A president of perpetual motion

New leader pledges to continue outreach to members, recreate
the culture of the bar and communicate with lawyers and the public

Staff Writer

A few seagulls glide above the Long Beach shoreline while the majestic Queen Mary luxury liner floats lazily on the calm, blue Pacific Ocean, framed by the swaying palm trees of a seaside park.

It's a view that contrasts starkly with Tom Stolpman's office, 19 stories above.

Stolpman is having a hard time sitting still. This isn't necessarily a bad day; it's just that Stolpman is a man of perpetual motion.

He fidgets with a pen, shuffles some papers, swivels his chair, makes some quick phone calls and pops in and out of the office.

He is clearly anxious to begin his one-year term leading California's 151,000 lawyers as State Bar president.

As soon as he was elected in June, Stolpman began to plan his year of recreating the "culture" of the bar and stepping up communication with members and the public.

He takes over the helm of the presidency from Jim Towery of San Jose, who had the unenviable task of fighting to preserve the unified State Bar after legislation authored by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) mandated a plebiscite on the question.

In May, 51 percent of the state's active lawyers voted on the plebiscite question, with 65 percent opposing the abolition of the State Bar and 35 percent approving the measure.

The fact that 35 percent were willing to dissolve the 69-year-old organization gave pause to bar leaders, and Stolpman is out to prove to the bar's detractors that a unified bar is in their best interests.

As a plaintiff's attorney, communication is near and dear to Stolpman and at the top of his agenda. He is a man of many words who has a reputation for using them well. He says he really loves words, is comfortable using Latin phrases he learned in school and favors crossword puzzles.

His love of words and admiration of his lawyer grandfather led him to the courtroom, where he has established a reputation as a top trial attorney, specializing in personal injury claims.

He originally wanted to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and work in business law, but a stint clerking with a plaintiff's tort firm changed his mind.

"I liked the idea of making an impact on people's lives," says Stolpman, "especially the seriously injured. I discovered I enjoyed the work."

A history major at UCLA, Stolpman later shifted across town to study law at USC and earned his degree in 1976, along with several awards.

Today, Stolpman is a partner in the firm of Stolpman Krissman Elber Mandel & Katzman. Originally known as Silver & McWilliams, the firm was located in Wilmington for more than 40 years before it moved to Long Beach in 1994.

Prior to law school, Stolpman worked for a valet parking company, but later left with two friends to start their own company. At its peak, the students' company did valet parking for 21 restaurants, numerous private parties, movie premieres ("The Naked Ape -- it was a terrible movie") and a personal favorite -- Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion.

At the end of his first year in law school, Stolpman and his friends found that the successful valet company required a full-time manager but none of the partners was interested. So they sold the business to their original employer.

"The thing I remember about Tom Stolpman from law school is that he was a man with a can-do attitude," says Eileen Kurahashi, a classmate of Stolpman's at USC and a bar board member whose term ends this month.

Because of his business experience, she said, he brought self-confidence to law school and was clearly far more sophisticated than many of the other students.

"He had the gift of persuasion," she says, "and he had no trouble taking on professors when he had to."

Kurahashi knew Stolpman was on the road to success as a trial lawyer when he showed up at the fifth reunion of their law school class driving a gold Mercedes Benz. "The rest of us were driving old, beat-up Hondas and Toyotas," she said.

Stolpman's office holds an assortment of odd-looking objects that have made court appearances, including a rust-colored brake pad, the door of a tent-trailer and a nozzle-like device for a paint sprayer. Next door in his partner's office is a framed 6-foot length of split lumber "and probably the most expensive piece of wood you'll ever see," he says.

That piece of defective wood caused a client serious brain damage when he fell though a roof and resulted in a $21 million verdict, the largest ever for his firm.

In 1989, Stolpman was president of the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association (now known as the Consumer Attorneys Association) and served on the board of the state organization from 1987-90.

Bruce Brusavich, a Torrance lawyer and current president of the Los Angeles consumer attorneys organization, calls Stolpman tireless. He has an excellent reputation as a trial lawyer and has "tremendous energy," said Brusavich.

Brusavich finds himself this year in the same position as Stolpman was in the late 1980s when tort reform issues were on the ballot. "He had a terrible challenge," says Brusavich of the tort reform initiative, "but he was instrumental in its defeat."

Stolpman was elected to the State Bar Board of Governors in 1993 and has served on the bar's client relations, discipline, communications, legal services and lawyer referral committees. He was chair of the 1995-96 courts and legislation committee.

Stolpman's latest love, however, is his 225-acre vineyard four miles north of Solvang in Santa Barbara County. He and his wife, Marilyn Heise, purchased the former cattle ranch in 1989 and planted a variety of wine grapes on about half the land. 1994 was their first harvest, with the grapes used by several major wineries for blended wines.

Construction of a barn on the property was recently completed, and Stolpman eventually hopes to build a home and maybe even a small winery. Meanwhile, he was amused to learn that his cabernet grapes were recently blended with another vineyard's for a limited bottling of an obscure central coast label, "Wine Guy Red."

Not exactly a premium label, but good enough to bring several hundred dollars in bids for a few bottles at a spring fundraiser of the Committee to Save the Unified Bar.

One of Stolpman's regrets is that he and his family have a tough time making the two- to three-hour trip to the vineyard more frequently. Stolpman family life is busy, with daughter Jennifer a freshman at UCLA and son Peter a freshman at Loyola High School.

Until recently, his wife was a partner at the new president's Long Beach law firm, but she burned out and has gone back to school to study design and marketing, pursuing a lifelong interest in art. "Marilyn is probably the first Phi Beta Kappa they've ever had at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandis-ing," says Stolpman.

A Rancho Palos Verdes resident, Stolpman manages to combine his busy professional life with many com-munity activities. He recently resigned his board position with the Miraleste Recreation and Park Dis-trict and has been active in his local homeowners association.

He is lector and on the fundraising committee of his church and spent many years coaching youth basketball and soccer.

His primary pro bono activity is the annual Long Beach Grand Cru fundraiser for the Legal Aid Found-ation of Long Beach.

It would be nice to work with individual pro bono clients, says Stolpman, but he found that he would have to become an expert in too many areas of law. His efforts, he feels, are better spent raising funds for the legal aid foundation.

Stolpman's term on the State Bar Board of Governors coincided with the O.J. Simpson double murder trial, which resulted in calls for jury reform and a reassessment of cameras in the courtroom. As chair of the courts and legislation committee, he was instrumental in the establishment of statewide roundtable discussions on both issues, providing input to the Judicial Council.

The next year or two will bring jury reform bills from the legislature, he says, all due to the attention focused on the Simpson trial.

But rather than focus solely on the structure, Stolpman would like the bar to take the lead in attacking the issue of apathy and the lack of willingness of the public to serve on a jury.

The bar recently produced a short film, "Juries On Trial," taking a first step toward Stolpman's goal of communication with the public. "We do a good job," he says. "People just don't know it."

Last month, the Board of Governors gave Stolpman a helping hand in communicating with the rank-and-file when it approved a $20 dues decrease in its $102 million budget for 1997.

The high cost of bar membership dues is a big complaint of attorneys, says Stolpman, but that doesn't mean they necessarily want to abolish it.

"We have a group of the most independent, well-educated people in the state of California. Not too many people say 'I'm mad as hell.' They say 'I'm upset, but I'll give it a chance'."

Like many other opportunities in his life, it's a chance Stolpman doesn't plan to ignore.