The 12 attorneys featured in this article chosen by their peers as the best in their legal specialties are all long-time Nevadans who played a part in shaping the state’s legal history. Samuel Lionel, featured on our cover, is the patriarch of the group, having practiced law in Nevada longer than most of the other attorneys have been alive. All 12 have received numerous accolades from organizations within the legal profession, and most have a proud record of public service to the community in addition to their legal work. Rather than listing each person’s vital statistics, the editorial staff decided to give our readers an up-close-and-personal look at each attorney.
Samuel S. Lionel
Lionel Sawyer & Collins
At the age of 87, Sam Lionel still walks up the stairs of the parking garage to get some exercise during his workday. Asked about retirement plans, he said, “As long as it’s still fun, I’ll keep going.” Lionel seems to genuinely enjoy his profession, especially litigation, and said over the years he’s done “almost everything” in the legal field, including defending people in capital murder cases.
Lionel co-founded Lionel Sawyer & Collins, Nevada’s largest private law firm, in 1967. It now has more than 75 attorneys in four offices, offering a full range of legal services. As chairman of the firm’s litigation department, Lionel uses his depth of experience to mentor younger attorneys.
Bob Faiss, a partner in Lionel Sawyer & Collins and chair of its Gaming Law Practice Group, said, “After he finished his second term as governor, Grant Sawyer chose Sam as a partner because of his reputation of having the utmost integrity, in addition to his talent. Over the years, Sam helped build the firm into what it is today. He serves as an example to all of us who came after him. He doesn’t tell you what to do – he shows you by doing it himself. He has total commitment to his clients, while remaining true to the ethical requirements of his profession.”
Paul Hejmanowski, managing partner of Lionel Sawyer & Collins, said Lionel is largely responsible for training many of the top litigators practicing today. “If you were to take a survey of Nevada’s judges and experienced trial lawyers, nine out of 10 would pick Sam as the premier example of a civil litigator,” he said.
“Sam Lionel has been practicing longer than I’ve been alive, and he is still very good at his game,” noted Greg Kamer of Kamer Zucker & Abbott. “He has great wisdom. Young kids today might know more technically than older attorneys, but they don’t have the judgment that comes from experience.”
Lionel’s advice to a young attorney starting out in the legal profession is direct and to the point: “Roll up your sleeves. It’s not a 9-to-5 profession. And, if you don’t like practicing law, don’t. You have an education – you can do something else.”
Law Offices of Thomas D. Beatty
Thomas Beatty, who has been in private practice since 1979, has fought the trend towards specialization and “boutique” law firms, and practices in several areas, including civil and criminal litigation, personal injury, insurance defense, product liability and employment law. “My practice is litigation-oriented, although I do a fair amount of appellate work as well,” he said. “I have more than 50 reported decisions over the years. It’s still possible to be somewhat of a general practitioner, although it’s not very common these days.” He has been involved in several major cases in Southern Nevada, including lawsuits following Howard Hughes’ death, the MGM Grand hotel fire litigation, PEPCON litigation and defense of police officers accused of wrongful death.
Beatty said, “I’m never bored, because I’m always working in new areas. I enjoy the courtroom and enjoy the variety of cases I get to handle. No area of the law is static. Just because you handled a similar case two years ago doesn’t mean today’s case will be the same.”
If clients need specialized expertise, Beatty refers them to other lawyers. He also works in conjunction with other firms, particularly out-of-state firms that want to work with a local attorney. “I’m the local guy who tells national firms the lay of the land here,” he explained. “I’ve worked with some of the top attorneys in the country on large cases.”
His advice for law students today is to start with a job in the offices of the district attorney or city attorney. “One thing that’s hard for a young associate to get today is courtroom experience,” he said. “Large firms will send more experienced people into the courtroom. Once you get that experience through the D.A. or city attorney, you can decide what you want to specialize in, or be a general practitioner. Whatever you choose, courtroom experience is vital.”
Real Estate Law
Concentrating on commercial and real estate law, Michael Buckley represents a diverse group of clients, including high-rise condominium and master-planned community developers, buyers and sellers of land and commercial developments, and banks and commercial lenders. He has worked with developers in creating and financing projects and communities throughout Southern Nevada, and was a key player in transactions that led to the construction of the Las Vegas Monorail project.
A member of Jones Vargas since 1978, Buckley leads the firm’s Business and Real Estate Transactions Practice Group. His years of experience in real estate have shown him the cyclical nature of the market, so he is not overly concerned about a real estate “bubble”, even in the volatile high-rise market. “In the mid-’80s, I was working with Valley Bank, negotiating with builders and developers who had overextended themselves in the boom and got caught in the bust that followed,” he recalled. “I’ve seen the whole cycle – this is nothing new. If there is a good real estate deal, developers will overwhelm it, and that’s what happened here. There’s still a market for people who know what they’re doing.” Buckley has worked with five successful high-rise projects that are either ongoing or completed, including Panorama Towers, Newport Lofts and juhl.
