Taking advantage of second chances
By NANCY McCARTHY
When Jim Heiting is sworn in as the 81st president of the State Bar of California
this month, he takes office almost 19 years to the day after he entered the
Betty Ford Clinic for treatment of alcoholism. At the time, he faced felony
criminal charges for nearly killing a woman while driving drunk.
|Personable, with an easy
smile, Heiting says concern for individuals is at the top of the list of
what’s important to him
Since then, the 56-year-old Riverside lawyer has been sober, rebuilt his career
and personal life, and has dedicated himself to the recovery community and
the legal profession. His life, he says, is a testament to the miracle of sobriety.
And winning the bar’s top post, he adds, “is quite a dream. I’ve
always looked at lawyers and judges and just been in awe of them.”
“Jim is a visionary,” says his longtime friend Rick Ewaniszyk. “I
know he has an overwhelming concern for the lives and careers of lawyers and
that he’ll be reaching out to them.”
Added Richard Irwin, Heiting’s law partner for 25 years: “He’s
down to earth, he gets along with everybody, he doesn’t consider himself
better than the gardener working on the lawn. He’s not going to say I’m
a better person than you because I’m the next bar president.
“I tell my kids the most important thing in life is to have your head
and your heart in the right place. Jim does.”
Heiting himself admits to a few qualms about the new job and is uncomfortable
serving as a role model or an inspiration for the recovery community. “The
only thing I can do,” he shrugs, “is keep on keeping on. I will
strive to do the extra-ordinary this year. If something happens new or important,
great. If I can just make a contribution, great.”
Making a contribution is only part of who Heiting is — a complex man
of opposites. A poor kid who now lives the good life. A country boy recruited
by Harvard. A tough guy who puddles up. His conversations are sprinkled with “gee
whiz” and “golly darn.” Tenacious in the courtroom, he loves
the quiet of nature. “All kinds of different mixes,” he says.
Known for an easy smile and hugs as much as handshakes, Heiting squirmed when
asked to describe himself. Embarrassed, he comes up with loving, responsible,
persistent, respectful (for the most part), imperfect, emotional. “I
care a lot about individuals,” he says. “I think riches are gauged
in terms of relationships, not money or wealth.” He also calls himself
a “bulldog-type lawyer” who explores every nook and cranny of a
case. “I’m not as crafty or word-wise or intelligent as some, but
I’m dedicated,” he says.
|Heiting credits his wife
Cindy for standing by him when his alcoholism was at its most destructive
“He’s very professional and I admire his intellect, but he’s
soft and kind at the same time,” says his wife of 34 years, Cindy. “He’s
very personable and has always been interested in people.”
Irwin says Heiting is very aggressive and “will fight tooth and nail
for what he thinks is right. He won’t settle for less and he won’t
settle just to settle.” Irwin added that Heiting constantly pushes people
to better themselves and excel. One client became a secretary and then a lawyer
at Heiting’s urging.
Whether it’s trying a case or being elected student body president in
college, Heiting chases his pursuits full-bore.
|Heiting typically relaxes
in the saddle of one of his six Tennessee Walkers
His latest passion is horses, Tennessee Walkers to be exact. When Cindy decided
to raise horses a couple of years ago, he quickly signed on and a pasttime
became a business. The couple now own six horses and recently added a barn
and corral to their sprawling 6-and-a-half acre property. Dotted with fruit
trees, evergreen and cactus and surrounded by three mountain ranges, the place
has been renamed Riverside’s Summit Ranch. Lifesized statues of elk and
buffalo, part of the couple’s extensive collection of western sculpture,
stand just inside the gate.
Heiting began riding in April 2004. Four months later, riding Dragonfire,
a horse he bought just three weeks earlier, he entered the Tennessee Walking
Horse National Celebration, the Olympics of Tennessee Walkers, and won the
world championship in the amateur English Park Pleasure three-gait competition
before a crowd of 30,000 in Shelbyville, Tenn.
|Jim Heiting, the State Bar’s
81st president, rides Man of Rain, one of his prized Tennessee Walkers
He won the world championship again last month, outriding a horse that was
undefeated since 2001.
