A Tenacious Bulldog Who Hates to Lose
By Krysten Crawford
From motorist Rodney King to retired L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates and his former assistant Robert Vernon, there’s no doubt that the Los Angeles City Council has weathered its fair share of legal toils and political troubles in recent times.
In these times of urban turmoil, the city has a fistful of local firms on hand to go to bat. But the one that’s been cropping up on the city’s short list lately appears to be Christensen, White, Miller, Fink & Jacobs, the Los Angeles-based litigation firm that rallied behind Republican Richard Riordan’s mayoral bid and, just last month, snared State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr., one of the state’s leading Democratic powers, as of counsel.
With partner Louis “Skip” Miller III at the helm, Christensen White has steered the city through a veritable Briar’s Patch of legal brambles. In June, Mr. Miller won a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the dismissal of a $10 million religious freedom suit brought by former Assistant Police Chief Vernon against the city of Los Angeles. Earlier this year Mr. Miller advised the city on key defense strategies to deal with Rodney King’s multimillion-dollar civil rights suit. And in June of 1992 he helped avert a nasty court battle between the City Council and former Police Chief Daryl Gates who reneged, albeit temporarily, on a promise to retire.
“I’ve never lost a defense case,” boasts Mr. Miller, who also concentrates on entertainment, antitrust, real estate, environmental, general contract, white-collar criminal defense and securities litigation.
“I know how to win,” he says. “A trial lawyer has to roll up his or her sleeves and get in the trenches and figure out what’s really going on.” Sometimes, he says, when he’s defending a case that includes finding a way to “resolve the case without losing in court.
“Clients don’t like to lose,” he says.
Not surprisingly, neither does Mr. Miller. So, once again the city is betting on Christensen White to help beat back a suit filed last month by two Los Angeles unions that sued the council and Mayor Riordan over measures they took in an effort to beef up the city’s police force. Filed in state court, the suit, Brian D’Arcy et al. v. Richard Riordan et al., BC 108098, challenges the transfer of nearly $200 million in Department of Water and Power revenues to city coffers. The unions insist such a hefty shift is not only illegal but also threatens the utility’s ability to maintain its facilities.
City Attorney Jim Hahn interviewed as many as four local firms before settling on Christensen White to advise his office on the matter; the council unanimously endorsed the pick. The case won’t be a fiscal bonanza for 75-lawyer Christensen White though: fees are capped at $25,000, according to Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. Miller declined to comment on fee arrangement or defense strategies in the case.
Mr. Miller, who was once called a “tenacious, bright bulldog,” is described by those who like him as professional, confident, zealous and aggressive. Those who don’t claim he plays too rough and tough. Nobody, though, disputes that Mr. Miller, one way or another, gets results. “There are a handful of people in this business when you meet them you think, “If I was ever in a bunker in a firefight [would I want them] in the bunker with me?” says Yaroslavsky. “I would rather have Skip Miller on my side rather than against me on any day…He’s been doing some great work for us and he’s just an outstanding lawyer. He’s got a reputation as being a tough S.O.B., and he is, and you know it when he’s doing his job. But he fights to win.”
“I’m not difficult,” insists Mr. Miller. I’m straightforward because that’s the nature of my business…I’m never abusive. If the other guy’s gotta work hard because of something I do, that’s too bad. That’s not my business. It’s a tough business and if you can’t stand the heat, then it may not be the right place for some people.”
Riding herd on city’s foes isn’t Mr. Miller’s only crusade. Mr. Miller, a litigator for 22 years, estimates that only 20 percent of his trial practice is spent on city time. The remainder is caught up representing rock musicians Rod Stewart and Paula Abdul, actor Nick Nolte, Southern California Gas Co., The Vons Companies, Paramount Pictures and Prudential Insurance Co., among others, in a host of commercial disputes. In June, Mr. Miller sued the Walt Disney Co. on behalf of TriStar Pictures, alleging copyright infringement over film rights to the book “I Married A Dead Man.”
“He knows what the long-term goal is of any action and he is focused on achieving that goal,” says Yaroslavsky. “He gets on a radar beam and he will end up at that goal, come hell or high water. There’s not a lot of frivolity about him, not a lot of wasted time…We have paid good money for the Christensen White firm, but we’ve gotten our money’s worth and then some.”