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Who are the next lions of Sonoma County defense law?

Stephen Turer, left, and Chris Andrian, right, have both been attorneys for over 40 years.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.

Santa Rosa’s most celebrated defense attorney, Chris Andrian, likes his football.

Andrian and his friend and colleague, Steve Turer, have held season tickets to the San Francisco 49ers for longer than either cares to remember.

So it seems fitting that Andrian, 69, offers a football metaphor when asked about his plans for retirement.

Bottom line is, he’s not heading to the locker room any time soon.

“As long as I can keep throwing touchdown passes, I’m going to stay in it,” said the tweedy attorney who wears a 49ers belt buckle in court. “I like being in the mix.”

Same for Turer, 68.

“I’ll stop when they pry my iPad from my cold, dead hands,” Turer joked recently as he hustled between cases at the Sonoma County courthouse.

But the old lions of the local defense bar can’t stop the march of time. Their beards whiten with each passing year. Like many in the generation inspired by social movements of the 1960s, time is catching up. And there’s only so much more money to be made.

They’ve acknowledged it in not-so-subtle ways. Both have hired younger associates with an eye toward grooming new talent for the years ahead.

It’s a phenomenon that’s playing out throughout the county as fixtures of criminal law prepare to adjourn their careers.

“I don’t expect to be doing this in two years,” said another respected Santa Rosa defense attorney, Steve Weiss, who has been in the business for 36 years. “If I am, I want someone to just shoot me.”

Some firms are bringing on younger talent, allowing them to gain experience on misdemeanor cases before grooming them to take complex felonies.

Santa Rosa attorney Jason Tucker, who trained under veteran defense attorney-turned-judge Jamie Thistlethwaite, already has several murder trials under his belt since passing the bar in 2006.

“We will have some big shoes to fill,” said Tucker, 33. “There’s a core group of eager, zealous attorneys coming up who are making a name for themselves. I think we have a pretty good future ahead.”

Success will depend on a number of things, including a lawyer’s willingness to put in 10-hour days and work weekends. Also, building a client base can be challenging for someone just starting out.

“You don’t have the experience to bid against these guys who have been doing it for years,” said Orchid Vaghti, 26, who passed the bar and was hired by Turer last year after working for him as a 16-year-old intern.

Just out of Empire College Law School, Vaghti’s been second-chair to her boss on a half-dozen trials and is handling smaller cases. She advises recent graduates to work for someone for a few years before launching their own practice.

“Law school teaches you to read and understand the law,” she said. “Dealing with facts in a real-life scenario takes a different kind of training.”

A number of recent graduates are earning their chops as deputy prosecutors and public defenders.

Scott Fishman, 26, who passed the bar in May, is among the promising crop of young lawyers ready to take up the mantle. He’s working on a volunteer basis at the Public Defender’s Office. Already, he’s handled misdemeanor trials with some success.

“I’m eager to get in there and show people what I can do,” said Fishman, who is hoping to land a full-time position in the office someday. “I think there are a lot of good, young lawyers who are capable of really stepping up.”

Still others are wading out on their own.

Mike Li, 41, who left the District Attorney’s Office a year ago to start a one-man defense practice in downtown Santa Rosa, said it was tough opening a new business.

But he said the freedom of being his own boss and the possibility of bigger paychecks down the road make it worthwhile.

“The first six months I was really anxious,” Li said. “But I’ve rounded a corner a bit. It’s starting to mushroom.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)

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