Lawyer Limelight: David Piper

Keesal Young & Logan shareholder David Piper, or “trail boss” as his brothers called him growing up, is a problem-solver by nature. That’s what drew him to Keesal Young. The firm is built on finding practical, business-minded solutions to client matters, and Piper thrives in that environment. Piper praises his dad for being his most important mentor and firm founder Skip Keesal for teaching him a critical element of the firm’s philosophy – even in contentious litigation, always be courteous.

Lawdragon: Can you please describe your interests as a child and any memories of what inspired you to become a lawyer? Where did you grow up?

David Piper: I grew up in Orange, California, the consummate small-town childhood experience. As the oldest of three boys, I thought of myself as the event organizer and problem solver in the family. My brothers sometimes called me the “trail boss,” because I was the kid who organized people, planned neighborhood adventures, and kept us all moving. This background, along with my love of history, strategy and tactics, really drew me to the law. Taking the law, applying it to the facts, and working to make effective arguments is what I enjoy about the practice. Where my real value is delivered, however, is in taking those arguments, distilling them to consider the risks, and advising my client on the best path forward.

LD: What did you study at the University of California, Berkeley? Can you describe your time there?

DP: I was a history major at UC Berkeley. As a scrappy kid from the mean streets of sheltered Orange County, I learned a lot going to school in Berkeley, the cradle of the free speech movement. When I landed at Cal over twenty years after the free speech movement began, Berkeley’s energy was still rebellious. I was immersed in a new world of differing political and social viewpoints, and my eyes were opened to perspectives I hadn’t considered. I also had the privilege of being taught by some of the greatest minds in academia. I had an incredible time at Cal, and learned as much outside as inside the classroom. My experiences there helped shape who I am today.

LD: What led you to choose University of the Pacific for your law studies?

DP: I chose UOP for law school for two reasons. First, they made no bones about the fact that they were building lawyers. My education had the usual philosophical and theoretical exercises – I studied with Justice Anthony Kennedy and was lectured by Justice John Paul Stevens, too – but our curriculum was focused on the practical application of what we were studying. My Real Property professor had been a long practicing real estate attorney and my Corporations professor was an experienced transactional lawyer. The real-world application of what we were learning was never under-emphasized. Second, McGeorge had one of the highest bar passage rates in the State of California. I knew the faculty at McGeorge was focused on our actual career success, which was critically important for me. I wanted to be a practicing lawyer, and I thought UOP had the tools to get me there.

LD: Did you spend time as a summer associate with Keesal Young & Logan, or how did you come to join the firm?

DP: I did not summer at KYL, which prides itself on growing its lawyers from infancy. I was lucky enough to be a rare lateral hire for the firm. I joined KYL after five years of practice. I had been exposed to the firm through some friends and, at the time I approached the firm, I was in public practice with Los Angeles County Counsel as a trial lawyer in the Dependency Courts. I was considering a return to private practice and thought that, if there was one firm I would work with in private practice, it would be KYL. The people set the firm apart from others, and I wanted to be a part of it. As luck would have it, they had a need for an associate of my vintage. That was 19 years ago.

LD: Are there particular mentors who’ve inspired or taught you, whether in life, law school or practice?

DP: My dad was my primary mentor. He taught me that family, loyalty and integrity are the three uncompromising tenets upon which to live. I try every day to live up to these ideals and am thankful for the lessons that he taught me.  My father-in-law taught me that success, both personally and professionally, can be accomplished without compromising your values.  He is an incredible success because he did not compromise who he is to get there.  He continues to mentor me, and I am still learning from his example.  My wife is my inspiration. She embodies each of the lessons my father and father-in-law taught me and is the best person I know. I treasure her support and partnership.  We are a team, and I couldn’t do any of this without her.

LD: What were some of your early cases in the complex and commercial litigation area, and what about the cases appealed to you?

DP: What do I love about my practice?  What’s not to love? Though I have a few “specialty” areas in which I practice, what is great about the practice of law and, specifically litigation, is that you can learn the substantive law if you don’t know it, and apply the facts to the law, to properly evaluate and prosecute or defend the case. I’m fond of saying about new or novel areas of the law “it’s just fancy book learnin’, let’s figure it out.”

Some of my favorite matters have involved large stock frauds, corporate bankruptcy cases, Ponzi schemes, disputes over modern-day mine claim jumping, and real estate disputes. I am a member of our firm's Privacy and Cybersecurity practice group, which has been extremely busy advising clients with respect to the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation, the recently passed California Consumer Privacy Act, and rapidly evolving state and federal privacy legislation. How companies use and protect data is changing every day. As the regulators and legislators try to catch up to address privacy concerns and data breaches, companies need to be extremely focused and proactive to ensure that they stay compliant.

In short, the draw of the law for me is that every case is different and each presents different opportunities to learn and to grow. The experiences build on and complement each other. Applying what you have learned throughout your career to the case in front of you is what truly brings satisfaction to the practice.

LD: What advice would you give to students who want to specialize in complex and commercial litigation?

DP: For law students, my advice is simple: work hard, listen carefully, and learn. The law is about solving problems. As my senior partner Skip Keesal says, “You can tell a good lawyer by how he or she listens.” You must understand the issues to resolve the conflict. If you enjoy strategy, tactics, puzzles, logic games, you’ll love being a lawyer.

The other piece of advice I would offer is that you don’t have to be unpleasant to be effective. That is another lesson Skip taught me early on. Skip was defending our client in a deposition. The opposing lawyer was miserable to deal with. He had been nasty, rude, unprofessional and completely uncooperative throughout the case. After we were settled in for what promised to be a long and difficult day, Skip asked the opposing lawyer if he could pour him a cup of coffee. The opposing lawyer looked shocked as Skip handed him a fresh cup. A few minutes later, Skip noticed that the sunlight from the windows of the conference room was shining in counsel’s eyes. Skip got up from the table without speaking a word and adjusted the blinds so the light wouldn’t shine in counsel’s eyes. He seemed annoyed, but thanked Skip. And the courtesies went on and on and on. By the end of the day, opposing counsel was a completely different person. He thanked us for coming, and was professional and courteous throughout the remainder of the case.

Over dinner that night I asked Skip how he could do it. How could he find a way to be nice to such an unpleasant person? How could he ignore the nasty letters, the contentious hearings and unreasonable demands? How could he ignore all of that, and just be nice? “Simple,” Skip said, “You just don’t engage. If you don’t return the nastiness, they soon learn they can’t get to you.  They tire of the games and get down to business.”  I learned a very, very important lesson that day. Be courteous. Let the facts and the law dictate the direction of the case. You serve your client better. You advance the case more efficiently, and the practice of law is much more pleasant. I have never lost a case by being courteous, but I have absolutely obtained better results for my clients that way.

As for that particular matter, we ultimately settled the case short of trial, which was a great result for our client. And, we still stay in touch with that formerly nasty lawyer, turned friend, nearly twenty years later. He’s even referred work to us.

LD: What inspires you about your job?

DP: I hope that the previous questions explain how I feel about my profession. I love it. I love figuring out and helping people craft resolutions to serious issues. I love working with people. I enjoy working with my clients, and working with opposing counsel and parties. The fact that my job helps people resolve issues they are unable to resolve themselves is amazing. That concept inspires me and is why I am proud to do what I do.

LD: What do you enjoy outside of law practice?

DP: Outside the practice of law, I spend as much time as I possibly can with my family and friends, run, ride mountain and road bikes, and love to be outdoors.