Photo by Amy Cantrell.
Donald Sterling’s days as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers may have been numbered after his racist remarks were recorded and released, but just how quickly the end would come was an open question. Luckily for fans (most of them, anyway), and the NBA, prospective owner Steve Ballmer contacted one of the true masters of the practice of trusts and estates – Adam Streisand – who invoked an obscure section of the probate code to set in motion an emergency trial that resulted in Shelly Sterling being able to sell the franchise for $2 billion. The litigation showcased Streisand’s mastery of the law as well as his notable skills as a trial lawyer.
A longtime Loeb & Loeb partner before his move to Sheppard Mullin earlier this year, Streisand has litigated many high-profile celebrity estates. But he takes great pride in the non-celebrity clients whom he has guided through “arduous, emotional” journeys involving their most intimate matters. It has made the trusts and estates practice – something he never thought about doing when entering the law – uniquely rewarding. Also rewarding for the 1991 American University law graduate (and dragon-tattooed cousin to Barbra Streisand) is intense exercise, whether biking along the coast or hiking in more punishing locations.
Lawdragon: As Lawdragon celebrates its 10th-year anniversary, can you identify or discuss one area of your practice or personal life that has changed the most in the past 10 years?
Adam Streisand: The single biggest change in our practice has been the rise in conservatorship cases. As people are living longer, the incidents of dementia are on the rise, and the battles over the control or disposition of family wealth are occurring more frequently while the head of the family empire is still alive.
LD: A recent big change of course is your move to Sheppard Mullin. A lot of firms would have been interested in your practice. How did you start thinking about joining your new firm, and what was it that sealed the deal?
AS: My move to Sheppard Mullin was a seismic shift. I was with Loeb & Loeb for 21 years. But I wanted a more youthful, dynamic and growing law firm in which to invest the next 20 years of my career. I also wanted to be part of a strong, California-based law firm, and that was no longer Loeb. There were a number of law firms that were extremely solicitous and excited by the prospect that I might consider a move.
Sheppard employed a full-court press to let me know that they really wanted me, which meant a lot to me, but I chose Sheppard because there are so many business generators in my generation who are contributing to the impressive growth and expansion of the business (check), the firm is national and international in its presence, but has the biggest footprint of any firm all up and down the California coast (check), there is complete transparency and an actual commitment at every level to collaboration (check), and I just truly love the people and knew I would be really happy (double check).
LD: Donald Sterling had become quite unpopular, but can you discuss what legal argument – what strategy you pursued – to enable the sale of the team to your client within the timespan it all took place? What was the key to getting it resolved so quickly?
AS: I was the architect of the strategy for Steve Ballmer to acquire the L.A. Clippers for the record-shattering price of $2 billion and his lead trial lawyer against Donald Sterling in successfully implementing that strategy. When Steve Ballmer contacted me, Mr. Ballmer was in the midst of what seemed to all concerned like an intractable problem. Shelly Sterling invoked a procedure under her trust with her husband Donald Sterling aimed at removing him as a trustee on the grounds that he lacked capacity to manage the affairs of the trust. Shelly was willing to sell the L.A. Clippers to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Mr. Ballmer asked me what could be done to ensure that Shelly could legitimately sell the team as the purported trustee of the trust and persuade the NBA he was the legal owner of the team?
Shelly Sterling’s counsel suggested that she could send a probate Notice of Proposed Action to Donald but had no better ideas. I told Mr. Ballmer that would be a terrible mistake. The Notice would give Donald 45 days to send a letter indicating he objected and then Shelly would have to file a petition seeking to establish her right to sell the team, which would take at least two years to get to trial and lead to at least two more years of appeals. I laid out the strategy: We would invoke an obscure section of the Probate Code – section 1310(b). Numerous practitioners and law professors commented publicly after I implemented the strategy that they had never heard of it before. Section 1310(b) allowed Mr. Ballmer and Shelly Sterling to obtain an emergency trial within 30 days of filing and an order confirming the sale that could not be appealed or unwound.
We just needed to prove at trial, which we did, that there would be substantial injury or harm to the Trust and the team if the sale were not consummated. My direct examination of Richard Parsons, interim CEO of the Clippers, was the linchpin. He testified the team was in a “death spiral” as a result of Donald’s actions, and if there were no change in ownership, it appeared that sponsors wouldn’t sponsor, players wouldn’t play, coaches wouldn’t coach and season ticket holders wouldn’t renew.
LD: Clippers players, staff and fans went from having an extremely controversial, mostly disliked owner to someone they really seem to like. Was there an extra element of satisfaction in this case for helping to improve an entire region’s professional sports situation in a big way?
