Every Wednesday, the attorneys of Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace sit down at lunch to discuss law firm business -- and usually end up talking politics.
The firm, well known for a multifaceted practice that includes political law, has a mix of attorneys with perspectives from the left, the right, and many points in between.
"Our firm has always been politically engaged," said founder Leo Sullivan.
Whether it's the San Diego city attorney's race or the presidential election, Wednesday lunch is an opportunity for political discussion, which, according to Sullivan, typically ends with attorneys agreeing to disagree.
With the largest political law practice in San Diego and Orange counties, it is only natural that political debate is a welcomed part of the firm's culture.
An interest in politics led Sullivan to be the first attorney to practice political law in San Diego. As a young associate at Gray Cary, Sullivan pursued his ambition equipped with the only political law resources available at that time -- "one book and a couple of pamphlets."
In 1979, Sullivan left Gray Cary and started Oliver, Sullivan & Cummins. As the Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace celebrates its 26th year, some of the names on the door have changed but the values on which the firm was founded -- good work and service to the San Diego community -- remain.
Political law expertise
Sullivan's early aspiration to become a political law expert have been realized. The firm's political law group is recognized as having more depth and expertise than any other in our region.
In addition to Sullivan, John Wertz, who joined the firm in 1982, has been at the forefront of growing the practice.
More recently, firm shareholder and former journalist Pamela Lawton Wilson has taken over the role of heading the political law practice area.
Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace has been involved with many of the big events that have shaped our region. Sullivan has represented statewide initiatives ranging from "Tax Big Oil" in the late 1970s to the "Flat Tax" in the mid-1990s.
Wertz has served as counsel to numerous local campaigns, including the District Elections initiative, the 1998 Padres Ball Park ballot election, the 1998 San Diego schools billion-dollar bond measure and the 1999 countywide Neighborhood Libraries bond.
A who's who of local politicians has sought out the firm's help in times of crisis. Wertz and Wilson successfully defended Mayor Susan Golding against a grand jury accusation of misconduct, and represented multiple San Diego tribal entities as they established themselves as political forces in the community.
Roger Hedgecock also received counsel from the firm to defend allegations of wrongdoing while he was mayor.
When first established, the firm focused on political law, real estate and land use, and consumer litigation. Over the years, its practice areas have expanded to include business and corporate transactional matters, civil litigation, and governmental affairs and compliance.
The firm also has a significant personal injury plaintiff's practice that includes co-counsel arrangements with the firm where Erin Brokovich still works, expertise in writs and appeals, and specialized litigation involving eminent domain and ADA defense.
San Diego focus
The firm's niche is representing San Diego businesses, developers and labor organizations, politicians and political groups, and national organizations with local interests.
"What distinguishes us for others is that we've stayed focused on local clients," Sullivan noted. "We are firmly planted in San Diego and Southern California ... we have no aspirations of being something else."
Many clients have grown with the firm, including Nexus Properties, whose relationship with Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace dates back to when the firm first was founded.
Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace's commitment to San Diego is mirrored in the good works of its people. Staying true to its founding principal of community service, many of the firm's attorneys are active in civic, charitable, community and professional organizations.
When Mike McDade joined in 1985, he had already served as chief of staff to the chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and to then-Mayor Hedgecock. Today he advises firm clients on governmental relations, land use, and general corporate and business matters.
Real estate attorney and former law instructor Bruce Wallace also joined the firm in 1985. Wallace, a past chair of the Real Property Section and the Realtor/Attorney Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association, handles millions of dollars of real estate transactions for his developer clients each year.
John Moot, who practices business and commercial litigation, served for six years on the Chula Vista City Council, including two as deputy mayor.
Kathy McKee, another of the firm's real estate attorneys, is a member of California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing.
Sandy Brower, a former County Counsel, is a well-known real estate and eminent domain litigator. She is a regular on the CEB lecture circuit.
Elaine Rogers is among the shareholders who joined the firm as associates. Rogers is relied on at the firm for her estates and trust work, her practice representing nonprofit corporations and her expertise in employment law.
Richard Forsyth, who is fluent in Japanese, has a broad business practice representing clients located in or doing business in Asia and also serves as the firm's managing shareholder. Forsyth was also the founding chairman of the San Diego World Trade Center.
Joe Lavelle joined the firm after several years of solo practice as a plaintiff's personal injury attorney, a practice he is now continuing with Wertz.
The newest addition to the firm, John Stephens, also practices in personal injury as well as real estate and business litigation.
With 19 attorneys, Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace is considered a small firm and Sullivan wouldn't have it any other way.
With a smaller organization, the partners shape the firm culture just the way they like it. At Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace all shareholders own the same amount of stock, and attorneys are listed alphabetically on the firm's letterhead, not in the traditional seniority order.
The firm's offices on Fourth Avenue reflect its culture. Stylish in a comfortable, understated manner, the four-story building was part of a downtown redevelopment project constructed where low rent bars once stood. The firm's largest conference room overlooks the gardens and fountain of Horton Plaza. It was the attorneys of Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace who envisioned the once rundown plaza as a beautiful centerpiece for downtown and worked with the city to make the renovation a reality -- yet another example of the firm's devotion to San Diego.
Warren is principal of TW2 Marketing