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Shades of Bombay dreams

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

John Van de Kamp
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

Chris D’Sa, 38, an India immigrant, never went to law school. He never took a refresher course.  Yet he passed the California Bar the first time around.

I became privy to Chris’ remarkable story when I spoke at the bar’s Pasadena admission ceremonies last month, stayed around afterwards to congratulate the admittees and their proud parents and was introduced to Chris and heard the outline of his story.

Chris emigrated from Bombay in 1989 at age 22 with $100 in his pocket and hope in his heart. He established a career with Hydrologue, a Pasadena environmental and geo-technical firm, rising through the ranks to become a project manager; he has supervised more than $15 million in projects. Tall and personable, he has a way with people. He’s also very smart.

His desire to become an attorney was stimulated when he was wrongfully arrested by bounty hunters as a bail jumper and turned over to the police. He filed with the help of Burbank attorney Leslie McAfee a wrongful arrest and false imprisonment lawsuit that was ultimately settled. The unsettling experience lit a fire: “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and help others who were oppressed,” Chris told Kevin Smith of the Pasadena Star News.

And so, in 1999 Anthony J. O’Farrill, a Montebello attorney with a small firm, set up an apprenticeship program for Chris, allowing him to work part-time. For four years, Chris studied law, using some of O’Farrill’s old outlines and more recent outlines from BarBri.

O’Farrill and his apprentice also visited the Loyola Law School library to review current textbooks and cases. With strong computer skills, Chris turned to Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw to supplement the written outlines. On top of that, O’Farrill assigned Chris work on real cases under his supervision, ranging from contractor and escrow litigation to collections and bankruptcy matters, and, given Chris’ status as a California registered environmental assessor, environmental litigation.

Chris says one of his most satisfying cases came when he and O’Farrill prevailed in canceling a deed of trust fraudulently obtained in a home improvement scam for their 91-year-old female client, who suffered an organic brain syndrome. He said he learned as much from his real life experience under O’Farrill’s wing as he did from the outlines and the books.

Why no law school? A rarely utilized provision (ยง6060(e)(2)(B)) of the State Bar Act permitted Chris, after approval of the examining committee, to study for four years in a law office under the personal supervision of an experienced attorney (O’Farrill). Other qualifying requirements, including moral character approval and passage of the Baby Bar and the MPRE, also had to be met. A similar law school bypass is also provided to those who study under the personal supervision of a judge.

Jerome Braun, the veteran director of the State Bar’s admissions office, says Chris’ pathway is rarely utilized. In 2004, only six persons from apprentice programs with lawyers took the bar exam (none from judge-supervised programs). Two passed.

Chris is still working with O’Farrill on a part-time basis. But now he can appear on his own as a full-fledged licensed attorney. He ultimately hopes to open his own environmental litigation practice. He also plans to get married in August.

Is there a moral to this story? Several. Intelligence and hard work will take one a long way. Combine it with strong will and you have a winner. I hope to check back on Chris’ progress in five years; I think he’ll go far. In the meantime, there are more than 200,000 stories of lawyers in the Golden State. This is one of them.

Personal notes

ANOTHER STORY OF A CALIFORNIA LAWYER Jim Heiting, our new bar president, has also had a Phoenix-like career. Rising from the ashes of alcohol addiction in the ’80s, Jim turned his life around, becoming president of the Riverside County bar and the president of The Other Bar. While never forgetting where he came from, Jim has worked hard on the board of governors, making friends wherever he has gone. Jim is an unabashed “hugger.” He reminds me of my old friend Art Agnos — with the exception that he doesn’t hug and kiss (at least the men). Jim will be sworn in at the bar convention in San Diego in September. He’s a good person and should be a good bar president.

WINE A relatively unheralded varietal, Malbec, is making its way into California. The grape is grown extensively in the Mendoza area of Argentina. When it’s good, it’s very good. It’s a little lighter and fruitier than a Cabernet.

BOOKS Another plug for Arturo Perez Reverte. Just finished The Fencing Master. (You don’t have to understand fencing to appreciate it.) Also Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Benjamin Franklin. (Franklin never stopped thinking or writing.)

MARRIAGE Some, including my beautiful, talented, outgoing, vivacious wife, misconstrued my “less said the better” comment about our marriage in my March column. The fact of the matter is we’re happily married after 27 years; she is the real star of our family. She has been honest, forthright, courageous (read Disney Wars by James B. Stewart) and effective (visit Disney Hall).

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