AS: It was incredibly significant to me to play a major role in ousting Donald Sterling from the Clippers and professional sports. I have no sympathy for the arguments by many that he lost his team because of comments he made in private conversations that were surreptitiously tape recorded. He is a racist and I do not care whether he intended his comments to go no further than his mistress. I am gratified that racists are now being exposed on a seemingly daily basis thanks to audio and video recording devices that are now prevalent in our society. Yes, Steve Ballmer is a breath of fresh air and a great owner for the Clippers. And yes, it’s been terrific that fans truly appreciate my efforts that brought about this change. But what is most important to me is that I was able to make Donald Sterling pay the consequences for his untenable attitudes and set an example of what can and should happen to those who think like him.
LD: Trinity College in Connecticut, where you did your undergrad, and American University would more commonly lead to an East Coast practice. What brought you out West to start working on entertainment-related matters – was this something you had envisioned doing in law school?
AS: I was raised in Chappaqua, New York, a suburb of New York with whom few were familiar until the Clintons moved in (and destroyed a private server with tens of thousands of emails). My father went to Trinity, so there was that. After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Barbara Mikulski, who at the time was a Congresswoman running for the U.S. Senate. I was a legislative aide and worked on the historic campaign to elect the first female Democrat to the U.S. Senate in her own right – that is, one who was not simply appointed to fill her deceased husband’s seat. Others involved in the campaign were Gloria Steinem, Ann Lewis, Wendy Sherman, whom you’ve seen seated next to Secretary Kerry during the negotiations with Iran, and the guy with whom I handed out leaflets to voters and put up signs, former Baltimore mayor, former Maryland Governor and Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley.
I went to American to obtain my law degree and so that I could stay close to Democratic politics. But while in law school I became more and more interested in becoming a trial lawyer. Washington legal work is heavily regulatory-based and was not of any great interest to me. I was also a little weary of politics, and all those years of Republican presidential administrations. So why LA? Between the ages of 10 and 15, I traveled all over the country competing very successfully in Judo. I won many state and regional championships and competed for national championships during that time period. I traveled up and down the California coast competing and I was really in love with LA. So, the next dream after Washington politics was a chance to live in LA. And what better way to take advantage of an LA life as a lawyer than to dive into entertainment litigation.
LD: Was a trusts and estates practice on your radar at all early in your career? How did you get hooked on this type of practice? Can you share a few of the things that you find professionally satisfying about it?
AS: Trusts and estates? On my radar? No way. I didn’t take it in law school and never imagined I would have the slightest interest. But a former partner of mine who was a trust and estate litigator asked me to work with him. He promised me that I would love it and that it was a chance to be the proverbial big fish in a small pond. I agreed to give it a try and was riveted from the first case. I am a trial lawyer at heart, and a trial lawyer is a storyteller. There are no more compelling stories to be told than those involving the most intimate and important relationships of our lives, those involving our families. These are relationships that make us who we are and that impel us to act in the most human ways, whether out of fear, or jealousy, or loathing, love, entitlement or avarice. These are the most human stories and they resonate with all of us to one degree or another.
As trial lawyers, we are confronted with putting together bits and pieces, and shards of memory, all told through a prism of interpretation, embellishment and manipulation, sometimes deliberately, other times innocently. It’s like reading a novel told from the point of view of different characters, all observing the same facts yet seeing them in different colors and shapes. And the story has to be pieced together and a version of it told next to one competing for the same attention. But your story must be the most persuasive and that takes an enormous amount of sensitivity, insight and, as my colleagues are fond of saying, it requires me at the right time to “bring the thunder.”
But that is not all. My clients are traveling an arduous, emotional journey in these cases. There is so much that brings them to this place where they find themselves in a war they cannot fight on their own, one that drains them and frightens them and stresses them beyond what they have ever previously experienced. My clients appreciate me in a way I never thought I’d be appreciated in my life. They really feel that I have given them strength, a voice they never had, a champion for their cause, and peace they never thought they’d regain. There is nothing more satisfying.
LD: I hear you’re quite the competitive cyclist. Can you talk a little bit about how this started, and how much time you put into it or how many miles you might accumulate in a given week?
AS: I’m a bit of an adventurist, or I’d say, I’m someone who loves challenge, though I have no intention of bungee jumping or leaping out of an airplane. I’ve camped near the North Pole and nearly froze to death. I’ve taken my cameras to Timbuktu, only days after the New York Times reported widespread kidnappings there by Al Qaeda, and many other forsaken places on the planet. I’ve trekked to 19,000 feet in the Himalaya. And I’ve crossed the Pyrenees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean on my bike. I try and ride up into the Santa Monica mountains on Saturdays and Sundays and depending on whether I’m training for a ride, I try to get a ride or two or three in during the week.