the firm her parents built, “much to my delight,” her mother says—had been born in March of that year and the couple did not have a lot in savings.
Nonetheless, Matthai says, they made the decision to open up a firm on Jan. 5, 1987, with two associates.
They got a break, she recounts, when a group of lawyers left the firm of Kirtland & Packard, which agreed to allow the upstart Robie & Matthai to move in with a six-month lease at Kirtland’s cost, plus an option for an additional six-month term.
Things started out better than expected, she says.
“Frankly, to our surprise, almost every case that either Jim and I were working on came with us to the new firm,” she notes.
They built the practice with major insurance clients, she explains, including bad-faith cases and matters involving complex coverage questions. Robie did a great deal of work nationwide for the State Farm companies, handling dozens of cases arising out of Hurricane Katrina.
They were also heavily involved in legal malpractice defense, which now forms the bulk of Matthai’s practice. In fact, she and Robie were handling legal malpractice cases from their days at the Breidenbach firm, although the volume of cases wasn’t great because “there weren’t that many jerks then,” she explains.
The firm also did “a lot of products liability and high-exposure casualty work,” but “over the years I stopped doing that,” she says.
She also defends judges in disciplinary cases before the Commission on Judicial Performance. It’s “very difficult work,” and very weighty realizing that the potential result of the case is that your client’s reputation will either be destroyed, or that he or she will be removed from office.
And when there’s success in avoiding those consequences, she adds, there’s no recognition, because the only cases that become public knowledge are the ones that are lost.
“I think the confidentiality is incredibly important,” she comments, because the commission investigates many “matters that don’t warrant discipline.” It would be unfair to allow good judges to “have their names besmirched” by “muckrakers” who file complaints because they dislike a judge personally or dislike his or her rulings.
Sometimes, she adds, a complaint may be filed because of a misunderstanding, which the confidentiality helps resolve.
“And sometimes, the charges are flat out false,” she asserts.
Even though some of her clients have been disciplined by the CJP, she defends it as an institution.
“Many times the commission and I have not agreed, but I don’t believe it’s driven by politics,” she says.
After four decades in the legal profession, she still speaks with discernible passion about it, and about her role in it. She lives in Pacific Palisades, and offers a simple formula for avoiding rush hour traffic: leave before it starts, and go home after it ends.
And she takes work home on the weekends.
“I’m incredibly blessed,” she says. “I really enjoy doing what I do. This profession has been a wonderful profession for me.”
Matthai, second from right in the back row, as a member of the Taft High School Tennis Team.
Matthai does have a life outside the law, she notes. She says she enjoys spending time with her daughter and son-in-law, and traveling, and is effusive when talking about her pride in her children.
Besides her daughter/associate, she has a son, Raymond Robie. The lone member of the immediate family to eschew the legal profession, he is pursuing a doctorate in physics at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and Matthai talks in earnest about his efforts at detection of gravitational waves.
Death of Husband
Her personal and professional lives were thrown into tumult in January 2011, when Robie died in a scuba diving accident off Catalina Island.
Two weeks later, she hosted an event at a Pacific Palisades country club, insisting that it be described as a celebration of her husband’s life and not a memorial. It was attended by 1,400 people, she says, not only from the legal and corporate worlds, but friends and neighbors and owners and employees of local businesses they had supported over the years.
“Jim had the ability to touch everybody he knew,” professionally and personally, she says. “…The outpouring of support was incredible.”
Matthai adds that the support of her peers in “an absolutely horrible situation” was especially uplifting, because it “confirmed that I was part of a very special community, I was where I belonged.”
The firm’s perservered she says, as she was already handling most of the administrative chores and the other attorneys at the firm—which has generally operated with about 16 or 17 lawyers in recent years—pushed forward.
“I was not fearful of the office side,” she explains, “I was terrified about how to run a house.”
She had always insisted on being in charge of the family finances—Robie “thought American Express should be paid quarterly,” she quips—but home maintenance and improvement “had been Jim’s hobby” and he handled 90 percent of problems related to the house.
