Metropolitan News-Enterprise

 

Wednesday, January, 20 2021

 

Special Section

 

PERSONALITY PROFILE:

 

NOWLAND C. HONG

 

Lawyer Is Leading Force in Bar Group Which Denied His Father Membership

 

T

ony Bennett famously lyricized what a difference a day can make, but Los Angeles attorney Nowland C. Hong knows, all too well, what a difference a generation can make.

   Hong’s father was the first Chinese-American graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, and has generally been regarded to have been the second Chinese-American admitted to practice law in the state of California upon taking a bar exam. But even after You Chung Hong—generally known as “Y.C. Hong”—earned his law license in 1923, he was denied membership to the Los Angeles County Bar Association because of his Chinese ancestry.

Nowland Hong not only became a leader within LACBA, he has helped document the evolution of the organization and the development of the practice of law in Los Angeles from 1950 until the present. Hong chaired the committee that brought “Lawyers of Los Angeles, 1950-2020,” published by LACBA last year, into being.

Former LACBA president and fellow METNEWS “Person of the Year” honoree Harry Hathaway led the fundraising effort for the book, which he conceived, as a second volume of “Lawyers of Los Angeles,” which came out in 1959. The new book recounts the development of practices unique to Los Angeles, with the entertainment industry highlighted.

“In the early years, the major law firms wouldn’t take on movie business clients,” Hong says.

The Jewish lawyers were the only ones who would serve such clients, and the Jewish lawyers were also shunned by LACBA back then, he notes.

Up until the 1950s, LACBA did not accept black lawyers either, Hong adds.

Things have changed markedly, he observes, saying it was “fascinating” to chronicle the history of the lawyers of Los Angeles.

He opines that the book is the “most complete history of legal practice in Los Angeles,” and while “the whole practice of law is changing” day to day, year to year, Hong says, the past is a great way to reflect on what has been, and to educate a younger generation on “what the practice of law is really all about.”

Hong was also a leading force behind LACBA’s reform movement which in 2016 defeated choices of the Nominating Committee for officer and trustee positions, instituting a policy of openness and restraint on spending.

Father’s Practice

Hong was born Dec. 7, 1934 in Los Angeles. His father maintained a busy immigration law practice in Chinatown, and his mother, Mabel, was a homemaker.

Hong’s father worked long hours and was not home often, but he would take the time to attend USC football games, with his two sons in tow.

 

Nowland Hong is seen on lap of father, attorney Y.C. Hong, in late 1930s. Nowland was the first of two sons born to You and Mable Hong. His younger brother, Roger Hong, is deceased.

 

 

Hong says these games are some of his favorite childhood memories.

Another thing the family enjoyed was going out to dinner and trying different restaurants.

Hong says his father had been very poor as a child, and never had enough to eat. As an adult, therefore, the elder Hong placed importance on having a good meal.

Despite the discrimination that faced his father, Hong says he was fortunate enough to feel comfortable always with who he was.

“Culturally, I didn’t feel out of place at all,” Hong says.

At home, the family spoke English, and Hong admits that his command of Chinese is lacking.

Hong headed off to Pomona College after graduating from Los Angeles High School without a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He ended up majoring in economics, even though he quickly realized he was “much better with words than numbers.”

Law school then began to appeal, Hong says, since he thought “it dealt mostly with words.”

Off to USC

Since his father had gone to USC, Hong says he decided “that was the place to go.”

He earned his law degree in 1960 and passed the bar exam that year, being admitted to practice on Jan.11, 1961.

Even though the members of the bar had diversified in the 40 years since his father had been admitted, Hong said it was still difficult for ethnic minorities to find jobs. His father’s friend, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge McIntyre Faries, recommended that he apply at the office of City Attorney Roger Arnebergh.

Hong was hired, and his first assignment was in “the pit.” Hong remembers the position was essentially working with people who couldn’t afford legal services but needed legal advice.

He says the position showed him how sheltered his childhood had been, as he was helping clients with problems he had never known to exist.

Hong’s second assignment was in arraignments, then he got some trial experience in traffic court.

After that, he moved to the appellate division. One of the cases he handled there was People v. Randazzo. The Court of Appeal for this district on Sept. 30, 1963, affirmed the conviction of a woman for shoplifting, agreeing with the city prosecutors that evidence that was unlawfully seized was properly admitted where it was procured not by police, but by employees of a department store, rejecting the appellant’s contention that recent case law commanded a different result.

