ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Brain Trust : Lead Attorney in County Bankruptcy Earned a Whiz Kid Reputation by Resolving Big Cases

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He skipped a year of college, finished law school at the age of 23 and zipped along the fast track to make partner at his prestigious law firm a year ahead of schedule.

He has been an attorney only half as long as Robert L. Citron served as Orange County's treasurer.

Now Bruce Bennett, a 36-year-old, Brooklyn-born whiz kid who spent his collegiate summers designing computer software for a top New York investment bank, is the lead attorney in the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. He is charting new legal territory as he maneuvers to save the county from the mess Citron left.

Even his wife, who is a corporate litigator, said that when she met Bennett four years ago while collaborating on a case, she wondered what a man so young was doing with a job so big.

"Here he was at the center of this huge, $6-billion bankruptcy and he looked like a kid," Paula Bennett recalled of what was then her husband's biggest case, the restructuring of a large Canadian retail outfit. "I'm not intimidated by very many people, and I was intimidated by Bruce."

Colleagues in the clubby, complex field of bankruptcy law say Bennett's intimate understanding of the world of finance combines with his fast mind--and fast mouth--to make him a star.

"He is just, simply, the best there is" in his field, said Philip Slayton, a Canadian corporate lawyer.

But friends also call him with questions about everything from architecture to quantum mechanics because of his uncanny ability to remember virtually all he reads.

Paula Bennett says her high-powered husband, who commands $375 an hour (the price tag will jump $10 in January) is uncommonly considerate. He insisted that the couple paint her mother's house themselves when he was unhappy with the contractors, and asks her brother, a reporter, for daily faxes of his articles.

Raised in the New York suburb of New City, Bennett and his younger brother, Perry, both learned to program computers to please their engineer father. Perry followed his father's lead and became an engineer, too, while Bruce's wizardry with numbers seemed to propel him toward Wall Street.

At Brown University in Providence, R.I., Bennett took a rigorous double major in applied mathematics and economics, graduating magna cum laude in three years.

Working summers and some weekends at Salomon Bros., the Wall Street firm now helping Orange County untangle its failed investment portfolio, Bennett worried that he would burn out early from a career in investment banking and instead headed to Harvard Law School.

Although Bennett was among the youngest in his class, "this guy was just way ahead of the rest of us," said classmate Steve Lunghino. "Nobody failed to notice how bright Bruce was," Lunghino said. "It did not escape anybody's attention."

Bennett said he sought a specialty that combined law and finance. "If you interview the entering class at Harvard Law School, or any class, no one is going to say they want to be a bankruptcy lawyer," he said.

But a professor at Harvard, impressed with Bennett's understanding of finance, steered him toward Stutman, Treister & Glatt, a small operation of 30 lawyers in Los Angeles that handles nothing but bankruptcies, an area of the law they prefer to call "restructuring."

"The first summer he was there, we had a particularly challenging case," Isaac Pachulski said. "He was a summer clerk. He was working under supervision. But later we laughed about the way he had taken charge of the case."

It was not long before Bennett was in charge of big cases.

He restructured Storage Technologies' subsidiaries in Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. He reorganized Amoco Corp. as it acquired Dome Petroleum Ltd., which had $5.3 billion in debt. He designed the deal to divide the assets of U.S. subsidiaries of Campeau Corp. when the company went bankrupt. And he represented equity holders when Olympia and York Developments Ltd. failed.

"The thing I'm most proud of is just that I've got them done. I haven't yet had a major case fall apart on me," Bennett said over a cellular phone as he drove from Santa Ana to his Brentwood home late one night last week.

Lawyers from Los Angeles to New York to Toronto brag about Bennett's remarkable success in the Campeau case, where he designed a deal that somehow pleased competing creditors.

"While the rest of the world was trying to figure out what the best litigation strategy was and how many lawyers were going to be in on it, what Bruce did is take the claims, pencil in the amounts, and sitting--probably in a quiet room by himself--and figuring out the financial strategy between dozens of parties," said Michael Morris, a Stutman, Treister partner.

Bennett has his faults, friends and colleagues say.

At a party celebrating the end of the Campeau case, a Canadian lawyer played Bennett in a skit as a whiny, arrogant, control freak whose insecurity exploded when he thought things were happening behind his back.

Others who have worked with him said Bennett, like many super-brains, gets frustrated when those around him cannot keep up.

"He finds it difficult sometimes to tolerate people who aren't very smart," said Michael Parks, president of Aurora National Life Insurance Co. and a close friend.

Outside the office, friends praise Bennett's sly, subtle sense of humor and keen interest in a range of topics.

An avid cyclist, he postponed proposing to Paula until their bicycling vacation in the south of France, finally popping the question on a bridge in Paris. When his son, Adam, was born eight months ago, he took a three-month sabbatical from work to stay at home. Joel, Bennett's 9-year-old son from his first marriage, lives on the East Coast but visits during school vacation.

Lately, Bennett's avocation has been architecture. He plans to tear down the $895,000 Spanish-style house he has lived in since 1985 and start over. He spends hours poring over blueprints, hoping to understand every detail. He reads Architectural Digest as religiously as the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times is delivered daily to his home, but because the paper's West Coast edition often omits local news articles by his brother-in-law, Richard Perez-Pena, Bennett gets a second daily dispatch of New York news by fax.

"He's not a lawyer 24 hours a day, which I appreciate," Perez-Pena said. "For a non-journalist, he is extremely knowledgeable about journalism. He'll sit there and pick my brain about it for a long time. He's very perceptive."

Bruce Scott Bennett

* Born: 1958, Brooklyn, N.Y.

* Education: Brown University, magna cum laude, 1979; Harvard Law School, cum laude, 1982.

* Career: Partner in Stutman, Treister & Glatt, a small Los Angeles firm specializing in bankruptcy law. County is paying him $375 an hour.

* Family: Married for two years to Paula Bennett, also an attorney, father of 8-month-old Adam. Also father of Joel, 9, from first marriage.

* Residence: Brentwood.

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