Siegel & Yee culture encourages political involvement, activism

Business and politics mix freely at Oakland’s Siegel & Yee.

Name partner Daniel Siegel sits on Oakland’s school board and is pondering a run for mayor. Associate Jane Brunner is an Oakland city councilwoman; name partner Alan Yee is the ex-president of the local community college board; and Siegel’s wife, of counsel Anne Weills, is active in anti-war circles. Associates have the political bug too–one drafted the “just cause” eviction ordinance that Oakland voters passed in November .

Occasionally, there are clashes. For example, Mayor Jerry Brown, state Senator Don Perata and Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan support Brunner, Siegel said, but they don’t like him.

But inside the office, the firm lawyers say there’s a deep respect for one another and political histories that stretch back to their college days.

“Sometimes we are on the same page, sometimes we are not,” Weills said. “We do have this interlocking history and in the long run, I think that we help each other even if we don’t agree.”

That history and the firm’s political passion date back to the senior attorneys’ days as campus activist, which is how Weills, Brunner and Siegel crossed paths. Yee said he first encountered Siegel 25 years ago at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. Early in their legal careers, Siegel and Yee worked at a law collective that represented rank-and-rile union members in union governance disputes. The pair parted ways in 1987, when Siegel left to work for the San Francisco city attorney’s office and the school district’s legal office. They became partners in 1994 and began their firm, which has six attorneys and specializes in plaintiff-side employment disputes and tenure denial cases.

In addition to mulling a mayoral run, Siegel was at the center of the fiscal crisis at Oakland public schools. The state recently gave the district a $100 million bailout loan #151; the largest such loan in state history – stripped the school board of its power, and took over the district. Siegel argued against the takeover, which was triggered by accounting missteps.

And when Oakland police fired “non-lethal” ammunition at anti-war protesters at the Port of Oakland April 7, Siegel & Yee attorneys were also in the middle of the fray. Anne Weills was a National Lawyers Guild observer at the port protest. Siegel, who was also there, said he was one of the people hit by projectiles.

Weills said she, Brunner, the mayor and other city leaders met later that day and set up a public forum on the police action. The City Council has ordered an independent investigation of the incident.

“The outside political work is considered to be part of their jobs even if they don’t get paid for it,” said associate R. Hunter Pyle. Both he and another associate, Noreen Farrell, say that Siegel & Yee’s political involvement attracted them to the firm.

And the firm is sympathetic when political duty calls, said Pyle, who helped draft a local “just cause” eviction ballot measure. Siegel never questioned why Pyle had to leave work at 4:30 p.m. to man phone banks, the associate said. And Brunner said the firm is flexible when council or election duties require large amounts of time.

Yee–not to be confused with Siegel’s colleague on the school board, Gary Yee–said being a lawyer and being an activist are linked.

“The reason that I went to law school is because I wanted to help the community,” said Yee, who was appointed to the Peralta Community College board in 1989 and elected to a four-year term in 1990.

He has been focused on his civil practice since he lost his 1994 bid for another term on the Peralta board, but he still keeps a hand in local issues, such as the effort to reopen the troubled Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

No Politics in the Courtroom

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But despite their high political profile outside the courtroom, firm lawyers try to leave it behind during litigation. In fact, one Sacramento lawyer said Brunner rarely talks about her other job.

“I didn’t know that she was on the City Council for quite some time,” said Nancy Sheehan, a partner at Porter, Scott, Weiberg & Delehant. Sheehan is outside counsel for UC-Davis, and has opposed Brunner on two tenure cases that settled outside of court.

Sheehan said Brunner was a “good advocate for her clients” and “very professional.”

Although Siegel & Yee handles other civil work, it has become known for representing university employees in employment disputes, particularly those who feel that they have been passed over for tenured posts. One of their best-known clients was Jenny Harrison, a mathematics instructor who sued UC in 1989 for denying her tenure and for sex discrimination. As part of a 1993 settlement she eventually was given a full professorship.

Since then, the firm has handled several such cases. Most recently, Weills and Siegel were part of the legal team that represented Fred Shoucair, a Lebanese electrical engineer who was denied tenure at Brown University. Shoucair v. Brown, PC 96-2896, resulted in a $1,157,000 jury verdict, Weills said.

Attorneys who represent universities say such cases involve complex, years-long tenure processes with many checks and balances. The cases can be difficult for plaintiffs attorneys because universities are armed with extensive documentation to support their decision to deny tenure.

“This is not a type of case where you make a demand letter, file a lawsuit, and it quickly settles,” said Michael Loeb, a Bingham McCutchen partner.

