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Lawyer Limelight: Kirk Pasich

Photo by Paulo Torres.

Kirk Pasich has always run his own race. That explains why he recently finished the marathon in Venice, Italy, running through the Riviera del Brenta, along the Guideca Canal and to the Piazza San Marco. Why as a young attorney at Paul Hastings in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he built dual practices in entertainment law and insurance coverage. And perhaps why since then he’s traversed the trends of law firm practice – big firm to boutique to bigger and back again.

It may also have something to do with how he found his entertainment practice tragically back in the news this year after his friend and client Chris Cornell, the lead singer for Soundgarden, died in questionable circumstances on tour in Detroit.

Pasich in August launched Pasich LLP, a boutique insurance recovery and entertainment firm in Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach and New York, and already has more than 80 clients. He and his team have defined insurance recovery practice for many years – collecting more than $7B – and are one of a tiny handful of elite lawyer corps in the massive specialty. After their most recent home, Liner LLP, merged with DLA, the team decided that not only to control their own destiny, but also to protect their clients’ interests “you’ve got to be in a position where you don’t have to worry about forces external to your practice and what you do for your clients upsetting that balance,” says Pasich. The law firm is complemented by a record label he started, Blue Élan, which is the home of a number of legendary artists enjoying a new tune in their careers.

Lawdragon: Kirk, tell me a bit about your new firm, Pasich LLP? You’ve gone back and forth with big firms and your own firm several times, which I suppose reflects trends in Biglaw practice.

Kirk Pasich: I joined Paul Hastings out of law school and may have been one of the last people who thought they were joining a law firm and staying forever. It was a great firm but decided that it would be better not to have a broad-based fight-every-insurance-company-in-the-world kind of practice. As a young partner, I was on the committee looking at the issue and actually drafted the report that Paul Hastings transition away from insurance coverage in its long-term plans. And then I voted against the plan.

It was a very amicable departure because our group was doing something to help the firm in the long run, and the firm actually sent work with us that we didn’t originate, so it was a great start. Since then our practice has been attractive to big firms, but as firms have merged and gotten larger, it’s been incompatible with our practice of suing insurers. That’s what happened at Liner, where we were most recently, which merged with DLA.

We need the ability to control what our practice can and can’t be, and if there’s going to be any conflicts that are created, it’ll be on our watch, our responsibility. We are dedicated to representing insurance policyholders, and not representing insurance companies, insurance brokers, insurance agents or their affiliates. I think we’re pretty damn good at it.

LD: Can you explain to our readers who might not be familiar with insurance recovery what the practice entails?

KP: Very few people come out of law school saying, “I want to be an insurance coverage lawyer.” And most when you tell them you do insurance run from it.

What we do is really a specialty that sweeps through almost every practice area, every business area, on the planet. When we represent insureds it’s not just looking at their insurance policies. It’s not the mundane stuff about having insurance policies and revising them, although we help clients with that. It is taking a look at risk management in its broadest sense. Risk management is not just, “Oh, what kind of insurance do we buy?” But it’s, “How do we get the most out of that asset called insurance?” Think of it as a bank account and for corporate America it can be a billion-dollar bank account.

The history of alleged sex abuse by priests, or a school district with coaches, or intellectual property that goes back in time, all of these things can involve looking back decades. Corporate acquisitions and mergers, historical practices, or events today like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma – they all have vast insurance implications, not just for people who suffered property loss from the effects of those hurricanes, but the ripple effect through the economy. Construction price increases, labor shortages, gas price increases, the cancellation of professional sporting events and college sporting events, high school events, the drop in attendance at theaters and plays. We worked on the same thing after 9/11.

It is all aspects of society and insurance is a driver behind the economy, so for us our practice is helping clients recover what they’re owed and, frankly, rediscovering assets they didn’t know that they had. Taking things that they may think they have no financial protection for and developing financial protection for it. It’s insurance. It is what we call alternative risk transfer, which is who do you protect against a risk when insurance isn’t available? You want to do some sort of risk sharing. You want to hedge your bet, so to speak.

LD: Is all of your work negotiating for coverage or suing when coverage is denied?

KP: Not at all. We work on the design of products that are not traditional insurance products. They may have come from financial sources. They may be indemnities. They may be built into the structures of major corporate transactions. For us, it’s litigation, yes. It’s appellate work, yes, but it’s also business deals with this particular focus on insurance and how to manage the transfer and assumption of risks — too often overlooked in transactions.

