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Witkin award for 'legal giant' Robert Raven

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

A small woman attorney, less than five feet tall, stood at a podium nearly a decade ago and faced a large crowd assembled to honor longtime San Francisco lawyer Robert Raven.

San Francisco lawyer Robert Raven

She pointed around the room at various attorneys and judges. No one in the legal bar, she insisted, had done what Raven did to provide opportunities for young lawyers and, especially, for women.

"And, Bob, you did it in the most important way," she said, turning toward the tall, silver-haired Raven. "You respected us. And then you went out and quietly convinced the clients that we stood six-foot-two, had silver hair, and could damn well handle their legal problems."

Raven's colleagues recall the moment and echo such sentiments. Practicing law for more than four decades, Raven stood out as a bar leader and "modern-day founder" of the international firm of Morrison & Foerster. He was known as a tireless, magnetic "lawyer's lawyer" who delighted in his work.

Once tagged "a revolutionary in pinstripes," Raven also shone as a champion of women and minority newcomers to the profession and steadfastly fought for greater access to justice for the poor.

For his "extraordinary service" and "significant contributions," Raven, who turns 80 this month, has been selected as the 2003 recipient of the State Bar of California's Bernard E. Witkin Medal. The medal is presented annually to "the legal giants among us who have altered the landscape of California jurisprudence."

Raven came from hardscrabble beginnings. One of eight children raised by sharecroppers in Michigan, he spent his after-school hours building fences, digging ditches and pitching hay. Once asked where he got the energy to work 17-hour days as an attorney later in life, Raven recalled his hard-working father. "My dad always wanted to be the best damn farmer in the valley," Raven said, "and that's sort of the way I am."

At age 18, Raven joined the Army Air Corps and wound up as part of a crew in charge of a B-24. Stationed overseas during the 1940s, he and his crew flew 31 bombing missions over Formosa, Indonesia, Indo-China, Borneo and Vietnam. During one such mission, his plane was hit, causing a dangerous leak in the hydraulic system. But as the story goes, Raven calmly used torn rags and tape to fashion a makeshift repair, and the plane landed safely.

Marrying his high school sweetheart and moving to California several years after the war, Raven attended Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. Graduating in 1952, he joined what is now known as Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. He was the firm's 17th attorney.

Raven went on to become an anti-trust expert and powerful litigator at the firm. And he was also one of three partners who engineered a major firm restructuring in the 1960s, paving the way for the hiring of women and leading to the firm's expansion. Today, Morrison has more than 1,000 attorneys practicing in 18 offices worldwide.

During his career, Raven served as president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, the State Bar of California (with a co-president) and the American Bar Association (ABA). Much of his work focused on breaking down the barriers to women and minorities entering the profession and pushing for greater legal services funding for the poor on a state and national level. He also recognized the importance of alternative means of dispute resolution and helped create an ABA section devoted to the issue.

Those who worked with Raven say he left an indelible mark on their lives as well. They recall the litigator's legendary work ethic, vision, integrity and magnetic effect on clients. But they also recall a "Camelot" workplace in which everyone was part of the family. Arriving before dawn, Raven would pad around the office in slippers. He kept a typed list of goals in his briefcase and a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket. And he clearly enjoyed mentoring young attorneys regardless of their age, gender, race or background.

Take attorney Kathleen Fisher. She was a summer intern at Morrison & Foerster in 1975 when she first met Raven. She joined the firm a year later. With other career aspirations, she planned to leave within six months "but for Bob." Now a partner at the firm, Fisher describes Raven as an ever-supportive mentor with a contagious optimism.

"He thought that his little band of men and women here could change anything in the world," says Fisher. "Nothing was too large. It was all doable."

And Raven's actions match his words, many say. Fisher once overheard him tell a client that she (rather than a male attorney, as requested by the client) would defend a particularly important deposition —or the client would have to retain a new attorney altogether.

In 1994, Raven became senior

of counsel. In his honor, his fellow partners established the "Robert D. and Leslie-Kay Raven Chair and Annual Lecture on Access to Justice" at Boalt. Now suffering from Alzheimer's, however, Raven himself no longer practices law.

But his former colleagues still look to his strong example. "There is nothing quite like walking into a room with Bob Raven on a case," attorney Peter Pfister wrote in an introduction to Raven's oral history.

"There is in that man a strength — a combination of respect for the legal process, respect for people, commitment to the client and the process, absolute ethics and principle," Pfister, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, wrote. "No one makes us prouder to be part of this profession."

And Raven is noted for preserving other values as well. In a speech some years ago, a former colleague recalled the silver-haired attorney padding into his office one evening to point out the sunset. "Don't get so wrapped up in your work," Raven said, "that you don't see the sunsets."

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