Loeb said some plaintiffs attorneys head for the television cameras when they sue universities, but Siegel & Yee lawyers are more low key.

“Dan is a tenacious litigator,” Loeb said, adding that, politically, Siegel is “fearless.”

“I think that he is undaunted by pressure since he is used to dealing with high-pressure cases and high-profile cases,” Loeb said.

Friends and Enemies

Siegel said he is deciding whether he will run for mayor when Mayor Jerry Brown is termed out in 2006.

“Whether I will or won’t do it depends on the next 18 months,” Siegel said, referring to the school district’s financial recovery.

If Siegel runs in 2006 that field could also include Perata, School Board President Greg Hodge and City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel. All have expressed interest in the job.

Brown, who revived his Bar card in May after it was inactive for six years, has said he may run for attorney general. Brown and Perata did not return calls asking for comment for this story.

All that political maneuvering has spilled over into the current Oakland schools crisis. Siegel, who opposed the takeover, bumped heads with Perata and Brown, who supported it. Siegel and Brown have also clashed over Dennis Chaconas, the ex-superintendent, and a measure that allowed Jerry Brown to put his appointees on the board.

But Brunner said the fireworks between Siegel and the mayor haven’t led to friction between Brown and herself. And she even once arranged a conciliatory meeting between the mayor and Siegel, but “they never bridged the gap,” she said.

Brunner said she has also been able to maintain a close relationship with Jordan, although Jordan and Siegel clashed recently.

Jordan said Siegel “attacked me in the press needlessly” when Jordan’s office would not allow the school district to use bond money to cover its multimillion-dollar shortfall. The attorney general issued an opinion that supported that decision, Jordan said.

Before that spat, Jordan she, she, Brunner and Siegel were good friends who had worked together on labor and education issues for decades. Brunner and Siegel worked on Jordan’s successful council and school board campaigns. Jordan backed Brunner’s bid to take over Jordan’s council seat and worked closely with Siegel when he was the Oakland school district’s in-house lawyer. Siegel represented Jordan in court when a rival superintendent candidate challenged whether Jordan could be called a “teacher” on the ballot.

Siegel “was willing to give up a 30-years friendship” over the bond issue, Jordan said.

Brunner predicted that this will cool off. “I know them both really well,” Brunner said. “As time passes, the friendship will come back.”


Dealing with Conflicts

Being politically active means extra vigilance about potential conflicts of interest, firm lawyers say. With a few exceptions, the firm doesn’t do any work connected to the school board or city hall. Yee does represent a few clients that have ties to the city, such as the business that operates Montclair Golf Course.

Oakland City Attorney John Russo, a former City Council member, hasn’t seen much in the way of conflict problems. “Since I have been city attorney, Jane [Brunner] has been very careful about it,” he said.

But a few issues have cropped up.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson criticized Brunner in 2000 for representing her boyfriend James Nixon’s company when it was involved in a dispute with the owners of the Rotunda Building. Although Brunner recused herself from voting on issues related to the project, she improperly used her city hall clout when she and law partner Yee worked out the deal, Johnson wrote.

Brunner said the city ethics commission probed the issue and found there was no conflict. “I did nothing wrong,” Brunner said, adding that she once decided not to represent a port employee to avoid a potential conflict.

The alliances are complex at Siegel & Yee.

Weills, the of counsel, said Russo’s office is in the midst of figuring out if Brunner’s position on the City Council prevents Weills from representing protesters who were injured during the April port incident.

Russo said he hadn’t been alerted to that issue yet, but he would look into it.

Weills is an officer in the National Lawyers Guild, which traditionally provides legal help to demonstrators. She wants to join the group of attorneys that plans to file a civil rights suit against the city. Weills, who called the police action “off the charts,” said she doesn’t think her role poses a conflicts problem for Brunner because Weills is an of council who maintains her own legal practice.

“I don’t want to do anything that will hurt the [protestors’] suit,” Weills said. “If I am going to be a problem, I’ll bow out.”

Meanwhile, Siegel said he may file suit to fight the state’s move to strip the school board’s powers. Unlike other school districts that have been taken over by the state, Oakland has made educational improvements that could be jeopardized if the board is stripped of power.

Roy Combs, the in-house attorney for the school district, could not be reached for comment. However, Jordan, the county schools superintendent, said that she doesn’t think Siegel would get far with such a suit. If he did, that state would be sending a message to districts that they can foul up school finances without any consequences, she said.

Still, Siegel said the issue intrigues him because he hasn’t found much case law on the topic.

“We would hate to see an administrator to be so focused on the fiscal recovery of the district that the quality of education will be sacrificed,” Siegel said.