|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2008|
As background stories of Oregon State Bar presidents go, Richard S. Yugler’s is anything but boilerplate.
The New Jersey native worked his way through college and law school. Before passing the bar, he was off and on food stamps for years, especially during law school at Lewis & Clark.
"To get through law school, and for most years as an undergraduate, I had no financial support of any kind other than student loans and working numerous jobs," says Yugler, the OSB’s president for 2008. "When the Access to Justice Committee speaks about student debt, I am an old poster boy; it took me 10 years to repay those loans."
Yugler — who goes by the nickname Rick and now is a partner with Landye Bennett Blumstein in Portland — grew up in a Jewish family in Wayne, N.J., within sight of New York City. It was a "nice suburb," but in a town ethnically divided in the 1950’s by restrictive covenants and ethnic quadrants, he says. When he was 15, his parents divorced, and at age 18, he became estranged from his father, a 47th Street jeweler, after a fistfight between father and son that left the younger Yugler with a broken jaw.
Over the next five and a half years, Yugler worked, sometimes two jobs at a time. "I worked some very dirty jobs to become a lawyer: I tarred roads and roofs, worked in a steel fabrication plant cutting and welding sheet metal, operated a backhoe and drove a dump truck as a commercial landscaper." He also managed a nightclub that hosted some big names in the late 70’s music scene.
Yugler had been a standout student at Syracuse University, majoring in philosophy. His plans after that were uncertain. "I went to law school almost by accident. There’s not much you can do with an advanced degree in philosophy," he says. "A professor of jurisprudence saw something in me and suggested that law would be an intellectual challenge. I didn’t know any lawyers and had no idea what they did. Yugler had several choices of law schools, but decided to follow his girlfriend to Oregon, where he attended Lewis & Clark.
There, he was editor of the law review and got a taste for complex business cases while working two part-time jobs: helping to prosecute white-collar crime for Sid Lezak at the U.S. attorney’s office and investigating antitrust compliance for Georgia Pacific Corp. Yugler found law school "a big adjustment," and at first he didn’t care for Oregon’s climate, until his first spring here, he says. "I fell in love with it and knew I wouldn’t go anywhere else."
After passing the bar in 1980, Yugler took a temporary job as an appellate brief writer for Charles J. Merten on a civil rights case brought against the Church of Scientology. That work turned into his becoming an associate at Merten & Saltveit, the surviving partnership of Oregon’s first public interest law firm. Yugler found early success as a civil rights lawyer, becoming expert in the nuances of religious freedom, the First Amendment, civil rights statutes, employment discrimination and tort cases.
Finding His Niche
"I knew I was destined to be a trial lawyer during my first significant jury trial, in 1984, prosecuting a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against teenagers who had sprayed ‘KKK’ and racial epithets and then burned crosses on the front lawn of my African-American clients, terrorizing them throughout the summer," says Yugler. "At the end of my opening statement, the jury was crying, the defendants tearfully apologized, significant compensation was paid, and the jury insisted on deliberating to deliver an ‘apology from the community.’ Of all the cases I’ve brought and tried, this one still resonates deepest for me."
He realized then that he had a gift for trial work, and that he could make a good living as an attorney and "do a lot of good" for people, he says. "My religion teaches that there is an ethical obligation to ‘repair the world’ by making it a better place. You really can do that as a lawyer one case at a time."
Over the past 26 years, his practice has undergone subtle shifts. His first five to six years were representing plaintiffs in Merten’s firms. In the late 1980s, Yugler went solo for a decade. "My practice began to shift to business litigation," he says. A security fraud and racketeering case won him his first verdict exceeding $1 million, and it was at that point that his "career as a business litigator became solidified." He still does some tort, civil rights and accident cases, but mainly focuses on complicated business litigation.
He also had the unusual distinction of taking an insurance class-action trial to a $9.5 Million dollar jury verdict in 2003. When the judgment was entered in 2005, in describing Yugler’s work in that case, Strawn v. Farmers Insurance, Multnomah County Circuit Court Jerome E. LaBarre wrote: "The exceptional outcome, risk, skill of counsel and the other qualitative factors … all support the reasonableness of a large award to class counsel." The judge awarded a total of over $2.8 million to Yugler’s firm, stating that it is important to give incentives to attorneys who pursue consumer protection cases at the risk to themselves that they will receive nothing: "The evidence established that few lawyers in the state of Oregon have what it takes to consider undertaking a risk such as this (case)…. The most accurate metaphor that comes to my mind to describe this case is a climb to the summit of Mount Everest. Few are qualified to undertake it. Those who do must be properly equipped, schooled and conditioned. Even with the best training, equipment and preparations, the risks are enormous. Success is based not only on the quantity of the effort, but on the quality of the skills."
