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Kurt W. Melchior Has Been One of California’s Best Complex Litigation Attorneys for the Past Fifty-Seven Years

published August 05, 2013

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Professional Overview

Kurt W. Melchior Has Been One of California’s Best Complex Litigation Attorneys for the Past Fifty-Seven Years
Kurt W. Melchior is a partner and general counsel at Nossaman LLP and whose careers demonstrate the highest of professional attainment and principles.

Mr. Melchior has more than fifty years' experience in complex litigation, which includes insurance coverage litigation. He has tried many jury and non-jury cases to judgment and has been counsel of record in more than seventy published cases.

Mr. Melchior defends major antitrust cases asserting price fixing and other restraints of trade, represents policyholders in large-scale insurance coverage suits, acts as an expert witness with respect to insurance coverage and professional responsibility issues, litigates antitrust, consumer fraud, securities, contract and real estate issues, which includes many class actions (two class actions tried to verdict, one described by Court of Appeal as an "epic trial drama"), and represents attorneys, accountants and physicians on issues of professional competence.

In October 2010, Mr. Melchior authored Off the Record: Sidebars from a Trial Lawyer's Life, which includes a series of real life stories drawn from his sixty-two years of trial experience.

Over the years, he has been awarded with several distinctions. From 2008 to 2013, Mr. Melchior has been chosen for inclusion in the "Best Lawyers in America" guide for Insurance Law. He also has been recognized by San Francisco Magazine in 2004 through 2013 as a Northern California "Super Lawyer" in Business Litigation and Civil Litigation Defense Law. Mr. Melchior became a member of the State Bar of California Litigation Section's Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame in 2004.

He was born in Essen, Germany, and resided in Chicago, IL. Mr. Melchior graduated with a Ph.B. in International Relations from the University of Chicago. He went on to receive his master's degree from the University of Chicago. Mr. Melchior also earned his LL.B. from Yale Law School, where he wrote for the Yale Law Journal and was awarded the prestigious Order of the Coif.

When the tireless attorney isn't working, he enjoys crossword puzzles and he is an avid reader. He also enjoys classical music and collects modern art. Mr. Melchior roots for the San Francisco Giants and 49ers. He is a frequent visitor of Bacco, an authentic regional Italian cuisine restaurant located in San Francisco. Mr. Melchior is currently re-reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Mr. Melchior's Memories and Motivations

Does Mr. Melchior have a most memorable law school experience? He explained that the law school atmosphere was very different than his undergrad studies. Mr. Melchior said that his law classmates were tremendously loyal to their class and to the Law School. He pointed out that thirty to forty law students who graduated with him are still living, and still remain close. The law school professors provided vast food for thought, not just about what the law was but what, in a good society, it should be.

The Super Lawyer was asked if he received any awards or participated in activities that influenced his decision to go into the law. While attending the University of Chicago, Mr. Melchior studied under Professor Hans Morgenthau, who was one of the leading twentieth-century figures in the study of international politics. Morgenthau made landmark contributions to the study of international law and the study of international relations theory. The professor wrote Politics Among Nations, published in 1948, which went through five editions during his lifetime. The textbook was used for decades in its field in U.S. universities.

Morgenthau asked Mr. Melchior what he wanted to do after he earned his master's degree. The professor scornfully claimed, "You are not going to work for the State Department?" Mr. Melchior told him he wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Morgenthau recommended Mr. Melchior to take one year of law school, "just one year, because they understand social structure better than we political scientists do;" which ultimately influenced his decision to go to law school.

Why did Mr. Melchior decide to become an attorney? He jokingly stated, "I went to law school to study social science, but after three years of law school, I needed a job." After law school, Mr. Melchior interned for the U.S. Senate Preparedness Subcommittee; but during his eight-month internship, his job was to check the constituent mail. Mr. Melchior then landed a job at the Department of Justice, where he tried fifty to sixty cases during a five-year span. He said, "I didn't want to work in private practice. I decided to work for the government for the common good." Mr. Melchior continued to say that that experience, and working outside the government for the past fifty years has made him skeptical of that ideal's fulfillment. After leaving the DOJ, he has resided in San Francisco and practiced law there since 1956.

So what is the best part of his job? "Working with my colleagues at the firm. Our firm has honest people and they get along with each other. There is a lot of collaboration."

What is Mr. Melchior known for professionally? The humorous attorney said, "How would I know what I'm known for? I think that I write well, and I am more intellectual than most trial lawyers."

Is there an area of the law he is most passionate about? "I am passionate about the Bill of Rights and freedom."

When asked what his strengths and weaknesses were, Mr. Melchior acknowledged, "I am an intellectual litigator, which is an odd combination." As for his weakness, he noted, "I don't give enough of a damn about money."