In another amateur event last year, Heiting also won the title of reserve
world champion (second place). In his wallet, he carries photos of himself,
wearing a tux and snap brim hat and sitting high in Dragonfire’s saddle,
that he loves to show friends.
Life wasn’t always this good.
Born in 1949 in Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital, Heiting and his older brother
moved with their parents, John and Vivian, to Torrance when Jim was one. Both
parents worked for Woolworth’s, his dad as a bookkeeper and his mother
as a dime store clerk. The family lived in a tiny wood frame house with a kerosene
stove and a scary two-seater outhouse; scary, Heiting recalls, because it was
frequented by snakes and black widows.
As a child, he loved the outdoors, everything from dirt to horny toads, and
was all boy — building forts, shooting rabbits, holding pigeon
races, riding a tricycle off the roof of a barn. He attended Boys State and
learned to play piano, steel guitar and the trumpet, talents that led to a
scholarship to band camp, which culminated in a concert with the Long Beach
Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was first chair, first trumpet.
A star student at Corona High School in Norco, Heiting played basketball and
was captain and MVP of the tennis team. His dad died of a heart attack when
Jim was 15, and his mother took over the family’s tax preparation business,
struggling to make ends meet. Heiting was recruited by Harvard, but without
a scholarship offer, he opted to attend John Brown University, a small Southern
Baptist college in Siloam Springs, Ark., that had offered a free ride and was
favored by his mother.
He hated it. “It was very lonely,” he recalls. “It was at
the height of hippies and free love, and I go to Arkansas, where you can’t
wear jeans, no hair over your ears, chapel three times a week and no carousing.” He
left after a year and a half and enrolled at Riverside University, a small
business school with high ideals, where Ross Perot was a dean and Jack Benny
was an honorary dean.
Heiting majored in business with an emphasis on accounting and was valedictorian
and student body president, but the school was beset by accrediting problems
and when he graduated, its doors closed. He put in four years as a night student
at Western State University and received his law degree in 1976. Married by
then and with a son, James Jr. whom they call Jo-Jo, Heiting hung his shingle
at a 12 foot-by-12 foot office in Riverside, with Cindy as his secretary. The
office was so tiny that Cindy had to walk the halls when her husband met with
clients. The couple had two more boys, Hans and Aaron, and Heiting began to
enjoy success as a personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer.
But he had started to drink in earnest.
He was 17 when he first took a drink, but that initial experience had all
the hallmarks of what was to come: he drank to get drunk, passed out, hid his
drinking from his mother. What started as weekend drinking gradually, and insidiously,
increased. It provided enjoyment and escape. While in law school, Heiting worked
the graveyard shift at Anaconda Wire & Cable and was so keyed up when his
shift ended at 7 a.m. that he couldn’t sleep. So he climbed into bed
with a 40-ounce bottle of Colt .45 and downed what he called his sleeping potion.
He never drank at work or during the day.
In 1983, Heiting’s mother and five other people close to him died, said
Cindy, and “I think he just collapsed. The drinking was sporadic before
that, but it became the only way to relax and to sleep.”
At his lowest point, Heiting drank at least a fifth of gin daily, although
he believed it did not affect his work. During a trial in 1984, for example,
he stopped at a liquor store at day’s end, drank until he passed out
and got up at 3:30 a.m. to prepare for trial. He won.
“I was tortured every day,” he says now. “Every day was
hell. I’m praying in the morning not to drink. At night, I’m feeling
self-pity, guilt. I had such a revulsion for my inability to control this that
I would get the dry heaves.
