About 30 years ago, a young Stanford law graduate named Ellis J. Horvitz decided he didn't care for what most lawyers did. Of a more scholarly bent, he figured his real calling was appeals work.
Today Horvitz, Levy & Amerian, which the young lawyer founded, is California's biggest civil appeals firm and also perhaps the most highly regarded. It represents clients from all over the country, and Horvitz himself is a regular before the state Supreme Court.
The Encino firm also has been the scene of some turmoil. A series of lawyers have left over the years, including four partners, and a dispute with one, former partner Irving H. Greines, got so bad that it is being arbitrated by a retired judge.
None of this has stopped the Horvitz firm from growing. It's in the midst of an expansion that has increased the number of partners from two to six, and that, Horvitz said, will likely boost billings 50% this year.
The additions include two defectors from the Beverly Hills firm of Ervin, Cohen & Jessup, including former Judge Richard Amerian of the state Court of Appeal.
Gideon Kanner, a Loyola Law School professor who was founding president of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers, said that Horvitz, Levy is the state's premiere appellate firm and that Horvitz and his colleagues are known as excellent lawyers.
Horvitz said he chose appellate law for its combination of scholarship and courtroom argument: "It's a little more academic than some of the other fields, although it's got the excitement of litigation."
The 58-year-old Horvitz is widely described as a methodical lawyer who loves good food, consumes and collects fine wine and is a funny storyteller.
One reason for his firm's success is its intense specialization; Horvitz said it does nothing but civil appellate work, much of it for insurance companies. Its clients have included major insurers such as Allstate, State Farm and 20th Century as well as the California Medical Assn. and Los Angeles County.
Horvitz, who teaches appellate advocacy at the University of Southern California Law Center, also handled years of appeals surrounding the California Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975, which limited compensation for malpractice victims and also limited the fees of their lawyers. Horvitz was retained by the California Hospital Assn. to defend the law and was instrumental in having its constitutionality upheld.
Experts say the status of Horvitz, Levy as a top firm in carrying cases beyond the trial level will be bolstered by the addition of Amerian, 48, who left the bench two years ago. Amerian said he switched firms because he wanted to concentrate on appeals instead of the trial-appellate mix that he was doing at Ervin, Cohen.
Rival Firm Formed
Amerian has come to a firm that has had its share of turbulence. In 1983, dissension at Horvitz, Levy was such that partners Greines and Alan G. Martin and two associates quit to form a rival appeals firm in Beverly Hills.
Neither side will say much about the rift, but hard feelings persist.
Martin called Horvitz difficult to get along with but added that "many of the problems there are not atypical of firms that grow up around a single individual."
Horvitz, meanwhile, said Martin and Greines (pronounced grayness) were "brimming with ill will" toward him.
Two other ex-Horvitz partners, Marc J. Poster and Edward J. Horowitz, would say little about why they left the firm other than that they wanted to practice on their own.
Wendy Cole Lascher, president of the state appellate lawyers' academy, said the firm's skilled alumni are seeded liberally across the Southern California legal landscape. As for Horvitz, she said his style is extremely cautious.
"He's not on the cutting edge of anything that isn't safe," she said.
With 18 lawyers, Horvitz, Levy is relatively modest in size as law firms go. Firms specializing in corporate law can number several hundred attorneys doing a wide range of work, sometimes with offices in several cities.
But like trial law, appellate advocacy is a specialty marked by individual practitioners or small firms, and in that respect, Horvitz, Levy is unusually large.
It also is big for the San Fernando Valley, where it appears to have more lawyers than any other firm and where it located because Horvitz said he didn't want to commute any farther from his Northridge home.
Location isn't important for most appeals lawyers because appeals are based only on the record already generated in the trial court, so clients don't need to be consulted often. And they never take depositions, conduct evidence gathering or make jury pleas.
Instead, appeals specialists like Horvitz spend their time researching the law and preparing the briefs that are together the heart and soul of their case.
"We're really writers," said Edward L. Lascher, who practices with his wife, Wendy, in Ventura. "What we do orally doesn't make such a difference."