Luck and timing.
That's been the story of Judge J. Lawrence Irving's life, and he knows it. He appreciates it. He's grateful for it.
It started right after he graduated from the University of Southern California's law school in 1963 and brought his wife and two sons back home to San Diego. He landed a job with the prestigious firm of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack.
It was the first step in a career that would lead him to a prominent role on the federal bench in San Diego, and then on to his own practice as a private mediator, where the 66-year-old retired judge settles some of the largest cases in the country.
"It's like everything in life -- luck and timing," Irving said in a recent interview. "My life in the law has been very much luck and timing. I mean, I was very lucky to get on with that firm and be able to work under two men who became my idols and role models in practice."
And it didn't stop there. After six years with Higgs, Fletcher & Mack, he and a few colleagues struck out on their own. And for a dozen years Irving did what he truly loved -- worked as a civil trial lawyer.
Then, just as he started to tire of that high-pressure life, he got another break. There was a much-sought-after opening on the United States District Court in San Diego.
"Although I had limited experience in the federal court, my next-door neighbor was Howard Turrentine, who's now a senior federal judge here," said Irving, looking back at what happened 20 years ago. "He started talking to me, 'You've got to come over here. It's a great job.' One thing led to another, and then that opportunity sort of presented itself. That streetcar comes by once in your lifetime. Luck and timing on the federal bench."
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan tapped Irving for a lifetime judge's appointment.
"My most interesting case on the federal bench was J. David Dominelli because it was the start of my judicial career and it was sort of a baptism in a high-profile (bankruptcy) case," he said. "It was a really fun case. It was challenging legally, and I just had a lot of fun doing it."
Over the following eight and half years, Irving presided over many more important matters, including the money-laundering prosecution of San Diego businessman Richard Silberman, the seizure in Mexico of a man accused in the torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena, and litigation involving former car maker John DeLorean.
"It's the best judicial appointment in the world as far as I'm concerned," Irving said. "It was one of life's great experiences for me."
And then it was time to go. In the late 1980s, a move to bring uniformity to the federal bench resulted in strict sentencing guidelines for judges, stripping them of much of their discretion in criminal matters. Irving took the legal community by surprise when he decided that it was time to hang up his robe.
"The sentencing guidelines come along, and I thought, 'Do I really want to continue doing this? Maybe I'm not going to be as lucky,'" he said. "So I decided to leave -- not really knowing what I was going to do for sure.'"
In 1990, Irving retired from the federal bench and opened his mediation practice in the downtown offices of a former law partner.
"Right off the bench -- again, luck and timing -- a federal judge in Arizona called me and asked me if I'd mediate the Lincoln Savings case -- Charles Keating," Irving said. "That was my first case. Right off the bench."
Settling that case gave him exposure on both coasts of the United States and started his national mediation practice. Over the last 10 years, he's resolved somewhere between $3 billion and $5 billion worth of mostly commercial disputes, he estimates.
And although he's starting to cut back his work a little -- reporting to the office three days a week, leaving him more time for his family and his love for golfing -- he continues to field calls from all over the country.
"I've never had a regret (over leaving the bench)," Irving said. "It was just my time to move on and do something else. And I have enjoyed this equally. It's been very challenging. And, again, timing and luck. I get my choice of some of the most interesting cases."
Just The Facts:
The mediator: Retired Judge J. Lawrence Irving
The firm: Butz Dunn DeSantis & Bingham
The fee: $6,000 a day, $700 an hour
Phone: (619) 233-5474