David L. Blount, a partner at Landye Bennett Blumstein and a close friend of Yugler’s since their first day in law school, believes Yugler’s solid work ethic in his early years and during college and law school have benefited him. "It was in that kind of area that he became disciplined and self-sufficient," he says. "That came out when he was solo."
Blount, who invited Yugler to join the firm in 1999, says Yugler possesses a keen sense of humor and a sense of curiosity, and "is intellectual in his pursuits. I’ve always known him to be passionate about what he does; he’s clearly passionate about pursuing his clients’ rights. In terms of his outlook, he’s not afraid to lose a case to pursue justice. That makes you more confident. If you have that passionate dedication to the craft of advocacy, you become a leader."
Yugler’s broad life experience also made him empathetic. "He cares about other people in the community," says Blount. "He created an environment of love and commitment in his family, and it carries over to other people."
Yugler feels his varied background helps him identify with OSB members who practice across the spectrum.
"I was in a small, two-to-three person firm for eight years, was a sole practitioner for more than 10 years, and have been with a midsize firm for the past eight years," he says. "I can well relate to the challenges facing solos, small firms and midsize firms. I have tried major financial fraud cases, wrongful death cases, products liability cases, legal malpractice cases, most types of business disputes, real estate collapses, real property disputes of every stripe, and the most complicated stockholder cases around. I’ve never had a cookie-cutter case." In the past 18 months, Yugler has tried five cases, a shareholder dispute in Portland, a Superfund cost recovery action in Los Angles, one injury case in Portland, a real estate case in Columbia County, and a four-week trial in Deschutes County on behalf a homeowners association.
Projects and Accomplishments
Yugler attributes his passion for volunteer service as being sparked in 1985 by two judges: Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Charles Crookham and LaBarre, who was president of the Multnomah Bar Association in 1986-87.
"They needed help determining an appropriate celebration for the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution," Yugler says. His plan was simple: raise money by sponsoring events for viewing an original copy of the Magna Carta, which was then touring the U.S., then use that money to purchase and distribute tens of thousands of copies of the U.S. Constitution, and hold a public celebration for thousands in Pioneer Square. He even convinced Fred Meyer’s corporate office "to contribute the largest flat-pan cake it had ever baked to feed the multitude." For his efforts, he received the Award of Merit from the Multnomah Bar Association, then joined the MBA board of directors, serving as secretary.
Yugler also became involved with the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. He chaired and was on several OTLA committees and the organization’s Board of Governors for eight years, spoke frequently and wrote articles and briefs for OTLA. He served as president in 2001-02, traveling extensively through Oregon, meeting with trial lawyers to raise money and developing personal contacts that should prove valuable for his OSB presidency. When he joined the OTLA board, it had little money in its reserves and political action committee. He helped put the organization on firm financial ground by helping to grow membership to 1000 member, to set prudent reserves, and oversaw a budget increase from $350,000 to $800,000.
As an OSB member, he served on the Procedure and Practice Committee for three years, the Uniform Civil Jury Instruction Committee for three years, the Local Professional Responsibility Committee for three years, and served for six years on the Disciplinary Board, and was its state chairman. His written materials are still used to teach board members how to prepare a written opinion.
Yugler has been an active supporter of the Classroom Law Project mock trial competitions. "When folks complain about the image of lawyers in the community, the first thing I tell them is that they should support the Classroom Law Project," Yugler says. "It has a tremendous positive effect on community attitudes towards our profession."
Yugler brought some of the same skills to the OSB Board of Governors. He helped bring OSB publications online with BarBooks. While serving on the Board of Governors, Yugler also served as the major donor chairman of the Ainsworth School Foundation, helping to raise over $400,000 for "buying back" teachers lost as a result of state budget cuts. He also served as chair of its Member Services Committee and actively participated in its Public Affairs Committee.