In 2003, Governor Guinn appointed him as one of the initial members of the Nevada Commission for Common-Interest Communities, where he presently serves as chair. He said laws have changed in recent years concerning common-interest communities, such as homeowners associations. “These laws were set up to protect homeowners from developers,” he explained, “but these days they are being used more to protect homeowners from each other.”
Buckley has served as a part-time instructor in real estate law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education programs. “Law is how the real world works,” he said. “It challenges the brain, and there’s always something new to learn.”
Law Offices of Jeffrey Burr
Jeffrey Burr has been named by his peers as one of the top estate planning attorneys in Southern Nevada in every edition of Best Lawyers in America, and his personal client list includes many of the most prominent families in the community. His firm includes six attorneys and more than 20 paralegals and other staff members.
In addition to being an attorney, Burr is also a Certified Public Accountant. “When I was in college studying accounting, I attended a lecture by an estate planner who was an attorney and also a CPA,” he recalled. “He talked about how he blended family financial planning, business planning and tax planning. I was fascinated by it and decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Burr went on to law school after finishing his accounting degree, and later worked for Deloitte & Touche in its estate planning department in Phoenix. After earning his CPA, Burr came to Las Vegas and set up his boutique law practice.
“It’s a pretty big firm, considering that we are so specialized,” he noted. “We receive a lot of referrals from other attorneys who don’t have an estate planning specialist of their own. They know we’re not going to compete with them in other areas, because this is all we do.” Burr explained that estate planning requires a team approach, with a CPA, an attorney and a financial planner all working together. “An attorney is a key element in the team, because it always involves legal documents – at the very least, a revocable living trust, which saves you estate taxes. The CPA helps the client identify what his tax issues are.”
Burr said, although the bread-and-butter of his practice is drawing up and administering trusts, the most satisfying part of his job is family succession planning. “We help families that own closely-held businesses design plans to make sure their children or employees can take over the business after they’re gone.”
Family Law/Domestic Relations
Ecker & Kainen, Chartered
“When I opened my office in 1977, like many young attorneys, I took whatever cases came in the door,” said Howard Ecker. “I did criminal defense, personal injury and divorce work. All three required dealing with people in trouble, but frankly I got more thank you’s from doing family law. I found a niche I liked doing, and I’ve been practicing family law for 20 years now.” He is now the senior partner in a firm with four attorneys.
Ecker’s firm handles divorces, adoptions, prenuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements, custody cases and all aspects of domestic relations and family law. “It’s very rewarding,” he explained. “I get to deal with people one-on-one, and help them through a difficult time to a situation where they feel much better about themselves. Another benefit is that the litigation is a relatively short process, unlike some civil cases that drag on for years.”
Ecker has been involved in the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for many years. “It’s important that an advocate for the child decides what’s best for him or her,” he said. He was also instrumental in setting up a “Coping with Divorce” seminar, which the Eighth Judicial District Court now requires divorcing parents, or anyone involved in a custody dispute, to attend. “We want to keep the children out of the dispute as much as possible and discourage parents from making disparaging comments about each other in front of the children,” Ecker explained. He pointed out that 75 percent of children born after 1990 will live in a single-family home before they become adults.
“This kind of law requires a lot of individual attention,” said Ecker. “Lawyers who practice family law must make themselves available to their clients, because they need that hands-on contact. When our clients call, we call them back.”
Corporations and Partnerships
Woodburn & Wedge
John Fowler’s practice spans a broad range of business counseling and transactional matters, including business organizations, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, real estate transactions and related issues in water and mining law. He also handles matters related to governmental procurement, state and local taxation and public utilities.
Fowler’s practice, which includes 19 attorneys, has emphasized Nevada corporate and limited liability company (LLC) law. “Nevada is a good place to incorporate a business,” he stated. “For 70 years, Delaware has been the jurisdiction of choice when forming publicly held companies, but increasingly, Nevada is becoming an alternative.
If the company will be publicly held, there are reasons to choose Nevada over Delaware, because of laws that have been passed in the last 15 years.”
Although Fowler estimates he has formed hundreds of corporations over the years, that’s not all he does. “I advise major national businesses that are Nevada corporations or have Nevada subsidiaries,” he explained. “They need lawyers attuned to Nevada corporate statutes and case law to determine how to form, operate or dissolve a corporation or perform a merger. They need to know what fiduciary duties Nevada requires of board members.”
