Tuesday, June 25, 2002
Coleman Looks Back on Bar Presidency, Changing Legal Profession
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Trial lawyer Roland Coleman, 52, has a long history in bar activities. He was one of the founding members of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Inn of Court, and he was active in the County Barís Litigation Section and served on its executive panel.
He also served as president of the John M. Langston Bar Association, an organization founded by African American lawyers in the days when they were not welcome in the County Bar. Those days of racial restrictions are long past, but Coleman has cautionary stories from his own career about bias in conference rooms and courtrooms. He became only the second minority attorney to lead the County Bar when he became president last July.
A graduate of USC in 1971 and Loyola Law School in 1974, Coleman parlayed a law clerkship at the Los Angeles City Attorneyís Office into an assignment trying cases, then moved to the California Department of Transportation where he compiled an impressive string of courtroom victories defending the state against lawsuits.
In 1986, he joined the downtown Los Angeles office of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman and Dicker, a New York-based firm, where today he is a partner. Coleman remains primarily a defense lawyer, handling professional and products liability actions, as well as copyright infringement.
As his year as Los Angeles County Bar Association president draws to a close, he spoke with the MetNews about his accomplishments, his regrets, and the challenges of balancing a law practice with bar leadership and the demands of home and family.
Q: You faced a rare challenge when you were first nominated to be a County Bar trustee in the 1990s. What happened?
A: I had the distinction of being part of the last group that was ever challenged. It had to do with the issue of choice. There was a membership vote at a meeting at the Bonaventure Hotel when Andrea Ordin was the incoming president, and it resulted in a huge split in the bar. There was another slate nominated by this fellow Dick Coleman, a former County Bar president, the first one who was not taken off the leadership ladder but ran at-large. I won, but I had to spend money to campaign. We sent out fliers and mailers. So it was an experience in terms of standing up for principle.
Then later there was the shooting of Latasha Harlins, a black girl, by a Korean grocer, and the judge gave her a probation sentence. There was a recall campaign in the community to recall the judge, Joyce Karlin. The County Bar was opposed because they thought the recall was an attempt to impair the independence of the courts. Pat Kelly [managing partner of Colemanís firm] was County Bar president and chairman of the State Courts Committee, so he was very close to the judges. Pat and I talked in the office, and we realized we were going to take different positions. And I was a non-equity partner at the time, up for equity partnership.
So we go into the [County Bar] meeting. Andrea Ordin is the president. I made some comments about how I appreciate the independence of the courts, I understand the desire for that. But these kinds of concerns of respect have to be a two-way street. You want to the courts to be independent, but they have to respect the people who appear before them. Not only the litigants but also the attorneys.
I had a case a couple years ago in Glendale where the judge told me in front of my client that I should settle the case because a black lawyer canít win in Glendale. I told that story at the meeting. There was a tie vote among trustees and it came down to Andrea Ordin having to cast the deciding vote. And she voted with my sideóto not condemn the recall campaign against the judge.
Q: A judge told you in front of your client that a black lawyer canít win in Glendale?
A: Yes. I had a situation like that in Fullerton, too, in 1995 where we represented a McDonalds. The clientís personal lawyer said, ďWell, Mr. Coleman, weíre doing okay. But what happens when we go before a jury? This is Fullerton. Youíre a black lawyer.Ē Itís not me being paranoid. He brought it up, I didnít bring it upóbeing a black person in a white community.
Attorneys are very race-conscious. And for a good reason I think. Our society isóthereís diversity but no direct understanding of each other.
Q: When Miriam Krinsky succeeds you she will be the first public sector lawyer to lead the County Bar, and she will be serving at the same time as Karen Nobumoto, the first public lawyer to be president of the State Bar of California. Are their fewer private law firms supporting bar leadership?
A: Itís different now. The only person who didnít own their own firm and stayed there after being president was Pat Kelly in 1991. Lee Edmon became a judge, Laurie Zelon became a judge, Patty Schnegg became a judge, Rex Heinke left his firm, Richard Chernick left his firm, Gerry Chaleff left. Thereís this exodus of people.
Itís not a coincidence. Everyone else before came from a private firm. Thereís been a change in the emphasis in the firms of the paradigm of what a practitioner is and what a bar officer is, in terms of if youíre going to be a bar officer you still must be responsible for the bottom line for your firm. And while the firm may support you, thereís still that issue of are you going to maintain that business, or can you pick it back up when you come back into the fold, so to speak.
So all of us have experienced this thing of, ďWhat have you done for me lately? Itís great youíre president, youíre an officer in the organization, itís a very prestigious position, but where are your billables, where are your clients?Ē
Iím concerned about people seeing you as, if youíre a person at a firm and you become bar president, youíre looking like a short-termer if youíre at a law firm now. Thereís a distinct pattern there. And Iím worried that firms will start giving people a difficult time. I hope to be the example that you can be the bar president, be a leader, or a person who tries to personify leadership, and still maintain your profession.
Q: How well do you think you have succeeded at that?
A: There are times that I havenít been able to do everything that I wanted to do, that I should have done as a bar officer. I beat up on myself quite a bit over that, it really tears at me, I agonize over it, I lose sleep over it. Iíve tried to be the best president I can, but I know I havenít been the best. Because I wasnít able to do everything I wanted to do.
I had postponed several times becoming president. Because I wanted to get everything right. I wanted to have someone to handle my files so I could just be out doing the bar thing. But it didnít work out quite that way. A lot of my business was one particular company and the fellow moved down here and he went with some other firm and that business went with him because of that relationship. So Iíve been trying to build it back up.
I feel obligations at many levels. I feel like a crusader at many levels. Iím a standard bearer for many issues. One, as a black man, I want to make sure that while Iím in office I donít do anything that makes anyone say, ďSee, let a black guy in as president somehow the level of bar activities in his profile falters,Ē and Iím concerned about that. A black man, as a partner, thereís an issue about retention of minorities, so I want to say I can maintain my partnership here at the firm.
Q: You appear to place a lot of thought and focus on striking that balance, and it appears to go beyond just your year as County Bar president. Am I reading that correctly?
A: We have reached I think now a critical mass in terms of the demands we place on peopleóhome life, the work life, the financial burden we undergo. There are symptoms of the illness, and the symptoms are Columbine. We have kids who are just disconnected from their parents. Weíre developing a generation of people where everythingís scheduled for them. There is no free time, not even in terms of their own activities, unless they want to do something destructive. So itís become kind of my mantra. To try to be more humane.
Q: What have you enjoyed most about your tenure as County Bar president?
A: I like going to events and trying to be a person who brings the bar together. Weíve had a lot of progress this year in regard to the issue about friction between the sections and the general bar. Weíve tried to address that in light of the financial crisis we faced. Weíve had to change our paradigm in terms of what weíre about. So weíre trying to do more online services, like the civil register index where you can look up the cases that a particular judge has handled. It gives people more of a substantive benefit.
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment as County Bar president?
A: I approached the multicultural bar alliance, and said, ďWhy not combine your resources, everybody pool their money, and then try to hire somebody and get local offices with the County Bar?Ē Everybody comes out ahead. Also with the interaction, you have to come together then. Everybody at one time or another comes together. And that is the greatest way to promote diversity. My thing is to utilize the limited resources we have and then combine them with people who have already worked out how to use them.
Q: Whatís your biggest regret?
A: I guess I didnít get active enough dealing with the courts, talking with the presiding judge.
Q: What advice do you have for Miriam Krinsky?
A: The best advice I can give is to try to find good people who can delegate important tasks. Try to avoid being hard on yourself, because you canít do everything you want to do. And the last thing is to try and have fun.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company