From solo practice to bar president

Adelman prepares to lead state's 155,000 attorneys
into an era with emphasis on the three P's -- pride,
profession and public

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

... Continued from frontpage

[Marc Adelman]

Right above Rosemary's Hair Fashions, and next door to McEvoy's piano store, is a narrow, worn, gray staircase leading up to Marc Adelman's second floor law offices. For nearly 20 years, Adelman's clients have climbed that staircase, seeking legal advice from the San Diego sole practitioner who was elected in July to lead the state's 155,000 lawyers.

His small, multi-room office, crammed with furniture, files, books, staff and clients, is a beehive of activity, intensified since the 23-member board of governors tapped him to be president of the State Bar of California.

Adelman, who will be sworn in as president during the annual meeting this month in San Diego, is only the second sole practitioner to hold the post in the bar's 70-year history.

Talk to past presidents and they will grimace, shake their heads and wonder how they ever managed to spend a year representing the State Bar, as well as keep their law practices alive.

For most, coming from mid-size to large firms made the task easier, with partners and associates pitching in to carry a heavier work load.

Adelman, however, is undaunted by the Herculean task of presiding over the nation's largest state bar and running a law office at the same time, motivated by a fierce love for his profession and confidence that he has surrounded himself with bright, loyal, competent and supportive people.

In June, attorney Robert Coffin set up shop in Adelman's office, managing to find desk space in the cramped quarters where at least a dozen people work. Adelman and Coffin have a combined experience of 40 years of practice, handling a variety of cases in areas such as insurance defense, construction defects, real estate, business and tort litigation.

Adelman will be depending on his support staff, which includes his secretary Suzette Carter, her assistant Andrea Jorn and law clerk Matt Denham. Added to the group this summer were two pre-law interns from UC San Diego, Scott Gizer and Jason Chin (son of Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin).

Also helping with the caseload will be Stefani Lenett, of counsel, a new attorney admitted to the bar in 1996. "Marc is extremely committed to the profession and his peers," says Lenett, who considers herself lucky to be learning about the legal world from both Adelman and Coffin.

"He makes a difference," she said of Adelman. "He makes a stand for ethics and civility." Lenett said that despite an extemely busy professional and personal life, Adelman manages to take the time to listen to people and give support and advice, especially to students and new practitioners.

Adelman is banking on his drive as the key to his success in his new post. "I'm just a regular guy," he said, "a blue collar-white collar worker if there ever was one. I've never been thought of as a scholar -- my brilliance is lacking -- but I have more drive than most people."

"People like Marc," says John Seitman, a fellow San Diego lawyer and 1991-92 president of the State Bar. "He's not afraid of the firing line, and he's got a kind of quiet determination."

Although Adelman "is a bit of a perfectionist," Seitman considers his personality well-suited for a leader who will be charged with the task of bringing together a board licking its wounds after a year of particularly contentious issues and personal clashes.

Seitman agrees with Adelman's "no agenda" plan for the year. "Every president starts out with an idea of some accomplishment," says Seitman, "then something comes along and you just get frustrated."

Indeed, Adelman's observations from his three years on the board have brought him to the same conclusion. "I don't have an agenda," says Adelman. "If I can assist in areas such as access to justice, trial court funding and legal services, I'll use whatever influence I have and do whatever it takes."

He does, however, have a soft spot for a few areas such as professionalism and civility, working with young lawyers and expanding the bar's support of legal professionals with disabilities.

A proponent of mentoring young lawyers, he is a big fan of his county's "Bridging the Gap" program for newly admitted attorneys.

"Bridging the Gap" is a chance for seasoned members of the legal community to pass along some hands-on advice to the newer members of the profession by introducing them to the inner workings of the local courts, as well as "people to know" such as the presiding judge, marshall and representatives from the probate clerk's office and the jail.

Dalton Menhall, executive director of the San Diego County Bar Association, remembers that when Adelman was elected president of the SDCBA in 1989, "Bridging the Gap" was one of his pet projects "because he has a genuine interest in young and new lawyers."

In fact, since 1994, the new bar president has taught a lawyering skills class at the University of San Diego Law School.

Adelman, says Menhall, has "a unique ability to get people to say 'yes' when he calls for something," and has a reputation for following through with commitments to make sure everything is just right.

Even before he finished law school, from 1974-78, Adelman worked for the firm of Casey, McClenahan, Fraley & Hauser, where he was shown the ropes and taught the importance of professionalism. It was inevitable that he would come to play a major role in the state's legal profession, because during this time one of the firm's partners, David S. Casey. Sr., was president of the State Bar (1975).

Twenty years later, Adelman says some of the most important things he learned about law and camaraderie occurred at the end of the day when he watched the firm's lawyers sit down -- with "the largest bottle of a bottle of Tanqueray you ever saw" -- and talk about their individual cases, offer recommendations and advice to each other and impress upon an eager law student the importance of professionalism and integrity.

His interest in working with legal professionals with disabilities stems from his personal experience dealing with red tape and various bureaucracies to ensure that his young autistic son receives the best possible services available.

A developmental disability, autism occurs five to 15 times in every 10,000 births. It is 4-5 more times prevalent in males and successfully treated with early intervention.

"We need to bring about some awareness of disabilities," says Adelman, "because a disability affects family dynamics and education issues." And these issues are just as important to attorneys as they are to the general public, says Adelman.

Born in Illinois on July 16, 1950, Adelman was one of three children. His brother Howard is a Chicago litigator, and his sister Teri a pediatrician in Evanston. His father was a certified public accountant, and his mother, with a doctorate in Spanish, taught at several Illinois universities.

After graduating with a degree in political science from Western Illinois University in 1972, Adelman had his choice of an East Coast or West Coast law school. When he made his decision to move toward the Pacific Ocean, he packed up his 1971 Buick Skylark convertible and headed toward the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. In 1978, he was admitted to the State Bar.

After a short stint during law school as the graveyard shift clerk at a 7-11 store, he managed to talk his way into a job with Casey's firm, convincing them that they would save money and time by hiring him to copy and research medical records for law cases. After he graduated from law school, he struck out on his own, opening his office a block from San Diego's Balboa Park.

An avid jogger who has completed nine marathons, Adelman married Dr. Erin Kenney in 1988 and they are the parents of 7-year-old twins, Benjamin and Alison.

Adelman has a passion for trains, introduced to the world of railroads by his father. His dad often would take him to the train yards of Chicago, and he still has the Lionel train set he received as a 2-year-old. He has passed along that love to his son Benjamin, and they are familiar faces at San Diego's Union Station.

Erin, who hails from the San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton, has a doctorate in public health from UCLA and worked for many years on state anti-tobacco issues.

In recent years, however, Erin's professional and personal interests have turned to researching autism and its treatments, as well as educating the public and families about the disability. She has become a full-time parent advocate and works part time as a consultant, monitoring the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's national anti-tobacco initiative.

An intense and serious man, Adelman is awestruck by his new position leading the state's attorneys and the positive feedback he has received from friends and colleagues.

Congratulatory cards and letters have flooded his office, and he proudly displays them in a six-inch thick binder for visitors to peruse.

"Pride, profession and public" -- the three "P" words -- will be the focus of Adelman's year as president. If anything, he says, his mission will be to bring back pride to the profession and elevate the public's perception of the law and justice system.

"We are trustees for the legal profession," said Adelman, "and we are charged with the administration of justice. It is up to us to improve the system."