The prominent Los Angeles law firm of Wyman Bautzer Kuchel & Silbert has won a major victory over a group of former partners who left in 1988 and took some of the company's biggest clients with them.
Retired temporary Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester E. Olson ruled Monday that partners of Wyman Bautzer--then known as Wyman Bautzer Christensen Kuchel & Silbert--did not force out the group of 12 partners, who were led by a former colleague, Terry N. Christensen. Christensen, who left in 1987 to work for financier Kirk Kerkorian, tried to engineer a return to the firm early in 1988--reportedly as managing partner--but no agreement could be reached.
A split developed, and the 12 Wyman Bautzer partners joined Christensen to form a law firm called Christensen, White, Miller, Fink & Jacobs. The group then sued to dissolve the old Wyman Bautzer partnership, contending that relations had become too bitter for the partners to work together.
Among other things, the Christensen group also objected to the way that 1988 income was distributed after the breakup.
Olson ruled that the Christensen group "improperly solicited" clients of Wyman Bautzer to try to persuade them to leave the firm and hire the Christensen group. This was done even before the Christensen lawyers left Wyman Bautzer, he said. Some of the clients who switched firms were Capital Cities/ABC, MGM/UA and Campbell Soup.
"A certain amount of dissension and angst lurks in the cavernous streets of Century City and pervades the business of the practice of law there and in other parts of metropolitan Los Angeles County," Olson wrote. "Therefore, what might at first blush appear to be insoluble disputes, bitterness and dissension become management problems capable of solution, at least when they are not subjected to the outside interference imposed by Christensen."
Christensen denied that his firm did anything wrong in soliciting clients or in the way the lawyers left Wyman Bautzer.
"Clients have a right to change law firms whenever they want to," he said. Christensen said the firm plans to appeal the decision.
Howard L. Weitzman, a partner with Wyman Bautzer, called the ruling "a complete and total win."
"There's nothing wrong with leaving and going into business for yourself, and there's nothing wrong with competing," Weitzman said. But, he added, "when they actually made the move, they tried to blow up the law firm."
The ruling detailed some contentious doings at Wyman Bautzer, including a "temper tantrum" by one attorney during a partners meeting (he stayed with the firm) and the appropriation by another attorney (who left with the dissidents) of eight choice Dodger season tickets.
At the time, the tickets were the subject of a lawsuit filed by Rosalind Weiner Wyman, widow of one of the law firm's founders. Wyman, who as a member of the Los Angeles City Council was instrumental in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, contended that the law firm breached an agreement that would have given her the chance to buy the front-row box seats behind the Dodger dugout under certain conditions.
That dispute was smoothed over. The tickets were returned to Wyman Bautzer, and a settlement was negotiated under which Rosalind Wyman gets the seats for one out of every three games.
In the upcoming part of the trial that determines the amount of damages, Christensen White must show "that there is no causal connection between their breach of duty and the loss of certain clients of the old Wyman firm," Olson said. That phase also will determine whether Wyman Bautzer owes Terry Christensen any more money after previously paying him $271,000.