Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2012
Profiles in the Law
A Different Drummer:
Steven Ungar Follows an Unconventional Route to Legal Success
By Cliff Collins

Steven B. Ungar

The assessment of Andre St. James, a top bassist in Portland who has known Steven B. Ungar for a decade, is that Ungar is a good player with an authentic jazz background, but “if he didn’t practice law, would be a great drummer. He definitely would be a great drummer if that’s the way he wanted to go.”

St. James, who teaches at Reed College and is one of the best-known and most respected figures in Portland’s jazz scene, notes that Ungar was raised in St. Louis, where so many top musicians came from, and that Ungar has taught for more than 30 years at the well-known Stanford Jazz Workshop at Stanford University.

“He knows the music and how to interpret the music,” says St. James. “And also, to be affiliated with that Stanford thing, he was always around a lot of greats.”

Ungar, who specializes in white-collar defense and government affairs at Lane Powell, grew up around music. His father, Sandy, 82, has been a drummer for decades and still plays two or three times a week with a Dixieland jazz band in St. Louis.

“By the time I went to college, I was a card-carrying union musician,” says Ungar. “I wanted to learn more deeply about playing jazz.” That desire led him to go to the University of Wisconsin to study with Count Basie’s arranger and bass trombonist, Jimmy Cheatham.

Ungar has spent many summers in residence at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. “It was not only great experience for learning music, but a great environment for learning discipline and performing with other artists,” he says. “It was a great place to learn about mentoring and being mentored.” At various times he played in San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago, sitting in with such jazz luminaries as Joe Henderson and David Liebman, as well as popular artists Steve Miller and Sly Stone.

Entering Law
He returned to his hometown to complete his undergraduate degree in philosophy and politics at Washington University. His dad, whose day job was as a toy salesman, had always encouraged his son’s musical pursuits, while at the same time reminding him that making a living in music is tough. Ungar realized that in 1976, when, he recalls, “I had a low in getting gigs and began to recall my father’s advice.”

He applied for law school admission at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, which had a specialty in urban historic preservation law. Ungar’s social awareness was mainly what attracted him to the profession. “I grew up in the Civil Rights era of the late ’60s. I was always extremely aware and sensitive to the status and legal rights of African Americans, many of whom started jazz in this country.” Not only had Ungar had several close friends and roommates who were black, but he himself experienced discrimination during college because of being Jewish.

“I became increasingly aware of many causes about social justice and racial inequality,” he says. He thought that if he had to follow a second line of work, it should involve trying to improve civil rights. “I knew the legal system was a major factor in remedying a lot of evils in society.”

During law school he worked in the Kansas City mayor’s office and in the mayor’s law firm. It was at that time that he got bitten by the political bug. After Ungar passed the bar, he formed a two-person general practice and remained in Kansas City for two years.

However, Ungar was still footloose and fancy free, and having seen the West, wanted to see more of it. As a fan of the bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he longed to meet the author, Robert M. Pirsig, who lived in Bozeman, Mont. When Ungar did, he liked Bozeman so much that he moved there. He sold his house in Missouri and lived on a ranch owned by a state senator, who introduced him to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ungar learned to rope calves and “enjoyed the complete change. I wasn’t sure I was going to continue in law.” But he continued playing jazz music, and for insurance studied for and passed the Montana bar exam.

Ungar remained in Bozeman for about nine years, serving as the volunteer president and lobbyist for the ACLU. He helped membership grow dramatically and built a law practice, representing Native Americans and teaching an honors humanities class at Montana State University, where he also represented some professors and the student body.

Finding a Niche
The Big Sky Country presented the setting of two of Ungar’s most formative experiences. First, he represented as special and general counsel a start-up high-tech company that developed lottery system and gaming software. He got to travel all over the world for three or four years, negotiating and setting up government-run lotteries. One frequent destination was Oregon, because the company had a contract with the Oregon Lottery.

Those visits inspired him to move to Portland in 1994, because he saw it as a progressive city and he was ready for a more urban setting. And his experience with the software maker was one of the factors that led then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski to appoint Ungar in 2005 to the Oregon Lottery Commission, which he has chaired for the last five years. In what is a volunteer position serving on the commission, Ungar spends about 10 percent to 15 percent of his working hours handling business related to the lottery.

“It’s very rewarding, my contribution of community service as a citizen and a lawyer,” he says. “It’s also extremely exciting to be working with the governor (he was reappointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber) and the governor’s staff, legislators and legislative staff, and to be participating on the board of a state agency.”

The job sometimes has put him in the hot seat, too. “I definitely know what it’s like to be unfairly characterized in the public’s eye,” Ungar says. He was interested in supporting public schools, state parks and the other causes lottery money goes to, and adds that although people may debate about the “premise” of state-sponsored gambling, there is no debate that the money goes to public uses.

The second Bozeman event that left its mark was known nationally as the “Mountain Man case,” in 1984. It was a complicated, grisly crime involving kidnapping and murder. Representing one of the defendants earned what Ungar jokingly calls his “15 minutes of fame,” with his likeness splashed across People magazine and CNN broadcasts. His client was acquitted of a murder charge, and the case cemented his reputation, at the age of 30, as a criminal defense attorney. It led to numerous other defense cases across the West, and, along with his accumulating experience handling government-related matters, foreshadowed his career at Lane Powell.

An Advocate
Norman Sepenuk, a veteran Portland lawyer who defends fraud and white-collar crime clients, was the first attorney Ungar met and befriended in Oregon, and Ungar considers him a mentor in his legal specialty.

“He’s a very fine lawyer, very thorough and careful in his analysis,” says Sepenuk. “Clients feel that he’s a guy they can trust.” The two lawyers respectively represented the two main defendants in the Capital Consultants fraud case, after which Lane Powell invited Ungar to join the firm, where he became partner two years later.

Musician St. James says Ungar is “a good person, with a good heart,” who is always willing to lend a helping hand to others when they need it. St. James remains convinced that the same work ethic that Ungar applied to law and helped him become a top lawyer (he is AV-rated by Martindale-Hubbell) could have translated just as easily into a musical career if Ungar had chosen that path.

St. James also understands that Ungar is pulled these days in several directions that necessarily have cut back his public appearances behind the drums. One is Ungar’s high-profile legal work, such as last year representing Columbia Sportswear’s Gert Boyle, which again put him in the national news. Another is being a devoted father: Ungar and his wife, Nicole Ruffine, have two sons, ages 8 and 10. Third, he devotes time to community and political commitments such as serving on boards of local and national Jewish organizations and co-chairing Kulongo-ski’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign steering committee.

Fortunately, Ungar finds his chosen field fulfilling. “Colleagues think of me as being an advocate for people accused of wrongs,” he reflects. “I believe in good government institutions. If government is not working properly, it’s very rewarding work to fight for justice and achieve justice.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and since 1991 has been a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2012 Cliff Collins

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