An Internal Revenue Service ruling in the late ’80s led many states to reconsider their laws regarding corporations, especially LLCs. In 1990, the Nevada secretary of state’s office commissioned a book to research this area and recommend change to Nevada’s statutes on business and nonprofit corporations, LLCs and related matters. Fowler was the managing editor and major author of the Study of Nevada Corporate Law, which became the basis for Assembly Bill 655 of the 1991 Legislature, making radical changes to Nevada law regarding business entities.
“The magic of the LLC is that it gets partnership tax treatment by the IRS, but owners (members) have the same personal protection against lawsuits as stockholders have in a public company. You get the best of both worlds,” explained Fowler.
Gordon & Silver, Ltd.
Gerald Gordon is a shareholder in Gordon & Silver, where he chairs the bankruptcy and insolvency department, working with 11 other attorneys. Gordon started out representing banks and other creditors, including Key Bank, Bank of America, Nevada State Bank and Harrah’s Entertainment Corporation. He is presently representing the Direct Lenders Committee in the USA Capital bankruptcies.
However, for the past 15 years most of his practice has been representing debtors. He acted as debtor’s counsel for several major resort properties, including the Silver Bird, Landmark, Aladdin, Maxim and Fitzgeralds.
According to Gordon, the bankruptcy law that took effect in October 2005 has caused several changes in the way bankruptcies are handled. “We didn’t think at the time it would affect Chapter 11 work, but as it was modified, it does have some effect,” he explained. “It places more restrictions on judicial discretion. Instead of saying ‘the court may’ do something, it says, ‘the court shall.’ The law also shortens the time allowed for a debtor to get re-organized.” Those restrictions are especially troublesome to casinos, said Gordon, because whatever they do must have regulatory approval. It may take a year to reorganize and another year to get regulatory approval. The new law also places restrictions on executive compensation, or “golden parachutes.” Gordon said, “This makes it difficult to keep people in key positions, because they want incentives for staying with the company.”
Gordon said he enjoys his specialty because, “Each case is unique. Complications always arise, and you have to adapt and respond.” Like divorce lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers have to deal with clients who are undergoing an emotional upheaval. “Many times, declaring bankruptcy is a real blow to the ego of those involved,” he said. “It’s a very complex, intrusive process, and often the principals don’t understand these complex laws, so we have to educate them as we go along. We tell them, ‘It’s not going to be as bad as you imagine. It’ll be bad, but we’ll get through it.'”
Labor and Employment Law
Kamer Zucker & Abbot
Gregory Kamer, the founding partner of Kamer Zucker & Abbot, began his career in 1980 working for the National Labor Relations Board. He then worked for the Nevada Resort Association (NRA) for three years, representing casino employers. He started his Las Vegas career with a bang, dealing with the largest labor dispute to hit town in many years, the 1984 culinary union strike.
After working with the Resort Association, Kamer opened his own firm 20 years ago, and has been exclusively representing employers ever since. The firm currently includes nine lawyers, with a practice based 75 percent on casino clients and 25 percent on non-gaming employers, including Southwest Gas Company and the Clark County Library District.
Kamer explained that most attorneys focusing on labor and employment issues choose to exclusively represent either employers or employees. “When I was starting out in practice, I had to choose which side of the fence to be on,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that if you can represent a good employer, you can do a lot more for the workers than you can by representing unions. My parents were both working people and union members. I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Kamer estimated he spends 30 percent of his time teaching supervisors and managers how to manage people effectively and legally. “The companies we choose to represent are good employers,” he said. “If they make a mistake, we help to correct it and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. When defending cases, if they’re right, we’ll fight for them, and if they’re wrong, we’ll settle it. We get to wear the white hat.”
Crockett & Myers
Richard Myers has been practicing law in Las Vegas since 1970, focusing on personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice and product liability cases. A former president of the Nevada Trial Lawyers Association, he served on its board of governors for 15 years. Myers is a sought-after speaker, and has lectured to various trial lawyer and civil groups. In 1986, he founded the People’s Law School in Las Vegas, and serves as its Dean Emeritus.
“When we accept a case, we pledge to see it through to the best possible conclusion for our client,” he said. “And that means we will not settle out of court unless it is in your best interest. In this day and age, when many senior lawyers assign their cases to younger, inexperienced associates, it is comforting to know that all the attorneys at Crockett & Myers are senior attorneys who personally handle each of their cases. We’ve been doing it that way for over 25 years.”
Frank Schreck received the impetus to go into gaming law when then-governor Mike O’Callaghan appointed him to the Nevada State Gaming Commission in 1970. At 27, Schreck was the youngest member ever appointed to the commission, but O’Callaghan had confidence in him, having been his teacher at Basic High School and his mentor through college and law school.
