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Monday, April 28, 2008 | A few weeks ago, in the first days of her campaign for city attorney, Amy Lepine used a metaphor.
“I won’t be a lapdog or an attack dog, I’ll be a watchdog,” she said.
That’s a phrase that Lepine has since employed many times in her campaign. But accounts from former colleagues, employers and clients of Lepine suggest the proper canine comparison for Lepine the lawyer is bulldog. In her nine years as an attorney, Lepine has built up a reputation among those who know her as a tough, no-nonsense lawyer, capable of surviving the harshest hassling by defense attorneys in vicious business litigation depositions and constantly hungry for the next legal challenge.
She’s also butted heads with at least two former employers and is currently embroiled in a legal battle against the city of San Diego and the incumbent city attorney, Mike Aguirre. That lawsuit, which alleges a slew of employment law violations, has raised some questions about Lepine’s own conduct as an attorney, and has put her under fire from her opponents in the race.
And in the 22 years since graduating with a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University, Lepine has not remained in any job for more than three years — one year less than a full term in office for a city attorney.
Indeed, Lepine has become adroit at reinventing herself. Before there was Lepine the lawyer, there was Lepine the journalist, Lepine the Pan Am flight attendant, and Lepine the domestic violence counselor.
Lepine said her early career paths were always interwoven with her overall goal of becoming a lawyer, a decision she says she made when she was very young.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 12 years old and I was just driving towards that goal all along. I think you need to have a wide perspective on life to make a good lawyer. Who wants a lawyer who is totally wet behind the ears, straight out of college at 24?” Lepine said.
That perspective-widening took Lepine all over the world as a flight attendant and to two now-defunct local newspapers as a journalist. It lasted from December 1987 until the demise of Pan Am in December 1991. As part of the airline company’s collapse, employees like Lepine were given a grant to spend time on the job training for a new career. Lepine spent hers on a paralegal course at the University of San Diego.
“I wasn’t a very good paralegal,” Lepine said. “It’s not my thing.”
Lepine worked as a paralegal for a sole practitioner for two years, and volunteered at the YWCA working with the victims of domestic violence.
While working as a paralegal and volunteering at the YWCA, Lepine scouted around for new employment opportunities. When the position of director of legal services became available at San Diego’s Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit that works with victims of sexual abuse and relationship violence, she sent in an application.
Lepine got the job.
For two years, she said, she whipped the legal office of CCS into shape, learning valuable insights into the world of the law and handling emotionally draining, but professionally stimulating, cases. Lepine estimated that in her two years at CCS, she probably wrote 1,000 restraining orders.
“I was listening to the nightmare stories of abuse,” Lepine said.
No one on the current staff of CCS has been there long enough to have worked with Lepine. Steve Allen, who took over from Lepine as the director of legal services in 1996, was the first qualified attorney to hold the position. He said he inherited a well-run and well-respected office.
Allen, who was with CCS for more than 10 years, said the director of legal services position is a very taxing, very important role, but he said the challenges are different to the sort of work most attorneys do day-to-day.
“I don’t want to take away from the importance of that job, but most of what you are doing is assisting people in filling out forms,” Allen said.
Lepine said she was able to build a strong enough team at CCS that she could become involved in other community work related to domestic violence. In 1996 she joined the San Diego Domestic Violence Council, a group she later chaired, and in 1998 she helped draft new state legislation related to domestic violence and lobbied on behalf of the Domestic Violence Council.
In the meantime, Lepine got married, a union that lasted two years until 1997.
“I guess two years is my magic number,” she said, laughing.
Two years was also how long it took Lepine to graduate law school, which takes most students at least three years. She enrolled in California Western School of Law in January 1997 and graduated in 1999. Neil Markowitz, a fellow law student at the time and a friend and supporter of Lepine, said she was one of the more outspoken students in classes.
“She has a very strong personality and that’s consistent with her interest in the law — she wants to learn how to survive whatever environment she’s in,” Markowitz said.
James Cooper, a Cal Western professor, said he remembers Lepine as a very bright student.
“She had a dynamic personality and she was kind and well-thought-of,” Cooper said.
Upon graduation, Lepine landed a job with Foley and Associates, a small, local, family law firm.
The stint at Foley & Associates, however, wasn’t included in a resume sent out by Lepine’s campaign manager. Judi Foley, the firm’s founder, said Lepine worked for her for a while, but that the relationship didn’t end well. She refused to elaborate.
“All I will say is we didn’t leave under very good terms,” Foley said
Lepine said she left the firm after she was subpoenaed to testify in a malpractice case against Foley.
“I had to testify truthfully,” Lepine said. She also refused to elaborate.
Lepine’s next legal gig fared much better and lasted much longer. She followed her friend Markowitz to work at the law offices of Stuart Eppsteiner, a class-action specialist based in Solana Beach.
Eppsteiner worked closely with Lepine for three years. He said she primarily helped him with two large class-action lawsuits including one cross-jurisdictional case centered in Boulder, Colo.