“It was a very bad time, a very dark, isolated time. I didn’t
feel like anyone could help me. I wanted to get sober so badly and I just couldn’t
days are over, but he occasionally takes the bike out for a spin
After winning a trial in 1982, Heiting rewarded himself by buying a Harley.
Thus began a series of promises: “I promised myself that I would not
drink again once I bought the Harley. I kept my promise for two weeks. Then
I promised I would not drink and then ride. That lasted a few weeks. Then I
promised I would not get drunk and then ride. Well, in the end, what I would
do is tie my helmet, open side up, on the side of the bike and put my bottle
of gin inside it.”
In 1986, he lost control of the bike and wound up in the emergency room; every
rib on his left side was broken twice and he had a collapsed lung, bruised
heart, broken collar bone and a concussion. He remained in a hospital bed at
home for a month.
Just two months later — July 17, 1986 — came the night that changed
his life. Although he’d consumed a bottle of whiskey, a friend needed
his help and he left home, despite Cindy’s threats to finally leave him.
Two miles from home, he jumped the median strip of a major street, hit an oncoming
car head-on, demolished the car and seriously injured the driver. Hauled off
to jail, Heiting was charged with felony drunk driving.
Riverside attorney Steve Harmon said he would defend Heiting only if his client
enrolled in a recovery program. Heiting began a 28-day stay at the Betty Ford
Clinic on Sept. 1, 1986.
Four months later, he pleaded guilty, was placed on five years of probation
and was ordered to pay an $850 fine and make restitution to his victim, with
whom he settled a civil suit. He also was given a five-year probation by the
State Bar. Years later, the felony was reduced to a misdemeanor and expunged
from his record.
As part of his criminal sentence, Heiting was ordered to serve six months
in jail, which at the time was attached to the Riverside County courthouse. “I
worked in the laundry in the courtyard of that courthouse,” Heiting said. “I’d
been a well-respected lawyer for some time and I could see my buddies walking
by.” He recalled the humiliation of being taken to a hospital for a medical
problem in an orange jail jumpsuit, ankles chained together, wrists manacled
to a chain around his waist. “I was embarrassed, ashamed. I had friends
take over my cases, a couple of lawyers left my firm.”
Irwin, his partner, stuck with Heiting. “We have a mutual respect for
each other in terms of personal and professional integrity,” he said. “That’s
what kept me with Jim when he was at his lowest.”
When he returned to work, Heiting recalls, he “was an unknown quantity.
Most people treated me with courtesy, but cautiously. They didn’t know
what to expect.”
Gradually he began to share his experiences by writing about them in a local
paper. He started a Riverside branch of The Other Bar, a State Bar-affiliated
recovery program for lawyers and judges. He became active with the Betty Ford
Center’s advisory board and Cindy, whose father died of cirrhosis of
the liver at age 47 and whose family is afflicted with a good deal of alcoholism,
was elected president of its Alumni Association, a support group for families.
Heiting also became active in the Riverside County Bar Association and was
elected its president in 1996.
Regretting that he had never told the victim of the accident that he was sorry
and against his attorneys’ advice, he met with the woman nine years later
and apologized. Every year, on July 17, he sends her a card to tell her he’s
Heiting rejected the suggestion that his many volunteer activities, particularly
his work as a high-profile champion of alcohol treatment programs, are a search
for redemption. “I do have those emotions and I do want to give back,
but I think I was always that way,” he says. But he admits, “I
never forget about it.”
Adds Cindy, “I think AA is really important, but I wouldn’t say
that’s what most of his energy is about.”
Heiting notes he has a resume filled with non-recovery-related activities,
including co-founding the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association, serving
on the board of the Leo A. Deegan Inn of Court, membership in the American
Society of Law and Medicine and serving as a judge pro tem, arbitrator and
Elected to the State Bar Board of Governors three years ago, Heiting worked
with former Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, to win legislation that created
the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) for attorneys with substance abuse and
mental health problems. He even applied to be director of the program, at the
same time his wife applied to be alumni director at Betty Ford. A strong supporter
of the bar’s drug court, he believes the goal for attorneys whose misbehavior
is related to substance abuse should be recovery, not just punishment. “We
can help save lives, careers, money and clients,” he explains.
