Roger Grable, newly installed president of the Orange County Bar Assn., would prefer never to enter a courtroom.
His clients, the cities of Irvine and La Palma among them, say they like that just fine.
His strengths, those who know Grable say, are his low-key and pragmatic style in the arena of public law and politics, and his rapport with people.
"He can also get attorneys to our meetings when there's a Lakers game on TV that night," said Marjorie Carter, president of the Orange County Women Lawyers and a bar association board member. "That's amazing."
Under his direction, California's third-largest voluntary bar association soon will consider what role to play, if any, in statewide political controversies such as the elections of Supreme Court justices and the so-called "deep pocket" initiative.
At his installation last month, Grable said he wanted the local bar to become involved in state issues. But he acknowledges that that is unlikely in political issues like these. It might, he said, be impossible for the nearly 4,000 attorneys, whose interests range from corporate matters to settling divorces, to reach an accord.
"It's very possible we won't (reach a consensus) on the issues," Grable said in a recent interview, "but it's important to find that out and, if we do, to take action. . . . This year, because of the high visibility of the issues, we'll decide one way or the other.
"The state bar is prohibited from getting involved in (the campaigns of) specific justices; they can't endorse candidates. So if that's going to happen, it's going to happen at the local level."
Traditionally, the bar association has not involved itself in politics but has provided nonpartisan information for attorneys and the public in forums, debates and occasional brown-bag gatherings. It does, however, poll its members on the performance of local judges near election time and publishes those results.
Because of its size, though, the Orange County bar does have the horsepower to affect matters like reform of the California State Bar's disciplinary procedures for attorneys, Grable says.
Top priority now, he believes, is the renovation of the organization's new and permanent headquarters across the street from the Orange County Superior Courthouse in downtown Santa Ana. The 5,500-square-foot building was purchased last spring and is being refurbished to accommodate a conference room and other amenities. Members say the permanent location, which offers services such as lawyer referrals and legal information, will give the bar an identity for attorneys and the public.
Grable, 41, was plunged into public law and politics soon after he passed the state bar in 1971. He and another attorney did all the legal work that led to the incorporation of Irvine, an issue hotly contested by many homeowners.
"He represented the people who were trying to incorporate the city," said Orange County Superior Court Judge David G. Sills, a former Irvine mayor and a city councilman since 1976. "It went all the way to the appellate court. There was an election. There were restraining orders issued by the court," halting the incorporation.
Ultimately, residents voted overwhelmingly to incorporate in 1971. Grable became assistant city attorney in 1973 and city attorney in 1980, a post he has held ever since.
"He's a superb attorney," Sills said. "He's a very bright lawyer, he writes very well and he is very practical when the practical approach is required. . . . He's also very good with people and he's able to relate to non-lawyers and make things understandable."
Grable said he prefers to work outside of the courtroom. "I don't do trial work, not if I can help it," he said. Rather, he prefers "negotiating, drafting documents, as opposed to spending time in court during a trial."
Grable grew up in Newport Beach and comes from a family of teachers. He majored in history with a psychology minor at Brigham Young University in Utah and pursued a legal career because, he said, it "was more a question of not being able to do anything else." He graduated from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
In 1973, after a brief stint with a Newport Beach firm in which former state Sen. Dennis Carpenter was a partner, Grable was working for Rutan and Tucker in Costa Mesa, whose clients include large developers and several Southern California cities and special districts. Grable also has been the city attorney for Laguna Beach and San Clemente.
'Bias Toward Cities'
As city attorney, Grable personally supports the reform proposed in the "deep pockets" initiative. Current law allows winning plaintiffs in personal-injury or wrongful-death suits to reach into the "deep pockets" of the wealthiest or most heavily insured of several defendants, even if the richer defendant is judged only minimally at fault. The initiative, if approved by voters in the June 3 primary election, would limit the liability doctrine's application to actual damages, such as medical costs and lost earnings.
"My bias would be toward the city's best interest," he said. "Cities are almost becoming an insurance company. I think there ought to be some sort of statewide fund" to absorb huge damage awards.
The father of two, one of whom is in law school at the University of Southern California, Grable now lives in Irvine.