Among other cases he handled were these:

Miller v. Municipal Court, March 16, 1967. An unnamed Los Angeles Municipal Court judge (Alan Campbell), who presided in Division 22, found a deputy city public defender in contempt for arriving in court 26 minutes late. He was late because his supervisor had instructed him to wait for an affidavit of prejudice against the judge, which was being prepared. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted a petition setting aside the contempt adjudication and the Municipal Court appealed. The court was represented by the Office of County Counsel and the City Attorney’s Office—the person of Hong—acted for the attorney. The Court of Appeal found that “Judge Twenty-two used his undoubted power to adjudicate a contempt, too eagerly.”

Ulmer v. City of Los Angeles, July 9, 1968. A woman was on the premises of the Griffith Park Observatory when an announcement was made that it was closing; she and her companions tarried; it closed; the lights went out; in the dark, she continued on in hopes of finding her car, stumbled and fell, injuring herself and suing the city. Summary judgment was granted by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on the ground that she should have stayed put until daylight. The Court of Appeal rejected Hong’s contention that the woman was at least contributorily negligent (which in those days would have barred recovery), holding that there was a triable issue as to whether woman had displayed any negligence.

McCorkle v. City of Los Angeles, Jan. 30, 1969. Affirming a $45,000 Ventura Superior Court judgment, pursuant to a jury verdict, the California Supreme Court held that the City of Los Angeles was not immune from liability where a motorist, injured in a traffic accident on Pacific Coast Highway, was taken into the intersection by a Los Angeles police officer who wanted to examine skid marks. The man was hit by a car while in a perilous spot.

Hong, assigned the case after a change of venue,  represented the city at trial—one which the Oxnard Press Courier on June 25, 1965 termed “a unique lawsuit,” noting: “The lawsuit was thought to be the first case in which the City of Los Angeles has appeared, as a defendant before an Oxnard jury.”

Harbor Department

Hong went on to become the chief general counsel for the county’s Board of Harbor Commissioners. He says this job was a lesson in “true practical economics”—a subject not covered in college.

Looking back, Hong laughs and admits his “econ” major didn’t do him much good.

In representing the board, he appeared on Dec. 4, 1970 at a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council’s Industry and Transportation Committee. A member of that committee, Robert M. Wilkinson, moved to recommend approval by the full council of a $25 million Harbor Department revenue bond issue, but with the proviso that priorities for the development of the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro be subject to approval by the committee and the councilman of the district, Council President John S. Gibson.

Hong insisted that the Harbor Department—one of the city’s three independent departments—had the sole power to determine priorities. The Los Angeles Times reported, the next morning:

“But Hong insisted that the commission could not delegate power to the council for approval of priorities.

“Wilkinson maintained that all the commission had to do was attach a list of priorities to a commission order, which would make them binding.

“Hong again, however, argued that was illegal, which drew a retort from Wilkinson that when he was secretary of the commission, for eight years, such a procedure was not uncommon.”

Hong’s Counseling

That was not the only time the young Hong acted in an effort to rein in public officials.

•The April 15, 1971 issue of the Long Beach Press-Telegram reports that a harbor commissioner claimed he had not discussed a particular matter with any other member of the commission or anyone else connected with the department except Hong, saying:

“Mr. Hong advises me we would be in violation of the Brown Act if more than two commissioners met in private with the staff to discuss this problem. If we have to discuss the matter in an open public meeting, then so be it.”

•That newspaper on July 1, 1971 told of the Harbor Commission approving salary boosts to department employees except for the four top executives, with Hong warning that the elimination of those executives “probably is illegal and subject to lawsuit.”

•The Press-Telegram’s Nov. 30, 1971 edition relates that the commission’s majority voted to reshuffle duties off the general manager and the department’s chief engineer. It says:

Nowland Hong, deputy city attorney, suggested the switch in responsibilities might be in violation of the City Charter which states that the general manager is responsible for operation of the Harbor Department.”

Private Practice

After Arnebergh lost his bid for reelection in 1973 to challenger Burt Pines, Hong headed into private practice. He joined the firm that is now Parker, Milliken, Clark, O’Hara & Samuelian.

