Thursday, January 12, 2017
PERSONS OF THE YEAR 2016:
Onetime Auto Racer and Entertainment Lawyer Guides ‘Active and Activist’ Bar Association
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
arc Staenberg’s done a lot. In a lot of places.
He’s been a law student in New Jersey, where he was a research assistant to a future U.S. Supreme Court justice; a government lawyer in Washington, D.C., and an entertainment lawyer—as well as a professional race car driver—in California. Today, at age 69, he is the chief executive officer—the title was changed from executive director, consistent with corporate practice, about eight years ago—of the Beverly Hills Bar Association and Foundation, the rare example of a practicing lawyer transitioning into fulltime bar administration.
And it’s a fascinating story as to how he got there.
That story began in Newark, N.J. where he was born, and nearby South Orange, where he grew up. He went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in psychology, with plans to study for a doctorate.
That plan was disrupted, however, by the Vietnam War. Graduating in 1969 and concerned with his draft status, he took some time off, then decided to return to an earlier plan, to study law.
That decision made his father, who had hoped to go to law school but couldn’t due to Depression-era economics, quite happy, he says. He attended Rutgers Law School in Newark, and took a serious interest in international law.
In fact, he became president of the Rutgers Society of International Law, and an active member of the American Society of International Law.
Worked for Ginsburg
And he became a research assistant to Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“In those days, some of the formalities of law school had become informal, and professors and students were on a first-name basis,” he recalls. “Not Professor Ginsburg. She was always Professor Ginsburg, and I was always Mr. Staenberg,” he says.
The formality continued after both went to Washington, D.C., he as a government lawyer and she as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, he notes. But when he wrote to congratulate her on her appointment to the Supreme Court, her thank-you note—now framed and hanging on the wall of Staenberg’s office—bore the salutation “Dear Marc” and was signed “Ruth.”
His reaction: “I feel I have arrived.”
His interest in international law led to work for the government, he recounts.
Following the March 1968 killings of at least 347 civilians by U.S. soldiers in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, he organized a panel discussion on “Vietnam and the Nuremburg Principles.” Among the panelists was since-retired Gen. Robert Gard Jr., who held a prominent position at the Pentagon and later served in Vietnam.
Gard, who after his retirement became an arms control advocate and acerbic critic of the Iraq War, was an articulate speaker and “wowed the audience,” Staenberg recalls. The two stayed in touch, and Gard helped him land a summer job working for the Army chief of staff.
Marc Staenberg while at an auto race in 1990.
That led to a permanent position, after graduation, at the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Office of General Counsel, or OSD/OGI, at the Pentagon. He recalls that there were 24 lawyers in the office, and he may have been the only one hired directly out of law school.
Relocating to California
He spent two years there, then moved to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a senior attorney, a post he held for five years. That job frequently brought him to California, often on business relating to the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and sparked an interest in relocating here.
But when he talked to law firms, he recounts, he discovered little interest in hiring a lawyer who wasn’t admitted here—he belonged to the New Jersey and District of Columbia bars—and had no clients of his own. So in 1980, he recounts, he “just got in the car” and came west.
He was lucky, he says, because one of the firms that he had spoken to earlier, Grayson, Gross, Friedman & Phillips in Westwood, had gone into hiring mode, and gave him a job months before he became a member of the State Bar.
The firm assigned him to its litigation department. Soon, he says, he “sort of attached” himself to the partner doing entertainment law, Lee Colton.
The partners allowed him to work on whatever lawsuits grew out of Colton’s practice, which brought him into increasing contact with the entertainment world, which in turn led him to decide that he wanted to develop his own entertainment practice, he says. Relying in part on accountants and business managers he had met through the firm, he and his second cousin, Richard “Rick” Ross, formed Staenberg & Ross, also with offices in Westwood.
Ultimately, he moved away from litigation toward transactional work, joined the Beverly Hills Bar Association, and became active in its Entertainment Law Section.
He enjoyed his involvement, he says, because it was “an opportunity to interact with other lawyers,” much as he had when he was organizing speaker programs at Rutgers. He eventually chaired the section, but in January 1999, he says, he concluded it was time for another change.
“I woke up and said I was finished with practicing law,” he declares.
He had been practicing on his own since the breakup of Staenberg & Ross in 1985, and arranged to merge his practice into the firm of Tisdale & Nicholson, becoming of counsel. The arrangement proved a successful one, he says, for him, the firm, and the clients.
BHBA Leadership Ladder
Stepping away from the day-to-day work of a lawyer enabled him to spend more time with his parents before they died, and to take on a new role as president and chief executive officer of the Society of Singers, a charity that helps singers in need. He also agreed to become secretary/treasurer of the BHBA, the first step on the ladder towards the presidency.
His role at the Society of Singers ended in 2002, and he was contemplating returning to the practice of law, when he and the BHBA experienced what he remembers as “a huge and scary shock to the system.”
Elementary school photo from 1969.