“At that time, law schools didn’t have courses in gaming law, because Nevada was the only state where casino gaming was legal, and Nevada had no law school,” said Schreck. “There was no way to learn about laws regulating gaming – the biggest industry in the state – except through government. So the people practicing gaming law came out of the Attorney General’s office, the Gaming Commission or the Gaming Control Board.”
Founded in 1968, Schreck Brignone now employs 26 attorneys. Its clients include most of the large resort properties on the Las Vegas Strip, many of which have out-of-state interests as well. Schreck is a charter member of the International Association of Gaming Attorneys, which numbers about 500 attorneys from all over the world. The association has played a part in standardizing regulations for gaming companies that conduct business in many jurisdictions.
Asked about his plans for the future, Schreck said he is “definitely exploring” the possibility of an alliance with another firm. “Because of the quality of my clients and the type of work we do, we’ve been a bright target for firms wanting to come into the state,” he revealed. “We haven’t yet found a firm that met our needs, but we may in the future. I feel the firm needs to reach a bigger critical mass – not just in terms of numbers of lawyers, but also in specialty areas our clients need, like intellectual property, securities and taxes.”
Mark Tratos co-founded the firm of Quirk and Tratos, which specialized in intellectual property (IP), Internet and entertainment law at a time when it was a relatively new field. The international firm of Greenberg Traurig, with 28 offices stretching from Tokyo to Zurich, merged with Tratos’ firm in 2005 in order to gain a Las Vegas presence, and Tratos was named the managing shareholder of its Las Vegas office.
“The importance of IP law can be directly traced to changes in the global economy,” Tratos explained. “As the U.S. faced competition in the ’60s and ’70s from Europe and Japan, it found its economic prowess was based on research and development and technical superiority, which is the domain of IP. In order to maintain its position in world markets, IP became the mainstay of American business.”
As new technologies and new devices emerge, Tratos said his field is gaining in importance. “When you download music to an iPod, use a cell phone to take pictures, play music or receive video and TV clips, all that is the domain of IP – not just patents for the products, but the license to download music and the contracts to convey the rights to download TV shows. It’s the convergence of the business and entertainment worlds.”
Greenberg Traurig maintains a balanced practice between complicated intellectual property matters, sophisticated entertainment issues and cutting-edge Internet cases, said Tratos. “I get to do one-of-a-kind cases, where you can’t go to a book to look up the precedents, because there aren’t any. We’re actually shaping the law, and that’s always a joy,” he remarked.
Tratos has been teaching at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law for several years, and said it’s a good way to stay on the cutting edge. “It’s forced learning,” he said. “In order to do it well, you have to be on top of disciplines like cyber-law, which is constantly changing. Preparing for these classes keeps me on top of the game.”
Wright Judd & Winckler
Richard Wright is a native Las Vegan who has practiced law in Nevada for more than 30 years, primarily in criminal defense, gaming law and professional ethics law. Most recently, he has been in the headlines as the defense attorney at the corruption and bribery trials of Clark County Commissioners Mary Kincaid Chauncey and Michael McDonald. This wasn’t his first experience involving politicians, however; he was involved many years ago in similar cases involving Woodrow Wilson and Floyd Lamb.
“When I finished law school, I didn’t know right away I would go into criminal defense,” recalled Wright. “I clerked for Roger D. Foley, and then became an assistant U.S. attorney and prosecuted cases for five years. We prosecuted Jay Sarno of Circus Circus and Caesars Palace for bribery, with Oscar Goodman and Harry Claiborne defending him. When I started private practice after that and did criminal cases, I discovered I liked it. You never know what’s coming in the door or what you’ll hear when the phone rings.”
Wright said helping people through a difficult time is rewarding. “You have many appreciative clients because you’re dealing with people in their darkest hour,” he explained. “I think of it as helping someone walk through a minefield, using my legal knowledge to get them through as safely as possible under the circumstances. That means helping them make good decisions and getting them safely to the other side without blowing up. You need to be candid with people, tell them how difficult a situation they’re in, and point them to the path of least harm.”
With his involvement in so many high-profile cases, Wright said those that are most memorable to him may not be the ones that generated the most publicity. “The reality is, I most often remember the ones I lost,” he said.
Nevada Business Journal sent forms out to the largest law firms in the state, asking their attorneys to vote on which Nevada lawyers they considered the best in each of 12 categories. To avoid having people vote only for themselves or for attorneys in their own firms, we gave greater weight to votes for attorneys outside their firms. After receiving dozens of replies, we compiled the votes to get a consensus on which attorneys were the most respected by their peers. Sam Lionel was chosen most often as the attorney who would best represent Nevada’s legal profession by appearing on the cover. Congratulations to all those selected.