People ask me, “How do you just enjoy just doing insurance?” I say, “Well, just doing insurance is like just doing litigation.” I mean, it’s a specialty, but I can start my morning working on a case for the Los Angeles Lakers that we have before the 9th Circuit, involving an event that happened at some of their sporting events. I can go from there to addressing the effects of Hurricane Harvey, and how that impacted businesses in Texas; and then I can move from that to looking at a complex transaction that took place in Bermuda and whether Bermuda proceedings were appropriate or not; to dealing with a real estate class action lawsuit in the state of Washington; to looking at a trademark infringement matter; to looking at a banking transaction with certain fees involved and then whether those fees were appropriate or not; to looking at how one major concert promoter handles its website; to dealing with issues over whether one song infringes upon another song. That’s what I do. If someone says that’s boring, then I’ll take it.

Every day is a different issue and a different segment of the industry. We have handled things from government interference with coal contracts in Indonesia to Thailand flood losses to the impact of substances on banana plantation workers in 17 foreign countries to flood losses in France to, of course, the earthquakes, the civil unrest after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, Superstorm Sandy. I think we tried the first Superstorm Sandy insurance coverage case.

We get to make the law by the appellate arguments we do – and I’ve been involved in more than 60 at this point – and I’ve done probably an equal number of 60 arbitrations and trials. If one wants to get into the courtroom, one wants to get appellate experience, to be on the cutting edge so to speak, honestly, I don’t think there is a better practice to be in.

LD: Can we talk a bit about your other passion, music and your entertainment practice? It’s kept you in the news a lot this year.

KP: I’ve been the primary spokesperson for Chris Cornell’s family, and it’s really the second time where I’ve been in the news a lot. As I said, it’s not something I try to do for me. The representation of our clients is about our clients and it’s not about me.

The number of high-profile clients we’ve represented would probably surprise a lot of people. My first foray into the news was one of these things where I was at Paul Hastings in 1987. I was still an associate, and I got a phone call from one of our partners in our Washington, D.C., office desperately looking for someone in Los Angeles to help in a matter for a jazz musician. He’d been referred the matter by a lawyer who had once been in the band led by Woody Herman. 

I took the case, and I realized that Woody Herman was a jazz legend. He’s a Grammy winner and had 40 or 50 top 10 songs in his day. He was being evicted from his home for failure to pay rent. He was under 24-hour nursing care. He was in an oxygen tent, and so we needed to go in the following Tuesday after a September holiday weekend and try to stop his eviction. We reached out to The L.A. Times and they were, “Not interested.” In those days, there was The Herald Examiner.

LD: The good old days.

KP: That Monday I come into the office. It’s a holiday and the receptionist who was there hands me a stack of messages, and they’re all these reporters calling, and so she said, “Have you seen the paper today? You’re in The Herald Examiner.” I went back downstairs and bought a Herald Examiner. The story about Woody Herman was on the front page with the headline above the fold. The saga involved what we did to keep him in his house. We ended up fighting in a legal proceeding over whether the IRS, which had sold his house, had complied with its procedures. We ended up proving that it had not, so we got his house back, and then it was sold for a fair price, and we set up a foundation to raise money for him and other ailing musicians.

That foundation eventually formed the seed donation to “MusicCares,” which is probably the largest music support organization through the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

You had this situation where nobody wanted to work the weekend. We worked the weekend and I ended up being on the cover of The American Lawyer for this work. Then you flash forward to 2017, and Chris Cornell’s untimely passing. I had worked with Chris and his family for 10 years. We had become friends over that time and we had lengthy conversations about music and kind of what his direction was going to be. I think the last time Chris and I had lunch was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it turned into a seven-hour lunch. And I don’t think we talked about the law one iota.

LD: What did you talk about?

KP: What he wanted to do after Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden, and Audioslave, and his solo stuff, his thinking for the future, how excited he was about various plans that he had. He was kind enough to invite me to a Temple show that they did at the Forum. I went to a private party out in Malibu that he and Sting performed at together. We just talked about a wide range of things, including his deep love for music and his love for his family, for his kids, and so with his death it was kind of a shock to all of us because that wasn’t the Chris Cornell that we knew.

LD: Explain your contacts with him around the time of his death and how that transpired.

KP: I’d been in touch with Chris just a couple of days earlier. We had a project in mind for Chris that he and I had started to talk about that would have been a duet with one of the artists on our label. It would have taken Chris in a little bit different direction, but with his death in Detroit, I ended up as sort of the point person at the family’s request with the media and on the legal issues.