In December 2003, while he was president-elect, the BHBA learned that its controller, David Wolfe, had embezzled more than $800,000 from the association and its related foundation, leaving the organization with a “bare cupboard,” as Staenberg once told a reporter. As the group’s executive committee held frequent emergency meetings to deal with the crisis, the president-elect agreed to move into the association’s offices to help its beleaguered chief executive, Bert Tigerman, who retired a few months later.
With Tigerman leaving, Staenberg was named interim executive director, in addition to being the president-elect. “And I’ve been here ever since,” he notes.
The situation he walked into was challenging, he says, but the group eventually recovered, for which he credits the “stamina” of the leadership and the loyalty of the membership and staff. Many members stepped forward with emergency contributions, lines of credit were established in order to pay bills, and most of the money was recovered via settlements with potentially responsible banks and insurance companies.
Wolfe, who apparently lost substantially all of the money gambling, was sentenced to 33 months in prison.
“After 18 months we were able to report the state of the bar was good,” Staenberg says. “…We didn’t cancel or curtail a single program or event, we grew membership, we grew sponsorships.”
While the experience was horrible to go through, Staenberg says, it actually made the group stronger.
“This bar, which has always been active and activist, experienced a renaissance of increased activity and increased activism as a result of this crucible that it went through,” he remarks.
Becomes Executive Director
Taking the permanent executive directorship meant that he would have to forego his term as president. But in “one of the most touching, most appreciated things that has ever happened to me,” the board asked him to take the oath and serve as president for a week before resigning, so that he will always have the honor of being a past president.
The BHBA’s ability to survive, and even thrive, despite crises was tested again, not long after it emerged from the Wolfe debacle, by the Great Recession of 2008. The national economy collapsed just as the association was seeking funding to move from its modest office space on Beverly Drive, where it had been located since 1967.
The association told its members—and prospective members—that “when things get tough…you need the bar more than ever,” Staenberg says. “People responded to that,” and in 2012 the BHBA moved to its spacious headquarters in the Rolex Building on Wilshire Boulevard.
The association has 7,500 square feet of space on the second floor, housing its executive offices plus several conference rooms, and about 2,000 square feet on the first floor for mail facilities, filing, storage, and the like.
History of Association
While it is one of many local bar groups in Los Angeles County, Staenberg expresses an appreciation of the unique role the BHBA—which is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year—has played historically, and plays today.
The founding of the association, he explains, was directly related to the fact that racial and religious minorities were discriminated against, and excluded, by rule or custom, from joining professional groups, including the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
So a small group of lawyers, several—but not all—Jewish, formed the BHBA as an “inclusive and expansive” association, Staenberg says.
“It is no accident,” he says, that the group has continued to take stands on issues of social justice, “that [it] started the mental health advocacy service,” and that it filed the lead amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage rights in the California Supreme Court.
It has even played a role on the international stage, he notes, as when it pushed for, and obtained, a meeting between bar leaders, including Staenberg, and the Pakistani consul general to protest the jailing of thousands of lawyers and judges by the Musharraf dictatorship in 2007. While other bar groups around the United States were involved in protests, Staenberg said the BHBA was apparently the only one that got to meet with a “preeminent diplomat.”
After the consul general gave them “the official response,” he recalls, the group gave him letters addressed to some of the jailed lawyers and judges whose names they had obtained.
“It gave us a bit of a surprise,” he says, when they started receiving letters from Pakistan thanking them for their efforts. “We’re proud of moments like that,” Staenberg says.
(Musharraf resigned months after the jailings, amid threat of impeachment stemming in part from his suspension of the authority of the judiciary.)
But the association doesn’t rest on its history, Staenberg insists.
“I’d like to think our best days are ahead of us,” he says of the 5,000-plus member group, which includes in its ranks, and among its leadership, lawyers from around the county, not just from the Westside.
Cooking at home.
Dues, he notes, are only $549, which includes access to free MCLE online and low-cost in-person MCLE, often with breakfast, lunch, or dinner. “A lot of what we do revolves around food,” he says with a smile.
One of the great things about the BHBA’s location, Staenberg says, is that it is seven minutes from the home he shares with his wife, psychologist Lu Katzman-Staenberg. She has three children from a previous marriage, and one grandchild.
His office is loaded with golf trophies. He says he started playing as a teenager and “got serious again” about it “a dozen or so years ago,” although he says he has little time for it these days because he has a “fulltime gig.” His present post is more time-consuming than his law practice was, he says.
He describes himself as a fan of all sports, who used to attend Dodgers, Lakers and Raiders—before the team left Los Angeles—games. One sport he doesn’t follow avidly, he says, is auto racing.
Race Car Driver
The thrill of the sport is in the participation, he insists, having spent five years on the professional circuit in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His wife, he recounts, signed him up for a week at the racing school run by Bob Bondurant, a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, as a birthday gift. The school—which has since moved to Chandler, Ariz.—was located in Sonoma County at the time.
One of his classmates was actress Marsha Mason, whom he describes as “one of our dear friends” and with whom he formed a racing team.
