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'King of Torts' at 80 : Melvin Belli: Is the Image Tarnishing?

November 29, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Melvin Belli lost his dog.

So Belli, one of the best known personal injury attorneys in the country, placed an ad in a San Francisco newspaper offering the finder three hours of free legal advice or $1,000. The day the ad ran, a columnist at the paper advised whoever found the dog to eschew the legal advice.

Take the money, the columnist urged. In cash.

In other areas of the country, Belli is still "The King of Torts"--still regarded as one of the few lawyer-celebrities who immediately give clout to their client's case.

Malpractice Suits

But in San Francisco, where he has practiced law for 53 years, Belli's reputation is slipping dramatically. Many in the legal community here are familiar with the numerous malpractice suits accusing him and his associates of such things as incompetence and inadequate preparation for trials, and complaining of extensive disarray in his office. Belli, at 80, many lawyers here say, is simply tarnishing an illustrious career.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 3, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
A Nov. 29 article in The Times about attorney Melvin Belli, which referred to malpractice suits filed against Belli and lawyers who have been associated with him, did not specify the associates involved. Current Belli associates Richard E. Brown, George O. Fekete, Steven A. Fabbro, Philip C. Gallagher and Kevin R. McLean are not defendants in any malpractice suit.

His biggest cases now often are far from the city where he invented trial tactics that now are commonplace, where he pioneered the use of graphic and gory "demonstrative evidence" in civil trials, where he won precedent-setting cases and changed the face of personal injury representation.

"He's much more popular outside of the Bay Area, much more likely to get hired by people who don't consult the local legal community," said William Maas, a former managing attorney in Belli's office. "People here are familiar with the problems of his firm; they know about the people who've sued him and collected. People here are critical of Belli."

Belli's recent problems include:

--His firm has been sued for legal malpractice 15 times since 1980, according to disclosures Belli himself has provided in response to one of the suits. Many of the cases are pending.

$5.8-Million Judgment

--One such case resulted in a $5.8-million legal malpractice judgment against Belli and the firm two years ago, one of the largest compensatory judgments ever against a law firm in California. (The firm's liability in the case was later reduced to $3.8 million.) "The mistakes they made were fundamental," said attorney James Bostwick, who filed the suit against Belli. "All very basic things. . . . His reputation in the profession now is extremely poor."

--Belli has been involved in a separate wave of lawsuits with lawyers he has worked with in the past, including his former partner, his former managing attorney and seven other former associates. Many of the suits involve squabbles over clients, after the attorneys left the firm.

--Many lawyers who have worked for Belli characterize the atmosphere in his office as "chaotic," with turnover sometimes causing cases to be handled by numerous attorneys. Attorney Robert Kiernan, who left the firm in 1985, recalls a case in which he was the 14th attorney in the office to represent the client. "It was this wonderful couple on a real estate fraud case and they were so exhausted from telling their story to a different attorney," Kiernan said.

Belli said the reports that his legal skills have deteriorated are untrue. But he acknowledged as "valid criticism" the complaints about disorganization and turnover in his office. Many of his problems, he said, were simply the result of poor administration. The lawyers who handled the case that resulted in the $3.8-million legal malpractice judgment are no longer with the firm. Also gone from the firm, he said, are the attorneys responsible for many of the other malpractice claims.

And, Belli said, he has restructured the office, given more responsibility to a new managing attorney, slowed the "revolving door" and eliminated many of the problems. (However, a comparison of letterheads indicates that seven of the 10 attorneys at the San Francisco office a year ago--not counting Belli and his son, Caesar--have since left the firm.)

'Too Many Cases'

"I was . . . not spending enough time organizing the office," he said. "I'd be into every case that was brought in here--small claims cases and everything. The only time I'd have to prepare for trial was on weekends and maybe the 4th of July. And there were too many cases. I'd be finishing one on Thursday night and picking a jury on Friday.

"People knew I had administrative weaknesses, but they suffered my foibles because they knew there isn't a lawyer in the U.S. who cares as much for his clients or would do as much for his clients as I would. And because of the big verdicts and settlements I got."

Belli can still be very effective in a courtroom because of his charisma and "presence," said Barrie Jean Roberts, who left the firm in 1985. She recalls a recent case where he was "still sharp and clever with the judge," and "had a great rapport with the jury."

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