One of Yugler’s proudest accomplishments as a Board of Governors member is his advocacy for the judiciary. He was one of its leaders in lobbying the Legislature in 2007 to achieve a 19.4 percent increase in judicial salaries and a revitalization of the State Compensation Committee. In 2005-2006, he suggested the OSB provide comment in opposition to the ballot title that became Ballot Measure 40. As far as he could determine, that represented the first time the OSB had provided a statement in opposition to a ballot measure in the voters’ pamphlet. "In 2006 we provided information to the public and to opinion makers about the destruction that Measure 40 would cause to the courts," he explains. "Many bar members and Board of Governors members have noted that these political activities were a radical change for the board. I am very, very happy about my work to have the board take this risk, and am pleased to I say that I helped the bar contribute to the defeat of Measure 40."
The 2008 Agenda
Yugler’s priorities for his presidential year revolve around emphasizing volunteerism and member services. "I am troubled at the decrease in volunteerism affecting the bar and all nonprofit organizations," he says. "There is a big demographic difference in volunteerism."
He says the urge to serve found in the Silent Generation and the baby boomers fell off with so-called Generation X but should increase with the Millennial Generation . "There still are leaders there, but fewer people are willing to take the time. That’s a big challenge, to change the way the bar works to meet their needs. Gen-X is very comfortable with electronic and episodic volunteering. We have to open doors to participation, because the percentage of people volunteering is decreasing."
Yugler will have the privilege of serving as the first OSB president presiding in the bar’s new building in Tigard. "I am going to be using the new bar center for all the different bar groups and sections to engage members to encourage lawyers to volunteer their time to their profession and the community." He plans a series of open houses for committees, sections, specialty bars, judges and others. Tours of the facility will also serve a needed social function, says Yugler, who was a strong supporter of selling the old building and moving into a new center, as long as doing so did not involve raising members’ dues.
"I look at the building as improvement of an essential member service," he says. "The facility should be the center of services we deliver. It’s going to last a whole new generation of lawyers, with room to expand."
Oregon’s state bar is mandatory, but in addition to its regulatory functions, it also contains all of the elements of a voluntary bar, such as offering: continuing legal education programs; support for access to justice programs like the Campaign for Equal Justice; a new Loan Repayment Assistance Program; affordable insurance for all under the PLF; and the Leadership College. "The bar does a lot more than people realize," Yugler says.
The OSB needs to continue to grow its activities and enhance "bar branding," he says. Right now, members might receive a dozen different e-mails from the OSB, from various sections and functions, and "that’s too much. We want to pull that all together, like you customize your front page of your Yahoo log-in: one consolidated place that captures everything for your interests in the bar."
Another priority for Yugler is to assist Chief Justice DeMuniz’s "e-courts" initiative for state courts, to bring them into the 21st century. As is already in place with federal courts, lawyers could, among other functions, file pleadings and documents electronically. "The chief’s initiative will do even more, enabling the payment of fees electronically and eventually electronic access all court files and dockets."
This year will also have an election where Initiative 51, a 10 percent limitation on contingency fees, will probably qualify for the ballot. The bar’s experience opposing Measure 40 will lay the ground work for the Bar’s implementation of the House of Delegates Resolution calling on the board to oppose this initiative. "It is unnecessary and one sided," Yugler says. "We need to inform the public that this measure threatens their access to justice. It interferes with a competitive market for legal services, impacts multiple practice areas, and takes away the keys to the courthouse for many individuals and small businesses who cannot afford to pay a law firm by the hour."
"An Unabated Passion"
Despite his many service-related activities, Yugler values time spent with his family. His wife of 21 years, Christine Tarpey, is an artist specializing in printmaking. She also volunteers as a docent at the Portland Art Museum. They have two children, a son who is a freshman at the University of San Francisco, and a daughter in the 8th grade.
Yugler remains on good terms with his mother who resides in Florida. He and his father reconciled after his grandmother told his dad that Rick was in law school. There was "a bit of thawing," particularly after Yugler’s son was born 18 years ago, he says, noting that his father was proud that he became a lawyer, and "doubly proud that I did it by myself."
Yugler played squash at the Multnomah Athletic Club for a decade, and still enjoys downhill snow skiing. He was on his high school’s ski racing team, which got to race in Italy when he was 16, his only visit to Europe so far. Yugler also is a 15-handicapper in golf. "I’m working at it. It’s a totally humbling" game, he says.
Yugler calls serving as president of the OSB "a great privilege and honor and, perhaps the highest compliment I may ever receive as a professional. I’ve come a long way from the days of food stamps, and have never forgotten the many kindnesses shown to me by lawyers who helped me along the way.
"I have an unabated passion for service, and truly enjoy getting things done that will make our bar a much better place and leave it better prepared to meet challenges in the future."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2008 Cliff Collins