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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022
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Shining the Light of the Law

Education has played a big role in the legal career of Seymour Amster. It was from a school project as a sixth grader that Amster decided he wanted to get into law. As the current president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association, Amster sees education and the school system as a way for lawyers to become involved with the community and has made getting the association’s membership in front of students a core part of his year in that position. Amster started his career working in family law and bankruptcy. It was being asked to step in to help out with a criminal case that put him on a path to becoming a criminal defense attorney and in 1998 being certified as a criminal law specialist. He became involved with the Valley bar association starting in 2000 and became president in October. Apart from the legal obligations to clients, Amster wants the membership to be more involved outside the courtroom, particularly in inspiring students to consider law related careers. A bar association program is already on that path at Northridge Academy High School and Canoga Park High School. The more the private sector gets involved in the school system, the better chance there is of reforming its problems, Amster said. “I’d like the bar organization to be involved in that endeavor,” Amster said. Question: How would you characterize the legal community here in the Valley? Answer: I would say overall the Valley attorneys are the Rodney Dangerfield of the Los Angeles County. They really are. We don’t get as much respect as we should. We’re just as good as the downtown law firms; we have law firms that are just as good, we have sole practitioners who are just as good. Because we don’t want to drive an hour and a half or two hours and stress ourselves on the freeway into an office in Century City, sorry we are just as good. We don’t always get the respect because we are not downtown. Q: Are there benefits to being out here other than not spending all that time on the freeway? A: You do have a better shot at a family life. And I think having a family life makes you into a better attorney. You got to keep your priorities straight. So if you are able to again do a good job for the client but be able to go home, spend your time with your wife, spend your time with your children, come back into the office with a clear mind, feeling good, not stressed about things at home you are able to give a better product to the client. Attorneys who are not spending time in the car all the time, who are not billing for their time in the car all the time do a better job for the client. You are going to get an attorney who is more balanced with proper perspective. Q: What made you interested in becoming the president of the Valley bar association? A: I like the idea of being involved with the community. I originally went toward the San Fernando Valley Bar because I felt it would lead attorneys helping out the community. The more and more as I’ve gone up the ladder, the more and more I’ve pursued that direction. I also like the idea of interacting with my colleagues and I felt the bar is the pre-eminent organization to do that. What really spurted me to go up the ladder was to direct the organization to be more involved in the community. Q: Involved in what ways? A: Like the high school programs that I am making the paramount item for my administration for the year; giving back to the community through pro bono work. Hopefully by the time that my term is over we will have furthered our partnership with Neighborhood Legal Services. We have our charitable arm, the Valley Community Legal Foundation. I want to have the bar and the legal foundation working in a more coordinated effort to raise money and do good for the community. What I think is of importance as attorneys is they are in the unique position to observe so many aspects of society. If we can be involved with helping society we can see what the problems are, be able to address them, we are great spokesmen and problem solvers. The more we are involved in particular problems in society the more we can repair it. Q: What can the bar association do to better serve members? A: Give the members a means of being able to network and to generate more business for themselves; give them an opportunity to give back to the community. We are doing that, that is one of the keynotes of the high school program. We have law firms adopting high schools and bringing sole practitioners together with the firms. The concept being there will be fundraisers and charitable events. Therefore they are helping the high schools, helping with network opportunities and have attorneys be involved with each other. Q: Switching gears to the business of law. You are a sole practitioner. Have you always been on your own or have you worked for a larger firm? A: Primarily I’ve been on my own. I started off on my own, which was a mistake, and then after a number of years I went in with a law firm run by one individual. I was there for about a decade. Then I chose to go back on my own. Q: What are issues and challenges that sole practitioners face? A: Like anything else it’s about getting the clients. Sole practitioners have the expenses to worry about. This is very tough time for our business, especially for criminal law. Historically people would use the equity in their house or their savings to pay an attorney a legitimate fee on a difficult case. That money has dried up. Many attorneys either have to gamble in that they’ll accept the case before being paid in full or find something else. It’s an interesting time. Q: How do you get along managing the business side of your firm? A: I do have a tremendous advantage on the business side because my family was involved in business. I was raised in small business. My father had a series of small businesses as I grew up and I worked with him at each and every one of them. I often joke, and it’s usually true, when I have a white collar case I can read the books better than the accountants the prosecutors bring in. I was trained by my dad to read books. I’ll find where the money went. Q: Do you think attorneys that go out on their own need that type of background? A: I don’t want to make a generalization. I will say this, it is important that if you do go out on your own that you have that background. If I could live my life again I would not have gone on my own at first. I think it was a mistake. Unfortunately I do not feel that law school really gives you the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer. I think there should be a mandatory internship when you go to law school, like doctors have. I think that would give the opportunity to learn the business side but also learn the legal side too. Every situation is different. If you are going to be a sole practitioner make sure you have the tools to be successful. The most important is how do you get the clients. And then the second is how are you going to serve the clients. Q: Are criminal defense attorneys anything like how they are portrayed on TV or in the movies? A: The criminal defense attorney movie that portrays being a criminal defense attorney perfectly is “My Cousin Vinny,” as funny as it sounds. What I feel the theme of that movie was is that at the end of the day you can be prepared as you are, you can know all the law, you can know all the procedure but it’s what do you do when you’re in that moment in a trial when your case just fell apart and you’d better think on your feet and think on your feet fast or you’re in trouble. That is what being a criminal defense attorney is. Q: Is a criminal defense practice financially lucrative? A: It’s not as lucrative as tax or real estate. It’s sufficiently lucrative. Enough for me to support my family in an upper middle class lifestyle without stretching myself. It allows me a balanced life. Q: Have you ever had a “Perry Mason” moment? A: I think I’ve had many Perry Mason moments. Perry Mason moments are not as dramatic as they were on the TV show but it’s the moment when you have a witness cornered and you look at the jury and you know they see what you see. I had a case in Lancaster a few years ago that in my opinion was classic eyewitness identification mistake. I could not convince the prosecutor that she was wrong. We had to go through a trial and I was shocked by the result but nevertheless the jury hung 11-1 for not guilty on the case. The case was dismissed and nothing happened to the client. I truly cornered the complaining witness into a Perry Mason moment where her story made no sense.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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