 

Hong is seen presiding in 2017 at a meeting staged jointly by the Senior Lawyers Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, of which he was chair, and the Italian American Lawyers Association. Southwestern Law School Dean Susan Westerberg Prager accepted the Senior Lawyers’ “Trailblazers of the Year Award” honoring, posthumously, Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer, a Southwestern alumnus who supported the school’s activities through the years.

 

 

While at that firm, Hong handled several high-profile cases, including the Big Rock Mesa Malibu Landslide litigation. He represented the County of Los Angeles and its related flood control districts, and negotiated a settlement in 1989 of one of the largest inverse condemnation actions along the California coast: $97 million going to 240 Malibu hillside homeowners for damaged suffered from a massive 1983 landslide.

The settlement obviated the need for a massive trial, slated to get underway the next month.

Also:

•Hong in 1979 obtained a $340,800 jury award against the City of Los Angeles in favor of an ousted Harbor Department traffic manager based on defamation. The widely publicized trial included testimony by Mayor Tom Bradley, Wilkerson and another member of the City Council.

That award was, however, snatched by the Court of Appeal for this district in 1982 in an opinion that declared the traffic manager to have been a public figure, holding that there had not been the required showing of knowledge of the falsity of statements made against him or reckless disregard of the truth.

•He also represented Del E. Webb Corp, one of the construction companies sued in the wake of the Nov. 21, 1980 MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas, and negotiated the first and lowest settlement of any defendant involved in the litigation.

The Los Angeles Times on March 18, 1985 quoted Hong as saying that the action against Del Webb by Union International Insurance Co., MGM’s primary insurer, was “pretty frivolous,” adding:

“I think we are here because Del Webb had very adequate insurance, and Union saw another deep pocket to go after.”

Under the $76 million settlement, reported on April 1, 1985, Del Webb was to pay $11.2 million.

•The lawyer represented the County of Los Angeles in an action against it based on its welfare application procedures being confusing and daunting. The Times on Feb. 13, 1990 reported that reforms in the system the county had instituted in 1986, relating:

“ ‘There is no question the position of the county in defending itself has been vindicated,’ said Nowland C. Hong, who represented the county in the lawsuit. Hong said the judge’s ruling was a complete victory for the county.”

Represents Long Beach

Hong later moved to Brown, Winfield, & Canzoneri, and from there, to Akerman Senterfitt. While with Akerman Senterfitt, he represented the City of Long Beach in an action by Leonard McSherry, who had been convicted of kidnaping, raping, and molesting a six-year-old girl, and spent nearly 14 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. McSherry sued the city, claiming police officers planted evidence.

On Jan. 26, 2004, District Court Judge E. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of the city on the basis of qualified immunity; the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on Sept. 8, 2005, holding that McSherry should have been allowed to present evidence on the issue; Klausner on May 15, 2006, granted summary judgment to the city, again based on qualified immunity; the Ninth Circuit affirmed, but on a different basis: that if any evidence had been planted, it played no role in the arrest or prosecution of McSherry.

Hong also practiced with Wickwire Gavin, and Hong landed at Best, Best & Krieger (“BB&K”), where he is now, in 2010.

Law Firm’s Praise

John Holloway, managing partner of the BB&K Los Angeles office, comments:

Nowland is smart, tenacious, witty and always a real pleasure to work with.”

He opines that the METNEWS “Person of the Year” award “confirms what we at BB&K have known for years.”

BB&K partner and Municipal Law Practice Group leader Scott Campbell says he has worked with Hong for two decades, and he is “so happy” that Hong’s “lifetime of work” is being recognized.

 He says Hong is “a great and thoughtful attorney who deeply cares about his clients, the community and the importance of practicing law with the highest of ethics.”

BB&K partner Christopher Pisano relates that Hong “has been a mentor and friend for most of my legal career.” He says that Hong “is a brilliant lawyer who has always been there to help me understand some of the most complex legal issues,” and “it has been an honor to have worked with Nowland.

Friendship With Pellman

Former Los Angeles County Counsel Lloyd “Bill” Pellman says he first met Hong right after the MGM settlement, while Hong was working on the landslide case.

“I joked he went from the fire into the frying pan,” Pellman recalls, but “we became good friends as a result of his good work for the county on the Mesa litigation.”

