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Close-up: David S. Casey Jr.

Local trial attorney building on father's legacy

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Dinnertime stories usually involve a recounting of the day's activities or some funny tale from family history.

For David S. Casey Jr., they unknowingly served as a preview of his father's opening statement in court the next day.

"I was like a focus group when I was a kid," Casey laughs now. "He kind of practiced his opening statement on me, and I didn't know it at the time."

As the son of a prominent San Diego trial attorney, Casey was immersed in the law at a young age. His father, the late David S. Casey Sr., litigated thousands of cases and, in 1947, founded the oldest plaintiff's firm in town, what is now known as Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield LLP.

As it turns out, little Dave was not only listening to those stories, he was observing his father's professionalism and taking in the life lessons that came with it.

"My dad taught me a lot about the importance of mentoring young people," Casey said, "because if you reach out a hand, you never know the impact that will make on them in the future. I think my love and respect for the law has a lot to do with how my father brought me along.

"He tried to raise you up to be a better person. He tried to raise people up. There are a lot of people in this legal community who will come up to me and they'll say, 'The reason I practice law today is your dad.'"

Casey became a lawyer almost in spite of his dad. The senior Casey was such a giant in San Diego legal circles that the prospect of practicing alongside him was intimidating.

Casey, in fact, took the bar exam the same year his father was president of the State Bar of California, feeling an almost unbearable pressure to pass. He did, however, and two years later joined his father at Casey Gerry in 1976.

"My dad and I became very, very close," said Casey, now a senior partner at the firm. "And as I went forward in my career, he became my best friend. So I felt terrifically lucky to be able to practice with my dad."

Like his dad, Casey is now a highly acclaimed attorney.

Throughout his 35-year career, he has led attorney groups at every level, capped by his presidency of the 65,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) in 2003-04.

His current leadership position is as chairman of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) judicial nomination process.

Casey is charged with overseeing her four bipartisan advisory committees, which are set up in each of the state's federal judicial districts. They are responsible for nominating the U.S. attorney and the U.S. marshal in the Eastern and Central districts and for nominating federal judges in all four districts.

Casey will receive recommendations from the four committees and then do a final review -- complete with interviews -- before making his recommendation to Feinstein.

"I'm extremely honored to have been selected for that position," he said. "It's a wonderful experience to interview these candidates. They represent the best of our profession. They make you proud to be a lawyer."

To fill the judgeships, he said he would look for candidates who are bright, have a judicial temperament and will treat lawyers with professional courtesy and litigants with respect. Plenty of courtroom experience is helpful as well.

"I think sometimes that experience gives you better compassion," Casey said. "It's a lot of work trying a case. It's very stressful, so a judge can run the courtroom with a firm hand, and yet with a sense of fairness and compassion. That's what you want."

Casey won't be helping with the search for a U.S. attorney in San Diego -- that's the responsibility of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) -- and there isn't a current opening on the local bench, either. But he is busy vetting other positions throughout the state. Within the first week of being named chairman, Casey's office was inundated with a stack of applications several feet high.

"We've had a really wonderful turnout by outstanding lawyers throughout the state," Casey said. "We were delighted to get the kind of response that we did. It was overwhelming for a few days."

Casey likes that each of the four committees feature both Democrats and Republicans, ensuring the recommendations are "merit-based," not politically motivated.

"Sen. Feinstein's model, frankly, I think should be adopted everywhere in the country," he said. "I marveled at how they have systems in other states that can be so politicized. I think that type of politicization can help undermine the public's trust in the independence of the judiciary.

"I've always had an enormous respect of judges and members of the judiciary."

Casey, however, has no desire to become a judge himself, leaving his committee position as his contribution to the bench.

"I think being a judge is a calling, and only those should seek it who really feel it's truly a calling in their life," he said. "I enjoy the private practice enormously and can't wait to get to work every day. I have a passion for what I do in my practice."

When asked to name the best thing about practicing law, Casey said, without hesitation, "helping people."

"I get enormous (satisfaction) being able to help people through a difficult situation and help give them the feeling you're on their side," he said. "There are very few professions where you can really make a big difference in a person's life, and we do here.

"I think one of the reasons for our longevity as a firm is that we're a firm that cares about people. We're almost like an extended family in this building, where if there's something going on with a client, we really care about that and we'll talk about that."

Perhaps his biggest contribution to helping people was his part in crafting the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. The program was a way to help victims of the terrorist attacks and their families while also stabilizing the airline industry.

Legislators liked the idea, hatched by ATLA officials, and quickly drafted a bill. It passed the Senate and House and was signed into law Sept. 22, 2001.

"It was the fastest piece of legislation I've ever seen in my life," Casey said.

The federal government provided the money to compensate victims, so the airlines wouldn't be hit with massive lawsuits. In exchange, attorneys, working pro bono, represented victims and family members before an administrative judge to determine their piece of the fund.

By the time the program ended in June 2004, about $2.4 billion went to 1,745 claimants without one cent of attorneys' fees. A total of 1,092 volunteer lawyers participated in the program.

"It was the biggest pro bono program in the history of American jurisprudence, and it was successful," Casey said. "And I was very proud to be a part of that. We came up with a solution that allowed families to be taken care of very quickly."

The families came from 45 states and 33 countries, "so we had to understand the substantive law of all those states and all those countries," Casey said. "So, believe me, it was a far more complicated task that we undertook than we (initially) realized."

Casey continues to practice law, and intends to do so "as long as the good Lord will want me."

The firm recently completed construction of a state-of-the-art office building in Bankers Hill. It includes a conference room equipped to take depositions from around the world and a jury room outfitted with cameras so firm attorneys can observe deliberations from another room.

"Since we got into this new building, it's really been a wonderful excitement," he said. "Even though we're an old firm, we have a tremendous new energy with our new building."

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