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Close-up: David Noonan

Top-ranked lawyer finds giving back is top priority

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David Noonan's list of accolades is almost as long as his tenure in the field, but what keeps him motivated isn't so much being in the top in his field, but the "buzz" of undertaking new challenges.

"I don't like to do the same thing all the time," Noonan said. "There are some efficiencies in that, but I tend to get distracted. I like taking on complex matters that are intellectually challenging."

Noonan, a partner with Kirby, Noonan, Lance & Hoge LLP, keeps his schedule filled not just with the complexities of his cases, but with tasks outside the courtroom as well. He's served as president of the San Diego County Bar Association, which he calls "the most fun I've had practicing law without actually handling cases." He's also current president of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP), a post he's held for the past few years. The organization links those who may not be able to afford legal counsel with volunteer lawyers.

Noonan has always done a lot of volunteer work, and he believes lawyers stand out from other occupations in their power to impact the community.

"The other part of practicing law -- and I'm really vocal about this -- is that I think lawyers have an obligation to provide service to the legal profession or to do pro bono work," he said. "That is, to use their skills for something other than making money. I've always done that."

With the San Diego legal market growing as it has over the past 20 years, there are not only more opportunities to volunteer, but more lawyers to give their time as well. Noonan estimates there are likely four times the lawyers in San Diego now versus in the '70s, when he relocated to the West Coast post-law school at Syracuse University.

"The field used to be far more collegial. Despite San Diego being a decent-size city, there was a kind of small-town practice to it," Noonan said. "It seemed like everybody knew everyone. Now it's bigger and more diverse -- with the geographic bars and specialty bars. And the practice is much more business-oriented."

Noonan believes this increase in the pool of attorneys means it's increasingly important to find a niche to differentiate oneself. His focus now centers largely around antitrust, banking, securities and professional liability. He enjoys representing other lawyers as well as parlaying his experience into acting as an expert witness regarding attorney standard of care, which puts him on the other side of the stand.

One of the cases Noonan is currently involved in is the Qualcomm-Broadcom litigation, for which he's representing some of the attorneys sanctioned. He's also representing Vinson & Elkins, the Houston law firm that the city of San Diego sued for its pension investigation. Another high-profile case for Noonan is acting as co-counsel for John Moores, co-owner of the Padres, who is a defendant in the Peregrine Systems securities litigation case.

Noonan's past cases are just as varied -- and interesting. He's represented Fortune 500 and high-profile companies (like Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE) and Ralph's Grocery Co.), a former Playmate of the Year, and America's Cup yacht racing participants. And he still finds trial work to be some of the most exciting, although he acknowledges that it is the most time-consuming. He notes that for young lawyers starting out today, there aren't as many opportunities for getting into the courtroom.

"Whether you watched 'Perry Mason' or something similar, most wanted to go be a trial lawyer. When I started in the '70s, I used to try anything to get into court -- personal injury, landlord-tenant, anything," Noonan said. "There seemed to be more of those little cases around so you could get into court. You might have had a three-day jury trial, and it wasn't that expensive. Those kinds are hard to find anymore because there's not enough money involved to spend on attorney's fees or costs. That's discouraging."

Noonan adds that even though technology has made the process of going to trial more interesting, such as interactive options to display things to the jury, it has made it more expensive. That is in part why cases continue to settle. Noonan ventures to say that nine out of 10 cases are settled out of court. On the other hand, cases are moving through the court system more quickly.

"There are a lot more procedural hoops to jump through now," Noonan said. "Our judiciary has been fairly progressive in moving cases along. 'Fast-track' was started in the early '90s, and it was culture shock because at the time cases could sit around for two to four years. San Diego had a pilot program to move cases in a year to 18 months."

Whether he's in the courtroom or out in the community, arguing a case or providing expert opinion, Noonan is noticed for his esteem and tenure in the profession -- from an AV Peer Review rating to his listing in the "Best Lawyers in America" for business litigation for the past 10 years.

"All the awards I've gotten are meaningful, but the (Daniel T.) Broderick award, which they give every year to one lawyer for professionalism and civility, was probably the most meaningful," he said. "Not a lot of folks get it, and (it's awarded) only once a year. When you get an award that's really from your peers and people you've known over the years -- that was kind of humbling. It was very meaningful to me and my family."

Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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