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Lawyer Limelight: George D. Kieffer

There may be no lawyer who better embodies the ethos of Manatt than George Kieffer.

From its freewheeling early days when he joined as the 8th attorney, to his political work as general counsel to the presidential campaign of Jerry Brown; taking a part-time leave to live in Malibu and write a book, “The Strategy of Meetings,” and his evolution as a premier civic leader who currently holds what some consider the most coveted appointment in California: Chair and Board member of the University of California Board of Regents. Add in 46 years as a partner offering advice to governments, corporations and other institutions and you start to get a picture of Kieffer.

But words alone don’t tell his story. For that, you have to turn up the volume – as he has done in all his endeavors in his low-key, astute and trusted manner throughout his career.

That’s because he’s also a composer, who has had his music performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, played at the Special Olympics and placed on Spotify with a collection of solo piano pieces, as are his two sons.

Lawdragon: George, it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe we can start with how you came to join Manatt and the opportunities it’s provided you over the years.

George David Kieffer: I was attracted to Manatt first of all because of Chuck Manatt, who at the time was Chair of the California Democratic Party.  I was interested in politics and public policy. But the firm, very small at the time, also represented the Lakers, the LA Kings, and was really the hottest firm in town. The culture was open and supportive – allowing me a great deal of leeway over time. I was lucky they took me. Three years later I asked for a leave to study songwriting and musical theatre, hardly something the traditional associate would ask or be granted at that time. But I did and was. I rejoined when we took on one of the premier music practices in the city and for the next 10-15 years I was a music lawyer.

LD: How have you seen the firm change? It’s a rare L.A.-based firm that has survived for nearly 55 years.

GDK: Well, obviously we’ve grown a great deal and expanded from banking and entertainment. While it’s been harder to keep the same closeness as a firm grows, we’ve worked hard to maintain the culture. You have to institutionalize more, including the institutionalization of firm values. It helped that the founders passed on leadership to the next generation very early. We’re in another phase of passing on leadership right now and I think it will be very healthy.

LD: What does it say about Manatt and you that while serving as one of the firm’s most acclaimed partners, you’ve written a book, composed music, co-written the Los Angeles City Charter, served as head of the LA Chamber of Commerce, led the UC Regents and much more?

GDK: It mostly says I’ve been around a long time! My older friends would say I was just  confused about what I wanted out of life – and there’s some truth in that. But the law firm gave me a home to pursue my other interests. For me, it’s always felt like I was part owner of a small firm in a small town. And it’s been very important to me to take part in that town’s civic life. There are different roles in any organization and the firm has allowed me to play this one.

LD: Are there particular legal matters you’ve handled at Manatt of which you’re most proud? Can you tell us about two or three?

GDK: One was representing BNSF Railway in selling it rail lines to a consortium of Southern California county transportation authorities, creating the public rail system we today call Metrolink.  Besides being a complicated transaction resulting in a public good, it involved some very interesting people, including then lawyer [and later Mayor] Richard Riordan, representing Los Angeles County.

Another was being brought in to try to settle a contract dispute between Los Angeles World Airports and the construction joint venture that built the new Bradley International Terminal. The parties were not speaking and poised for some very messy litigation. Representing the joint venture partners, we were able to get back to the table and then negotiate a settlement. It took developing trust with both LAWA and the client and in the end it was a win-win. Since then I’ve been more and more involved in resolving contract disputes with public agencies.

LD: I’d also love to spend some time discussing your Renaissance approach to law and life. Where did you get the sense that you wanted such a broad ranging set of activities and accomplishments?

GDK: I’ve just always had multiple interests. As I said, early on it was confusing, since it takes longer to build on these interests concurrently. Then, over time, it just sort of came together. I had been committed from college to playing a role in my community. I was a history major and my heroes were those who founded the Republic. It’s a little hokey, but my favorite movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey gives back to his town. I see it as an obligation and benefit of citizenship in a democracy.  The book developed from a request by fellow board members to do a memo on meetings. The music was and is something I can’t help. It’s just there all the time. So I go with it when I can. All of it appears to make sense now. But earlier in my life it probably appeared that I had no clear direction.

LD: How do you manage your time – it can’t be easy juggling everything you do.

GDK: You do make compromises. My highest priority has been my marriage and our two sons. I compose music, but I’m not on Broadway. I’m a fine lawyer, but I’m not Clarence Darrow. I’ve made a good living but I’m certainly not rich. I tell people, you can’t “have it all.”  But you can have a balanced life.

LD: Can you discuss your work rewriting the LA Charter as head of the LA Chamber of Commerce and what the practical impact of that work was for the city?

