Meet Top Local Law Firm’s New Chairman

March 24, 2017

Sacramento Business Journal

By Ben van der Meer for Sacramento Business Journal
Right after two short internships with the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Bill Warne joined the biggest law firm in the area.
Since then, during 26 years with Downey Brand LLP, Warne has litigated epic cases, winning or saving clients hundreds of millions of dollars. Those have included a years-long battle between a timber company and government agencies over responsibility for a forest fire, and a land lease dispute over the site of a Lake Tahoe casino resort.
Now Warne is stepping into a new role at Downey Brand — marketing the firm’s capabilities and representing it to clients and potential clients.

“I just think it’s a terrific platform with incredible, smart lawyers,” he said. “We focus on clients and do it in a way that’s purposeful.”

For the first time since 2014, the firm changed chairmen when it named Warne to succeed Stan Van Vleck, who was chairman for the last three years.

“The reluctance I had was filling his shoes,” said Warne, noting he and Van Vleck are not only colleagues but friends and neighbors. Warne is expected to serve in the post for the typical year.

At Sacramento-based Downey Brand, the chairman role is one of two leadership positions. Three years ago, firm partners decided to split the duties of the managing partner and created the chair position. Current managing partner Scott Shapiro handles day-to-day operations and internal management, while the chairperson works on spreading the word about the firm’s lawyers and capabilities to clients and the community at large.

These changes in leadership roles followed a blowout in 2013 and 2014 when more than 40 lawyers left Downey Brand, which had a high of 122 lawyers in June 2013. Most of the departing attorneys left to start boutique firms of their own.

Warne said during his year as chairman, he wants to continue work on integrating the 100-attorney firm with the Sacramento community. That means meeting with people in the region to talk about Downey Brand, its service lines and its talent, he said.

“I want to make sure we’re using all of our skill sets and letting people know we’re there,” Warne said. “And we’ll continue to look at other services we can provide.”

Shapiro said Van Vleck established a practice of reaching out to clients to get feedback about how well they were treated. “Bill will take that to a new level,” Shapiro said, describing him as a consummate professional in his interaction with clients and the public.

Cases that Warne has litigated included lawsuits against timberland owner Sierra Pacific Industries after the 2007 Moonlight Fire burned 65,000 acres in Plumas County. The U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection alleged that Sierra Pacific was one of the parties responsible for the fire.

Sierra Pacific and other land owners agreed in 2012 to a settlement with the Forest Service for $55 million. Sierra Pacific also agreed to turn over 22,500 acres of land to the federal government.

In 2013, however, a judge threw out Cal Fire’s case and ordered the state fire agency to reimburse the defendants $32 million in legal fees, after Cal Fire was found to have falsified and suppressed evidence.

The defendants have since filed a motion in federal court to set aside the settlement with the Forest Service.

Warne also represented land owner Park Cattle Co. in a dispute over the ground lease of the property that was then the site of the Horizon Casino in Stateline, Nevada. Warne won a $165 million settlement in 2008 for Park Cattle.

“I’ve just always enjoyed the practice as a litigator and a trial lawyer,” Warne said. “Never once have I come in here without feeling an abundance of energy for the task that day.”

Craig Sullivan, the retired chairman of Park Cattle, said he remembered Warne as extremely well prepared during the case, down to interviewing prospective jurors without referencing notes. When settlement talks began, Sullivan said, Sullivan initially was ready to take a $100-million offer and walk. Warne goaded him into sticking it out, he said.

“That guy made me $65 million,” Sullivan said, laughing at the memory. “He had them on the run every day in court.”

Warne said he especially likes figuring out a path to success for his clients. And he said he feels fortunate that more than once, as he’s told his wife, he’s worked on a case that would’ve made going through law school worth it even if it was the only case he ever litigated.

In recent years, Downey Brand opened an office in Sunnyvale, in addition to existing ones in San Francisco, Reno and Stockton. Warne said he’s interested in adding more business to those offices, and he believes doing so helps raise the profile of the firm’s Sacramento roots.

“Nobody has the platform we have: business, natural resources, litigation, our other areas,” he said.

Founded in Sacramento, Downey Brand signed a lease downtown, at 601 Capitol Mall, when the economy was bad and many other firms left for cheaper destinations. Aligning the firm’s brand with the new excitement downtown these days, Warne said, reflects the firm’s commitment to the community. “We think it’s the place to be,” he said.

Van Vleck, who runs a cattle ranch and a lobbying firm in addition to his work at Downey Brand, originally signed on for a one-year term in 2014, then served two extensions at the request of other partners.

“It’s going to be a smooth transition,” Van Vleck said. “Bill’s understanding of our clients and business needs is very high.”

William “Bill” WarnePartner and Chairman, Downey Brand LLP
Age: 56
Education: B.A. in English and B.S. in business administration, California State University, Sacramento; J.D., University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Career: U.S. District Court Eastern District of California, senior law clerk to district Judge Raul A. Ramirez, 1988-1990 and to magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows, 1990-1991; Downey Brand, attorney, 1991-present.
Personal: Married to wife Debbie, Bill and his wife Debbie have three teen-aged children.
An effective business leader: “Finds amazing talent and shares credit for the team’s success.”
Passion: “Snow skiing, but twice as passionate about it when with family.”
Biggest professional worry: “Letting down a client who needs our help.”
First job: Dishwasher at Farrell’s Ice Cream