“He grew up with a father who was mechanical and taught Jim,” she says. “He was 50 percent-plus with the kids, a phenomenal father with a great deal of energy.”
She has continued not only with the management of the practice but also with her professional and public service activities.
For many years, she notes, she was “not all that much involved with the County Bar,” working on a few projects but not aspiring to leadership. But over a dozen years ago, she recalls, she was invited to breakfast by Miriam Krinsky, the group’s president-elect at the time, and Richard Walch, who was the executive director.
Matthai was surprised, she says, that she was asked “to step into the chairs”—to climb the group’s leadership ladder, beginning as vice president for 2002-2003, ascending to president in 2005-2006. The County Bar “is quite extraordinary” in its service to the profession, she says, adding that “98 percent of the bar activists are wonderful.”
She expresses concern though, that law is becoming more of a business and less of a profession.
When Robie & Matthai began to grow in the 1980s, she explains, the difference between first-year associate pay there and at the largest firms in town was about $5,000.
“It’s probably $100,000, now,” she estimates. “The practice has become so centered on the bottom line, it’s changed everything about the profession.”
For one thing, she explains, young lawyers have no time to volunteer for bar association work or to serve on committees. “This is horrible for the legal profession,” she insists, because those activities provide a solid education in the law.
That kind of volunteerism, she remarks, has made her a better lawyer. She couldn’t do it, she says, “if I had to bill 2400 hours a year.”
The co-author of several law books, and prolific speaker or panelist at continuing education programs, cites her role as a member of the committee that wrote CACI, the standard jury instructions used in California civil cases.
“We had tremendous debates on what the law really was,” she relates.
It was like taking a course in legal writing, Matthai adds, and part of her role was trying to convince the judicial members of the committee of the correctness of her position based on issues she had actually encountered in the practice.
It was an “invaluable experience,” she says, the kind that “too many lawyers are missing.”
She also expresses dismay at the pace of progress for women in the legal profession. While things have certainly improved over time, she says, there are “a thousand factors” that are slowing the progression of women into law firm partnership and leadership roles.
“There are still attitudes”—on the part of men and women—“that look at women differently,” she opines. There remains tremendous pressure to balance work and family, she notes.
What enabled her to do it, she reflects—besides the tremendous support of her husband—was the fact she was “a third-generation working mother.”
Currently in her mid-60s, she says she has no reason to retire, or even to slow down.
“I have the incredible benefit of being in a small firm with people I…like,” who are practicing at a high level but “not trying to squeeze every last dollar out of what we do.” It enables her to avoid “a lot of that unhappiness” that has become a regular part of lawyer conversation, she says.
“As long as I believe I have the energy and all of my mental faculties, I will be practicing law,” she summarizes. “I’ve been blessed with good health and good genes.”
Regarding Edith Matthai: A brilliant lawyer who is, nonetheless, patient and respectful as to those less gifted.
Los Angeles Superior Court judge
Edith is a superb attorney, who is always prepared before she enters any courtroom.
State Bar president
Edith Matthai is one of the most incredible people I know. To begin with, her work as a trial lawyer sets an example for us all. For over 30 years, she has been trying cases across the state, with the utmost professionalism, and an amazing degree of success. She is pure magic in the courtroom. But, equally importantly, her leadership in the legal community is unparalleled. In every position she has held, she has put her “all” into it, managing difficult situations with sophistication, composure, and good sense. And, on top of everything else, Edith always maintains both a wonderful sense of humor and constant compassion for others. I have seen her, time after time, put others before herself. She is a wonderful friend, and very much deserves this award.
HEATHER LINN ROSING
Shareholder and CFO, Klinedinst, PC
Edith Matthai is one classy lawyer. She’s smart, she’s gracious, she’s ethical, she’s terrific in the courtroom, she’s everything you ever want in a lawyer and she’s very deserving of being a Person of the Year!
Kreindler & Kreindler
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