He said that case, in which a group of thousands of homeowners sued four defendants, including a large regional home building company, for allegedly putting defective windows in their homes, included some brutal depositions and hearings. For months, defense attorneys sought to harangue the class-action lawyers at every step, Eppsteiner said.
“Litigating, to a large extent, is like a jungle. The smell of fear or youth is seen by the predator as reason to attack. I think young lawyers, not just Amy, face that in all cases when they’re just starting out. The older lawyers think ‘I can eat her,’” Eppsteiner said.
“This was a very hostile group. Two or three of those law firms just wanted to beat the hell out of us all the time and embarrass us in front of the court. She was under attack much more than other lawyers of her age working in my office.”
Eppsteiner said Lepine had exactly the insistent and hard-nosed approach needed to succeed in the case. The attacks didn’t seem to phase Lepine at all, he said. Indeed, she thrived on the challenge.
“It seemed to bring out the best in her and make her want to rise and defend herself and defeat them,” he said.
Lepine remembers her time at Eppsteiner’s firm as a maelstrom of personal attacks. She said one defense attorney once sent her a six-page letter that was so full of attacks on her that, a few lines into reading the letter, she handed it to a paralegal and asked her to highlight anything that had any legal significance.
“She came back and there were two sentences highlighted,” Lepine said. “That’s the kind of stuff I was dealing with.”
The main case Lepine worked on at Eppsteiner ended up settling for more than $20 million. Eppsteiner said Lepine was instrumental in achieving that success. In all, Lepine spent three years at Eppsteiner & Associates, longer than any of her other jobs since graduating college, but a year less than she would be due to serve if she won the city attorney’s race.
After a brief stint at San Diego class-action law firm Finkelstein & Krinsk, Lepine made her first and, so far, only foray into public service when she joined the City Attorney’s Office under the direction of Aguirre.
Aguirre refused to talk on the record about Lepine because of the pending lawsuit she has against him and the city.
Don McGrath, Aguirre’s No. 2, was Lepine’s immediate supervisor during her short stint at the City Attorney’s Office. He said while Lepine’s a well-respected attorney, he doubts she has the requisite experience to run the city’s law firm.
McGrath said Lepine has not practiced law for long enough in San Diego to be able to make the sort of judgment calls needed from a city attorney. For example, he said, she wouldn’t know which outside counsel to hire for certain matters in which the city needed external lawyers. And McGrath pointed out that Lepine doesn’t have the requisite 10 years experience as a lawyer needed to become a judge in California.
“I would expect you need at least that much experience to be a city attorney,” McGrath said.
Lepine’s account of her time at the City Attorney’s Office is contained in a 25-page complaint for damages for wrongful termination and sexual harassment that she filed against Aguirre and the city in 2006. In the complaint, Lepine describes the office as “a work environment, which encouraged the debasement and marginalization of women.”
But a section of that complaint has raised questions about Lepine’s own legal conduct while at the office. The suit states that Lepine was pressured into filing a complaint against three former San Diego politicians despite her concerns about the political motivations behind the action and the course Aguirre was taking against the politicians.
Aguirre told her to “just do it,” Lepine’s complaint states.
So Lepine filed the suit despite her concerns, a move that legal ethicists and other city attorney candidates said raises questions about her judgment and integrity.
Lepine said she merely disagreed with Aguirre on how he was approaching the case against former Mayor Dick Murphy and former Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zuchett. She said she would never sign off on anything she thought was unethical, and said as city attorney she wouldn’t be beholden to anyone else’s poor judgment.
“I’m not going to have a superior telling me to do something that’s wrong, I’m going to be on equal footing with the City Council and the mayor,” Lepine said. “We all do things that we don’t like or agree with or want to when we’re a subordinate, you have to.”
Since founding her own law firm in 2006, Lepine has had her own subordinates to manage. The Lepine Law Group, which operates out of a small brick building on C Street in downtown San Diego, houses five full-time employees and handles a mix of family law cases, juvenile cases and consumer complaint suits.
Lepine also takes on domestic violence cases on a pro-bono basis. One of her clients, Kimberly Mohr, is currently living in a women’s shelter after Lepine represented her in a nasty custody and domestic violence battle against Mohr’s husband.
Mohr gushed about Lepine’s abilities as a lawyer and her qualities as a person. She said Lepine agreed to represent her for free despite other attorneys asking for at least $10,000 deposit just for looking at the case.
She said Lepine was steadfast in court and seemed extremely knowledgeable about the law, standing up for her against her ex-husband’s attorneys and smoothly and efficiently winning her case.
“The judge just couldn’t brush her off,” Mohr said. “It was just ‘wow.’”
Correction: The original version of this story stated that Lepine coined the phrase “I won’t be a lapdog or an attack dog, I’ll be a watchdog.” The city attorney candidate Jan Goldsmith, however, was quoted as saying it in a January 2008 column in The San Diego Union Tribune. Lepine had not yet announced her run for city attorney in January. We regret the error.