 

Hong on June 27, 2018 accepted the Matthew S. Rae Jr. Outstanding Section Leader Award from then-Los Angeles County Bar Association President Brian Kabateck, left; past-LACBA President Charles Michaels jointly received the award. Hong was the 2017-18 chair of the Senior Lawyers Section which Michaels headed in 2018-19. The presentation took place at LACBA’s installation dinner.

 

Pellman, now a partner with Nossaman LLP, says Hong is “a very humble man,” but “the most solid attorney you could possibly have.”

Hong is “methodical,” and it is “good solid legal work with a good combination of facts that are presented which brings him to victory time after time,” Pellman says.

He characterizes Hong as “a true gentleman inside and outside the courtroom,” who constantly “understates his abilities” in a manner that is charming.

In fact, Pellman says, his wife, Kathleen, admits having had a “school-girl-type crush” on Hong.

Pellman says he also decided to join Brown Winfield when he retired as county counsel’s because Hong was the managing partner.

Working with Hong was “such a treat,” Pellman says. And speaking of treats, Pellman says, he also recalls that after work each day, Hong’s evening ritual included feeding his beloved German Shepherd a chunk of brie cheese.

It was not just the dog who had a sophisticated palate, Pellman says. Noting that Hong has “excellent taste” in food and wine—adding that he is also a “great dining companion.”

Phillips Comments

Past LACBA President and Senior Lawyer Section co-founder Patricia Phillips says she has also been the beneficiary of Hong’s gastronomical expertise.

She recalls, with delight, an occasion where Hong took her and a group of friends out for an “extraordinary” dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Pasadena.

The normally quiet Hong “was ebullient,” Phillips recalls. “He was in his element.”

Hong appeared to know everyone at the restaurant, Phillips says, and everyone seemed to know him. Hong “was ordering things I have never tasted in my life,” Phillips says, but it was all “wonderful, just wonderful.”

Hong says the things he appreciates most about his career have been the opportunities to travel and meet people from all over the nation.

His work has taken him to so many places, so often, that his late wife, Mary, once asked if he was actually in a witness protection program.

He and Mary met while he was at Parker Milliken. She was the secretary to his friend, John O’Hara. The couple married in 1990, with Mary Hong taking on the role of step-mother to Hong’s three children from a prior marriage. Mary Hong died in 2017.

Hong says the fun thing about law is that it is “problem-solving”—it is about “resolving things and achieving things that are beneficial,” not beating an adversary, as he views it.

Of course, he says, he likes to win, but the point to that is accomplishing a goal for a client.

Hong also says he is gratified that he has been able to practice outside the Asian community.

There are a lot of Asian-American attorneys in the wider practice of law now, but that wasn’t the case when he started out, and definitely not for his father.

Hong says his father was a mentor for many Chinese-American attorneys and showed them they could be successful in practicing law.

He has also been doing his part to carry on his father’s legacy. He was a founder in 1975 of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, serving two terms as president; he’s a lifetime member of the group and remains on its Board of Advisors. Hong was elected Aug. 10, 1975, as “grand president” of the national Chinese American Citizens Alliance, of which he had served as “grand vice president” and “grand secretary.”

Albert Lum was the founding president of the SCCLA (succeeded by Hong). He says that Hong’s career has been so full of accomplishments, he’s not sure that he’s aware of them all.

From Hong’s government service to his private practice, Lum says, “Nowland has been an outstanding activist in the legal profession and in the community.”

‘Ardent Supporter’

Attorney Bill Tan of Tan & Sakiyama was also a founding member of SCCLA.

Hong “has been an ardent supporter of SCCLA from the beginning,” and “he continues to support the organization to this day,” Tan says.

While Hong “comes from a great lineage” with his father being highly successful as an attorney, Tan says, Hong “has distinguished himself in his own right” as “the go-to guy” for any government and litigation-related issue.

Tan recalls in the fledgling days of the group, they used to meet in Hong’s office.

When SCCLA started in 1975, Tan had just been admitted to the State Bar, and he says there was a generation gap between him and other recent graduates, with already established Chinese-American attorneys.

Tan says his experiences as a “boomer” were markedly different from those of practitioners like Hong and Hong’s father, so he considered it a testament to Hong’s leadership for being able to have the “old school with the young bucks” working together for common goals.

Even when the members were at odds with each other, Tan says, Hong was “unflappable,” as he says Hong always is.