GDK: Chairing the Appointed Charter Commission – re-writing the Los Angeles City Charter – is clearly one of the highlights of my professional life. For me it was reliving the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  In fact, I prepared for what turned out to be more than a three year exercise by reading everything I could about that historic event. It allowed me to see the big picture and not get pulled into the small fights that occur in these kinds of efforts. In the end, Erwin Chemerinsky, who Chaired the Elected Commission, and I negotiated about 100 differences between the two commissions and came up with what we called the Unified Charter. At the time the City was being pulled apart by secession efforts.  By addressing the major issues I think we were able to hold the City together.

Chairing the LA Chamber was rewarding as well. At that point it was really about bringing the Chamber into the 21st Century, diversifying its board and recommitting to the welfare of the whole community, not simply a narrow view of business.

LD: Also, your role as head of the UC Board of Regents, to which you were appointed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and which you will hold until 2021 is the plum appointment in the state. You went to UC Santa Barbara for undergrad – and were selected “Most Outstanding Male Student” – and UCLA for law school. Is there a special perspective you bring to the UC system? What are the main issues you handle as Chair?

GDK: It’s been a wonderful honor and a tremendous responsibility. The UC System is universally regarded as the greatest public higher education system in the world – and copied all over the world. At the same time it provides more access and social and economic mobility than any in the world.  It’s something of miracle.

And its success is due largely to its special constitutional status as well as decisions made by Regents who came before us. It was not some plan, but I benefited from having been a student at UCSB and UCLA and having chaired the UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association and the UCSB Foundation. I was also on a Commission that reviewed the Master Plan for Higher Education.  So I had some background before being appointed, which helped me more quickly understand the factors and stakeholders within the University and the pressures from the public.

The issues are myriad, from the pressures on admissions, housing, budgets, compensation of Chancellors, faculty and staff – and of course tuition.  We are a board governing not one but 10 great universities, making the job more unique and more difficult. But the system has served California well for 150 years.

LD: And then, of course, there’s your music. You actually do hear music in your head as you experience life. Can you tell us a bit about when you started writing music, and your involvement with it throughout your career? Like after a stressful partner meeting, do you go home and compose a turgid piece?

GDK: I took piano lessons as a kid and like many, hated practicing and was incredibly slow at reading music.  I’d ask the piano teacher to play the piece for me and I learned that I could play by ear.  That doesn’t really work well with classical pieces, but I started picking out my own tunes.  I started writing songs when I heard Carole King and Elton John performing on piano. Up until then it was all guitars. An example would be this demo recorded by Oleta Adams.

Over the years I’ve written hundreds of songs and instrumental themes, once in a while getting them placed, as in “The Pink Panther 2,” or the movie “Rebound,” or the TV show “The L Word,” but generally not doing anything with the material. Now I’m starting to put it out, like the album “Encounters with the Moon”on Spotify and “American Waltz – Jefferson in Paris” on Soundcloud. Spotify makes it easy, but it does not necessarily mean it will be heard.

LD: I’m a huge fan of your music, as well as some of the projects like “Arlington,” supporting veterans; your “Fanfare for the Special Olympics;”and more recent pieces including “All We Know.” Can you tell us about the inspiration for those pieces and others – what you’re saying in your musical voice that you want to be heard?

GDK: “Arlington” was inspired by two things; first, a trip to Normandy; second, hearing the theme from the television series “Band of Brothers.”  I wanted to do something that commemorated those killed or injured in war and those who serve and I thought the Band of Brothers Theme was so special – could I do that?  It started as an instrumental piece and then, encouraged by others, I added lyrics I’m very proud of.  The lead singer is singing from the grave: “Here on the land, find a place for me.”

I wrote the Fanfare for the Special Olympics for the Special Olympics in LA in 2016.  I was lucky to have it picked up and played at the Opening Ceremony. Unfortunately it was not recorded at the event.

I’m a romantic and my focus is melody. The songs are more obvious. In the instrumentals I’m telling a story without words.  Sometimes its conscious. Sometimes I don’t understand what I’m saying until halfway through or when the piece is done. It’s another part of the brain operating, one over which I have little control. And it may range from a mood or feeling to a real story.  In “A Winter Song,” the mood is a cozy fireplace. But it’s also about a later stage of life, where one sings a song appropriate to that age. A younger man may sing “We Will Rock You.” An older man would sing more of “A Winter Song.”  And in each case he could be very content.

LD: And your sons are also musicians. What are their Spotify channels – the family that spotifies together slays together?

GDK: Hah! Well you can find Geordie under “Geordie Kieffer” and Ian under “Youth Basketball.”  I’m hoping people looking for them mistakenly find me.

About the Author: Katrina Dewey (katrina@lawdragon.com) is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools.