FOR AS FAR BACK AS HE CAN REMEMBER, even when he was in elementary school, Kermit Marsh questioned everything and challenged everyone — teachers, his parents, his friends.
“That came from knowing I shouldn’t take anything for granted,” he says. “If someone told me, ‘This is what we’re going to do’ and I didn’t agree, I wasn’t going to just walk away and accept it. If I felt I had an argument to the contrary, if I felt I could present my argument and evidence, the idea was to go ahead and do it.”
Case in point: third grade. “We were assigned a report and my teacher said, ‘This is the way the report has to be done,’ and I asked, ‘Why does it have to be done this way?’ I felt it could be structured in a different way.”
So young Kermit Marsh walked over to the encyclopedia bookcase, ran his fingers along the books until he found what he was looking for and pointed out to his teacher, “It says right here a report can be structured this way too.” His teacher was flabbergasted. And she concluded, “OK, if the encyclopedia says it can be done this way, it’s good enough for me.”
Chalk one up for Marsh, who, quite obviously, was destined to be become an attorney.
As Principal of California-based Kermit D. Marsh Law, Marsh is one of the nation’s top and most influential attorneys specializing in business litigation. He’s famously known as the attorney who had the California Supreme Court overturn two lower court decisions, helping better protect the public by law enforcement.
Marsh, a Stanford University graduate, specializes in complex business disputes and sophisticated business problems relating to contracts, property issues, environmental problems, labor employment issues, allegations of unfair competition and municipal law. But first and foremost, he is a business litigator – a feared litigator who knows how to win for his clients.
“It was very clear early on that my personality and skill set lent itself for me to be a litigator,” Marsh says. “Some people use the term mercenary to refer to a litigator. That’s not quite fair. A litigator is really a knight in shining armor for his client: he dons his armor, he mounts his horse, he draws his weapon and he charges in on behalf of his client. You can’t go into a legal battle unarmed.”
And Marsh is armed to the hilt – primarily with his ability to argue, debate and his impressive skills to “tell a story” to a judge or jury in order to win.
“A good lawyer is a good storyteller and I’m a good storyteller,” he says. “Each case has a number of stories and I have the ability to create multiple stories and find out what fits best for my client.”
His gift to tell a story is what prompted the California Supreme Court to overturn not one but two lower court decisions in the landmark Tetter vs. City of Newport Beach case, where an inmate who was beaten by another inmate sued Newport Beach. In their darkest hour, when Newport Beach city officials realized they had to change council in midstream in order to save themselves, they turned to Marsh.
“Newport Beach needed to get enough Supreme Court judges to decide if they were interested in the case and willing to take it on — and we had only 48 hours to accomplish that with a petition,” Marsh says. He went into legal story-telling mode, reviewed the facts for more than 24 consecutive hours and – voila! – he found the magic. Only a miniscule percentage of petitions placed before the Supreme Court ever get a chance to be reviewed, yet Marsh succeeded.
“It was easy for me to articulate why the Court of Appeals decision needed to be reversed,” he says. “What the Court did was promote the concept that if you accepted someone as a prisoner and placed them in jail, you’re accepting liability of that person, and in the aftermath of the two lower court decisions, what were cities going to do when faced with this decision? They wouldn’t incarcerate some criminals — and that’s not safe for the public. Law enforcement agencies would step away from the problem to avoid liability. Is that what the court wants? If that decision stood, it that meant a lot of people who ought to be placed in custody won’t be.”
The court ruled 7-0, the case was overturned and Marsh emerged as a hero throughout California and the nation. The verdict was celebrated – and so was Marsh.
“Kermit is incredibly intelligent and he has a remarkable ability to see both the legal and the practical perspective — and he sees how those concepts fit together, giving him a great edge over his competition and the skill to consistently win for his clients,” says Daniel Ohl, the Deputy City Attorney of Huntington Beach who was in the same position in Newport Beach during the Tetter trial.
When an individual is considering an attorney, this is what they’ll get with Marsh, according to Ohl: “They’ll get an incredibly smart attorney and great speaker who is as good on paper as he is in oral argument. He’s extremely personable, mixes well with everyone, and doesn’t inflate his importance despite being a brilliant attorney. That makes him a very effective advocate for anyone who decides to hire him.”
And if you happen to be on the opposing side of Marsh? “Ha,” Ohl says with a laugh. “You just hope you’re not.”
Fine Art of Litigation
There is a fine art to litigation and argument – and Marsh has mastered the art.
“There is an unfair negative perception to argument,” he says. “People look at it as a lack of courtesy or disrespect. It’s not. In the best sense of the word, argument is a discussion of facts and rules and how you apply them to reach a reasonable result. Argument is not always used effectively. Yet it’s very liberating when you use it effectively. Some people enjoy it more than others. It’s always appealed to me. There’s nothing else I love more professionally.”
Even in elementary school, teachers saw how unique and special Marsh was in his ability to debate, question and articulate. When he was a junior at Westminster (Calif.) High School, the school put together a series of mock trials overseen by actual California state judges. One of Marsh’s teachers pulled him aside one day and told him, “This is for you. You’ll be ideal for this. You’re a born attorney.”
Unquestionably he was. Marsh used his rhetorical skills and blew everyone away during the high school mock trials – and his path for a career in law was paved.
“My ability to argue, debate and litigate comes from my parents,” he says. “In our family, we weren’t required to take things for granted. If someone told you to do something, or not to do something, an explanation was required to go with that. My parents did not believe in authority without explanation. Don’t get me wrong, they believed in authority. They had the final say on everything. But they believe with authority comes the ability to express why something is done a certain way. If you think you should be able to do something, or have to do something, you should be able to convey why. As a child, and later as I got older, you were expected to explain the reasoning behind why you wanted something or why you didn’t. My siblings and I all benefit from that.”
“Their perspective was that my ability and willingness to present facts and argue will be well regarded by clients,” he says. “They said that in academia, people get upset if your opinion is different. They said you have to walk on egg shells. Then they both pointed directly to me and said, ‘But you – you’re not interested to walk on eggs shells. You’re interested to stomp on them. Law is more natural for someone like you.’”
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Rick Weinberg is Editor-in-Chief at California Business Journal. He is a well-known journalist, writer, reporter and on-air talent who has worked for the New York Times, FOX and ESPN. He launched CalBizJournal.com to focus on California businesses and business professionals as well as California business news and information. Contact: [email protected] / 949-648-3815