Heiting’s offices are in a large, southern plantation-style building
he bought three years ago. His firm, Heiting & Irwin, employs 23 people;
in addition to the name partners, there are three other lawyers who handle
personal injury, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation matters.
The maintenance man, Alfredo Tafoya, is an ex-con whom Heiting has helped
through VIP Mentors, a State Bar-supported program that matches lawyers and
ex-offenders in a Big Brother-Big Sister relationship. They were the Riverside
County Match of the Year this year. “Jim’s the big brother I never
had,” says Tafoya, who once was homeless and went to prison for voluntary
manslaughter. “He gave me an opportunity to be part of society again.
I tell him every day I love him. He’s a good man.”
|Heiting outlines his hopes
for the coming year. A collector of sculpture, he placed Lady Justice behind
the desk in his Riverside office
Heiting proudly guided visitors through the building, which sits on almost
two acres maintained by Tafoya. Cindy manages the office and the couple rents
out the property for weddings, fundraisers and other community events. Scattered
around Heiting’s office are small gifts and mementoes from “happy
clients”; the wall bears eight framed degrees, a framed but incomplete
list of verdicts he’s won and a 1776 indenture signed during the reign
of King George III. A collector of sculpture (he has Frederic Remington’s “Mountain
Man” at home), his desk sits in front of a large statue of Lady Justice.
He took the time to list a series of initiatives he’d like to introduce
in the coming year:
- Coordinate with a coalition of groups a “pipeline” program,
aimed at junior high and high school kids, particularly those who are poor,
disenchanted or unmotivated, to interest them in the law.
- Increase and stabilize non-dues revenue for the State Bar, perhaps through
the creation of a virtual warehouse, in which the bar would partner with
Big Box stores and use its buying power to nail down discounts for lawyers
on a wide variety of products.
- Create an ethics and advocacy school. Instead of or in addition to court-imposed
sanctions, he proposes a four-hour traffic school-like program to instruct
potentially at-risk lawyers about ethics, professional responsibility, the
State Bar Court and the history of the law. Heiting created a similar program
in Riverside while he was the local bar president and believes it works because
attorneys are (1) embarrassed to be required to attend, (2) forced to pay
with both money and time and (3) are bound to learn something. “They’d
learn about the history of law, its grandeur, its honor,” he said. “You
get done and you’re inspired and realize this is a noble profession.”
- Create retirement and quitting practice programs.
- Provide security cards to enable lawyers to bypass long security lines
at the courthouse.
- Establish courts dedicated exclusively to unrepresented litigants.
- “And here’s a good one!” he says. Create a program similar
to MediCal — perhaps called LawCal — to provide legal services
for the indigent.
|Heiting relaxes at home with
grandchildren Briana and Jacob
Heiting also can’t stand lawyer advertising because he believes it contributes
to a bad reputation, but he admits he doesn’t know how to discourage
it without violating people’s rights. He’s thinking of a major
PR initiative to let the public know about the good things lawyers do. Pointing
to an electrical outlet in the wall, he says child-proof covers protect children
because “some kid got electrocuted” and a lawyer stepped in. “Why
aren’t you getting beaned at the ballpark?” No more lead paint
in walls? Child restraints in cars? “Every part of society is built on
laws, but the public doesn’t see all the good things lawyers do,” he
Acknowledging that his time as president will be short, Heiting insists he’s
not looking for a legacy. He has no illusions that any of his proposals will
bear fruit within a calendar year so he’ll be content to plant the seeds
for change. “I might set some things in motion but the time is too short
to get a lot done. I want to improve what’s there and think creatively.
“I don’t know if that means a legacy.”