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In the midst of style, some advice

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

Former attorney general John K. Van de Kamp was sworn in as the 80th president of the State Bar
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

Columns written by bar presidents are rarely read. Some smarter than I (or at least unwilling to prolong the torture — of themselves, or of their readers) stop writing them and delegate the chore to others.

Why are these treatises so rarely read? Too many are hortatory and pompous. (I rest my case.) No one wants another lecture from a smiling face on a printed page (this is the best I can muster) on why they should do more pro bono work and do good things.

More and more, bar publications are trying to grab readers with subjects of greater appeal. The latest ABA Journal includes such key legal issues as What Not to Wear and Law and Marriage. (I could model for the first — and I’ve been around far too long to touch the latter.) Other legal journals have turned to wine and food, travel and literature.

Given that, here is my less-than- inspired advice to lawyers on some of these subjects.

ATTIRE As D.A. in Los Angeles, I was known for my characteristic blue blazer and gray slacks. They got pretty shabby at times, but you can go anywhere with them. I used to tell my underlings in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to wear white shirts, even if they were a little frayed. Developing jury sympathy was the idea. Look like an underdog, particularly so if defense counsel wear loud and outlandish clothing (I remember Gladys Towles Root in the dress of a quasi-nun).

In my old age, I wear dark suits and ties every day — except in summer, when I wear summer suits and ties — even on Fridays. Some have claimed I was born wearing a tie. (I can produce no witnesses to disprove that allegation.) Ties are not exactly de rigueur in Southern California. My bow to the shifts of fashion is bright striped shirts. (I am saving that for a future column.) Thank you, Land’s End.

WINE I usually buy wine in the $10 - $20 category and carefully watch the Wine Spectator for the best buys. When I splurge, Iron Horse Champagne (disclosure: the Sterlings are good friends) — is great for the holidays. Stag’s Leap Cabernet is always good. I like some of the new California Meritage wines (Ferrari — Carano, Clos du Bois, and Charles Krug have good products — but of course they’ll change year to year depending on the whim of weather and winemakers). Colgin Cabernet is out of this world in terms of quality and expense. And Australian wines are now to be reckoned with. A Penfolds Shiraz I tried recently was terrific.

Confession:  I drink distilled spirits — Gordon’s gin on the rocks with lemon; on special occasions, Edradour Scotch (neat).

Another confession: I consumed none of the above products before I tackled this column.

FOOD Since I’m in the restaurant business in a long-lived family venture (Lawry’s, The Prime Rib is our flagship), I confess bias here. But as old age and bad hearing sets in, here are some of my pet peeves.

(1) Noisy restaurants I go to restaurants to have a good meal and friendly conversation. Too many times recently I’ve found myself in a popular restaurant where I can’t talk to the person next to me — much less across the table. Those restaurants immediately get added to my “do not return” list. Recently I had dinner with Assemblyman Dave Jones at Biba’s in Sacramento. An old-fashioned comfortable place — with space between tables — we were able to have a good conversation over a good meal. I’m definitely going back.

(2) Dark restaurants Where you can’t read the menus without a flashlight. The old Chianti in Los Angeles was like that — they brought you lighted candles to read the menu.

(3) Overzealous managers Where every five minutes, in the middle of a conversation, they come back to ask, “Is everything all right?” Most of us would let them know if it wasn’t.

(4) Extra-added parking fees They get higher all the time. Why isn’t a tip sufficient?

LITERATURE I read three to four newspapers every day and magazines ranging from Architectural Digest to The Thoroughbred Times. For airplane and beach reading, I’ve recently discovered Arturo Perez-Reverte, a Spanish writer who translates very well. Recommended: The Nautical Chart, The Seville Communion and The Queen of the South. On more serious subjects, try Thomas Friedman (Longitudes and Attitudes) and Lou Cannon (Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power).

HOTELS For business travel, for me the most important thing is a location close to the place of business, hard mattresses and a foam pillow, a heating and air conditioning system that is quiet and works, a decent light over the bed so one can read, and a good easy chair. I can’t count the number of fancy hotels that miss out on one or more of these features. When they do, I ask for them. They can usually dig up a foam pillow and sometimes an easy chair and floor lamp.

Vacation travel calls for different choices. Some people like to sit — others to see the sights. As for me I like to mix in golf (it’s the only time I get a chance to play). One of the best trips I had was with my wife and another couple touring Southern Ireland and playing at some of its best courses, set up by a firm known as Adventures in Golf. Ballybunion, Tralee, Waterville and Old Head for golf, and decent hotels in Kinsale, Killarney and Dublin. It was terrific — but horses for courses. Some like cruise ships.

LAW AND MARRIAGE Well, I break my earlier pledge. My wife Andrea is not a lawyer. We’ve been married for 26-plus years. Enough. The less said about it the better.

My hortatory advice for lawyers: Have a life. Love what you’re doing as a lawyer and with the rest of your life.

And do more pro bono work and good things.

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