What does Mr. Melchior think about the legal field today? "It's too bureaucratic. There is too much emphasis on money and no loyalty. Individuals come and go from law firms, which causes instability. Attorneys don't have trial experience because cases are settled all the time. Most cases should settle, but some things don't settle."

If he weren't a lawyer, what would he probably be doing? "Teaching."

Where does Mr. Melchior see himself in five years' time? "I hope to be alive." The trial lawyer is eighty-eight years old and still going strong.

What motivates him to be an attorney every day? "1) It's a habit. It's what I do. 2) It's worth doing and it stimulates my mind. This profession teaches you about justice and the people you rely on."

How does Mr. Melchior want to be remembered? "That I made the world a better place by using my skills to the best of my ability."

High Profile Cases and Writing a Book

Mr. Melchior has tried many non-jury and jury cases to judgment and has been counsel of record in more than seventy published cases. Which case stands out? "I have tried two class actions to verdict. One of these cases was tried for six months before a hostile judge and a jury." Mr. Melchior was referring to Richmond v. Dart Industries. "This case involved claims by a class of 6,000 lot buyers, charging [the] client with consumer fraud in the sale of subdivision lots." Potential punitive as well as general damages ranged up to 100 million dollars or more. After six months of trial, the jury returned a 9 to 3 verdict for the defense.

Mr. Melchior said, "I thought it was an epic trial drama, which is how the appellate court described it in its review. The worst part of the case was that one day a sealed note was passed underneath my door at night. They wanted to settle for 30 million dollars, but would not discuss the offer with me and only with house counsel." He stated that he resolved the case by seeing the trial through to the end, with the client's complete support.

Mr. Melchior also discussed Trimont Land Company v. Truckee Sanitary District. "This case was tried to the court without a jury." It was a case of contract interpretation, which involved highly complex matters concerning the allocation of scarce community resources. The trial court granted the entire remaining sanitary disposal capacity to one developer. This imposed, in effect, a permanent building ban on the rest of the community, which included Mr. Melchior's client. His client had intervened on behalf of the defense. This judgment was reversed on appeal. What did Mr. Melchior learn from this case? The candid trial lawyer said the judge wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. A court reporter later asked Mr. Melchior how he tolerated the judge. "You do what you can to win."

What cases is he the most proud of? Of course, winning that 6,000 person class action was unforgettable. So was his leading a 20 lawyer team which tried a billion dollars' worth of insurance coverage questions in one action, with the Phase One trial alone lasting a full year. But he is perhaps proudest of his advocacy, long ago, on behalf of a psychiatrist who was prepared to go to jail to protect the confidentiality of his patients' information. "That case, Lifschutz v. Superior Court, owes much to Dr. Lifschutz's courage on behalf of his principles. The case made great law on behalf of patient confidentiality and was well ahead of its time."

The attorney wrote Off the Record: Sidebars from a Trial Lawyer's Life. What lessons does the book reveal? "The book explains to attorneys and to others interested in the law that lawyers need to be on their toes and ready at all times during a case because anything can happen."

Mr. Melchior's Mentor and His Mentoring Others, Pro Bono Work, Non Profit Organizations and His Goals

Does Mr. Melchior have a mentor? Is he a mentor? George Buland, general counsel of the Southern Pacific Company at a time of its ascendancy in California, has been Mr. Melchior's mentor. Buland was a subtle, intelligent and diplomatic man who taught Mr. Melchior how to deal with complex social issues that confront lawyers. Mr. Melchior claimed, "I am currently mentoring young attorneys at the firm."

Does he handle pro bono work? "I handle a lot of pro bono work. I am very active in the legal community and general community. I am currently representing a district attorney who saved his community but whom the State Bar is trying to disbar for no good reason. I am appealing his case right now."

Is Mr. Melchior involved with any non-profit organizations? He said that as a sample, he had served for 20 years as the Senior Delegate of the State Bar of California to the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association. He is also currently the President of the San Francisco Law Library. In the 1980s or 90s, Mr. Melchior served on the Standing Committee on Specialization of the American Bar Association. He was a Member of the Board of Governors from 1975 to 1978 and was the Vice President of the State Bar of California from 1977 to 1978. And he contributed to a number of legislative changes in various fields, from family to corporate law and elsewhere.

Does the University of Chicago alumnus have goals? "I want to keep living and thinking. I also believe I can make a contribution."

Please see this article to find out if litigation is right for you: Why Most Attorneys Have No Business Being Litigators: Fifteen Reasons Why You Should Not Be a Litigator

published August 05, 2013

By Follow Me on
( 47 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.