One of our partners in New York, Jeff Schulman, is very close with Chris and his family as well, and has known Chris over the years, and so we’re coordinating for the family. It gave rise to some questions. And some wondered why in the world is some insurance recovery guy representing Chris Cornell? Is this to get to his life insurance policy for his family? Some speculated that there’s a suicide exclusion in his life insurance policies, so maybe this is just all kind of a game to get the coverage, but it wasn’t. Chris did have life insurance. It did have a suicide exclusion, but that exclusion was for something like three years after policy inception and these policies had been around for a long, long time.

It had nothing to do with that. It had to do with being tasked with figuring  out, and sharing, what really happened in that Detroit hotel room that night.

That’s what the family asked us to do and there was a lot of speculation out there in the media, on social media, things that were just wrong. It was important to protect the privacy of his wife and  his three children. I ended up being the primary spokesperson. I wasn’t the only spokesperson, but I ended up doing a lot of the talking. To this day, I think a lot of people still wonder how is it that somebody who specializes in insurance ended up working and speaking on behalf of the family, and one of rock’s icons. But, I’ve been involved in music and working with artists for several decades now. It’s the relationship and that experience that counted here.

LD: What work did you do in addition to serving as a spokesperson for the Cornells?

KP: I met Chris originally through insurance, but we shared a common love of music and as our friendship developed over the years, we spent so much more time talking about music and the early days of rock, and what he liked and what I liked. When Vicky, his wife, contacted me, I think it was within a few minutes after his death, we stepped in not really as lawyers. We did legal work, but Jeff and I as friends of the family were just people who were helping others in their time of need. I had to be more at the forefront than, frankly, I’m comfortable being, but this was really about Chris and his legacy, and his kids.

In the social media world, it’s really hard to protect kids and others from rumors and speculation, and just some of the nastiness that’s out there on the Internet. We tried to tell the story as it was, and to make sure to convey that for the family and for people that knew Chris and for the members of the band that committing suicide was just not Chris Cornell.

This isn’t what he’d do. He had very strong feelings about people who would commit suicide when they had kids, very strong negative feelings about it. It was deeply troubling to him when people would do it, so we always thought there was more to the story than Chris Cornell killed himself. One of the things that we said early on was we don’t know what all the answers are. We want to see what the toxicology report says because we don’t believe that Chris Cornell would have knowingly, understandingly intentionally taken his life.

When the tox reports came back, the medical examiner’s conclusion was, in essence, to the effect of “Well, he didn’t die from a drug overdose. He died from the noose around his neck that caused asphyxiation. We have no evidence that anyone put that exercise band around his neck other than Chris himself, so we call that suicide.” I don’t think that means it’s suicide from anybody else’s point of view.

LD: What steps did you take to get more information?

KP: We retained two of the country’s leading experts, a toxicologist and a pathologist, to do an independent review of the medical reports, not to come to a preordained conclusion. We didn’t say, “Hey, we want you to see if you can confirm X.” We said, “We have unanswered questions. We don’t think the medical examiner was looking at the question of the impact of the drugs that the toxicology report identifies on Chris’ mental state or his physical state. We want you to look at and tell us what do you think? Just give us your independent opinion.” We now have those reports and they confirm that there was a combination of drugs in Chris’ system that would have impaired his mental judgment, his mental capacity, and his physical capacity.

If Chris Cornell took his life, and there are still questions as to whether it may have been accidental, it was not with his normal judgment, his normal mental facilities or even his normal physical facilities. When one looks at the concert tape that night, you can see that the Chris Cornell that’s performing there is not the Chris Cornell that people knew. He was slurring words. He was forgetting lyrics. He had loss of balance. He was stumbling. All of these things were not Chris Cornell. We know he took some Ativan and we know from the toxicology report he had other drugs in his system apparently ingested likely after the concert, so what people saw at the concert was exacerbated by what was taken after it.

And it’s confirmed by the toxicology report, but that’s been lost a little bit in the shuffle because all people hear is “suicide, suicide,” and Chester Bennington’s death on Chris Cornell’s birthday just magnified that.

Chester was the godfather to Chris’ son and so he was close to the family. Whatever the circumstances were that led to Chester’s death it, too, was reported as a suicide, and so people were talking about Chris Cornell’s death as a suicide. Our role wasn’t to try to drive the narrative of the media. It wasn’t to espouse a certain view. It was to say from the start, “We want to see the toxicology report because we think there is more to the story than what’s being told so far, and the family has a lot of questions that we think the toxicology report and the review of those reports will answer those questions.” Now, here we are several months later and we now have answers for the first time.