“I loved it,” he says, but the sport is “wildly expensive” to participate in—the team had some sponsorship, but not enough to cover all of its costs. He crashed twice, he notes, escaping injury on one occasion but crushing his left ankle on the other.
He ran his last race in 1993. “But my bag is packed,” he insists with a serious expression, “if someone has a seat they want to give me.”
His motivation for racing was, in part, to experience “the thrill of competition.” But beyond that, he says, “being able to drive…at the edge of the envelope” is “one of those things that, when you do it well…is very elegant.”
After all of the different things he has done, he says, “people keep asking” him what the future holds. He denies having given it much thought.
“I feel very grateful that at this age and stage, I’m doing something that I enjoy, that’s challenging,” he says.
As a longtime practitioner with no managerial experience when he took the job, “the learning curve was straight up,” as he describes it. “I’m still learning, but the curve is beginning to feel a bit more comfortable.”
When Marc Staenberg first crossed the threshold of his office as Chief Executive Officer of the Beverly Hills Bar Association there surfaced an apothegm: “A small step for Marc, a giant leap for the Beverly Hills Bar Association.” (Leading grammarians have approved the preceding sentence). He has been described as supernal, a thaumaturge by the more erudite members of the bar. Others refer to him in more ordinary terms: awesome, effective, brilliant, indefatigable, adroit, proficient, and masterful.
I have seen the exceptional Marc Staenberg in action. Dedicated to bringing justice to the community and fostering the highest standards of legal skills and ethics among its members, Marc has made the Beverly Hills Bar Association one of the leading bar associations in the country.
Congratulations Marc. You are most deserving of this honor which recognizes your long lasting achievements that continue to enrich the legal community and the public at large year and after year.
ARTHUR K. GILBERT
Presiding justice, Court of Appeal,
Second District, Div. Six
Marc Staenberg is a real mensch, and a tremendously effective bar executive. At a time when membership in many voluntary bar associations is decreasing, under Marc’s guidance, the membership in the Beverly Hills Bar Association has grown to new heights. And he also has great taste in wine, among other things.
Immediate past president,
State Bar of California
Marc Staenberg stepped in at the most serious crisis the Beverly Hills Bar ever experienced. When all of our money was stolen, he calmed the waters, retained the staff and—working with the officers (he was, at that time, President-Elect) and the board—helped restore the BHBA. He helped obtained funds form our insurance and other sources and retained the members. He restored the BHBA and set us on a path of strength and relevancy. He also has a gift of supporting each new President of the BHBA to achieve their individual vision for their year. Marc is the essence of the BHBA and the great achievements of the BHBA are due to his efforts and work. I am so happy that he is being honored by the METNEWS.
MARC L. SALLUS
Oldman, Cooley, Sallus, Birnberg & Coleman, LLP.;
Past President, Beverly Hills Bar Association;
Trustee, Los Angeles County Bar Association
Marc is often known as the "heart and soul" of the Beverly Hills Bar Association. but for his vision and follow through we would probably still be in that decrepit building on Beverly Drive. It was his vision of what we could become that resulted in our move to the deluxe Rolex Building on Wilshire Blvd. However we are a national/internationally well known are renowned Bar Association not merely because of our physical plaint but because of our activities. Few people realize that, we are at our core a civil rights Bar Association. That is the reason that, we took an early stand of marriage equality, and all the other big civil rights issues- our Amicus Committee is extremely active because Marc again has a vision of not rejecting or denying divergent viewpoints.
As the CEO, he encourages dissent as a method of reaching a true consensus. Because of Marc’s leadership the Beverly Hills Bar Association is known as the place where all view points are welcome and all view points are encouraged.
One little known fact is that the BHBA Ladder is five years, and during that time Marc, runs an unofficial leadership academy which trains our leaders to be committed to the association in addition to our greater community. Marc leads by encouraging everyone to become more authentically who they are.
It was an honor to have served with Marc—he is an exceptional and extraordinary person of the year.
Karpman & Associates
No one is more deserving of this recognition that Marc Staenberg. He’s the hardest working person in California bar association administration, and at the same time the most gracious.
KENT L. RICHLAND
Partner, Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland LLP
I am Marc Staenberg’s biggest fan! He is solely responsible for saving the Beverly Hills Bar Association from total destruction. He became Chief Executive Officer when the Bar Association was recovering from massive in-house theft of funds and the membership was at its lowest ebb.
Marc took control of the Association and through his remarkable talents has made the Beverly Hills Bar Association into the finest Bar Association in the United States.
I salute Marc for his integrity, dedication and devotion to the legal profession and the Beverly Hills Bar Association.
FREDERICK M. NICHOLAS
Founder and first president, Public Counsel;
Former director, ACLU Foundation of Southern California
Marc Staenberg is a unique individual, combing wit , wisdom, energy, dedication and a passion for the Bar which is unequaled in “bar land.” We are fortunate that he was the President of the Bar, and for more than a decade has been the professional guiding the organization.
On behalf of every member of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, we thank you!
HOWARD S. FISHER
President, Beverly Hills Bar Association
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company