Hong “has a demeanor about him, like he always seems to be dressed in a tuxedo even when he is not,” Tan comments. “He is a gentleman all the way through, a professional all the way through.”

In the legal community, Hong is also a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and the Chancery Club. He served as chair of the LACBA Senior Lawyers Section in 2016.

Hathaway, one of the co-founders of the Senior Lawyers Section, says he cannot sing Hong’s praises enough.

“Nowland is a pioneer who is the son of a pioneer who inherited the pioneer spirit,” Hathaway says. On top of that, he’s kind, generous, and “always there to help other people.”

‘Gentleman,’ ‘Scholar’

LACBA Past President Michael Meyer says Hong is “a true gentleman as well as a scholar.”

Meyer jokes that Hong has a talent for making him pick up the check when they go out for meals together, but says that Hong is a “great lawyer, a great teacher, and a truly nice guy.”

John Carson, a LACBA past president and former Senior Lawyers Section chair, says he has also seen how much work Hong devotes to the bar.

“He’s probably putting in more time than most anyone else these days,” Carson says.

“Nowland is a quiet guy,” Carson adds, “but one thing I’ve learned about quiet people is they think a lot, so you ought to pay attention when they speak.”

This adage holds true when it comes to Hong, Carson says, as “about 100 percent of the time, when he says something, he says something that is worth listening to.”

Former LACBA President Charles Michaels similarly recounts that Hong is “extraordinary thoughtful, well-spoken and diplomatic.”

Michaels says Hong “has an ability to master a complex set of facts and then apply a vast wealth of knowledge and experience, and from that he comes up with the best possible courses of action,” in legal cases and civic organizations alike.

“I think the world of Nowland,” Michaels says. “And he’s an absolutely superb lawyer.”

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley says that Hong is “a fixture” in the Los Angeles legal community, just as his father had been.

Hong always has “a big smile, and genuine hearty laugh” every time they meet up, Cooley says. “He is the kind of guy you want to be around, in any setting”—from Chancery Club meetings to a tailgate party at a USC game, Cooley proclaims.

“He is shy, but not in a bad way,” Cooley adds. “It shows he is thoughtful, that he listens to people.”

Antonovich Comments

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich says he has known Hong, and Hong’s father, “for decades.” He says Hong “comes from good stock,” and is a “superb role model, just as his father was.”

Hong is “civic-minded,” and has excelled in “following in his father’s footsteps and retaining the integrity and honor of his profession,” Antonovich says.

District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew of the Central District of California says he is grateful to both Hong and his father.

The elder Hong had helped Lew’s family immigrate to the United States when Lew was a child, and the younger had interviewed him when he was a new attorney looking to join the City Attorney’s Office.

Lew says the younger Hong is “a chip off the old block,” as he has “the greatest admiration” for both generations of the Hong family.

“[Y.C. Hong] was a leader in the civil rights movement for Chinese Americans,” as well as “a tremendous lawyer and person,” Lew says. “Nowland followed in his footsteps in all these things.”

While both men “are absolutely amazing,” Lew says, “humble is the key word for both.”

—S.O., A.R.

 

COMMENT:

 

Congratulations to Nowland Hong for the well-earned recognition as Person of the Year.

I met Nowland, not sure I can count that far back. Let’s just say our bar numbers were in the thirty thousand range, only five numbers. His bar number was a few thousand numbers lower than mine. That means he was admitted to practice two years before I took the oath administered by then Chief Justice, Phil Gibson.

Nowland was then with the City Attorney’s Office, I believe in the civil division. I was a brand new lawyer in the criminal division. I learned how to try a case watching three attorneys in action, my fellow deputy city attorneys Johnny Cochran, Charlie Lloyd and Nowland Hong. I saw Nowland in court in just one case, and the impression lasted over the years.

A particularly vindictive Municipal Court Judge had held a deputy public defender in contempt for spurious reasons. I watched Nowland, representing the deputy public defender stand up to the arrogant judge and frame his arguments with reason and the right amount of passion. Wonder if that had anything to do with the abolishment of the Municipal Court a few decades later.

I admired Nowland then and nothing has changed over the decades. He is a first rate lawyer who embodies the highest ideals of the legal profession. Congratulations to Nowland, on this well-deserved honor.

—ARTHUR GILBERT

Presiding Justice,

Second District Court of Appeal

Div. Six

 

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