Oakland Neutral a Favorite In Handling 9/11 Claims
These days, the former trial lawyer spends about half his time in New York. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a federal district court picked him to preside over an appraisal proceeding to determine insurers' liability for property damage at the World Trade Center.
"It's a lot of lawyers, and it's a lot of [monetary] zeroes, and it's a lot of issues," said Wulff, who expects the proceedings to run at least through 2006. "It was a long way from home. But it was also flattering to be chosen."
Wulff has been putting himself in the middle of conflicts since the nascent days of mediation, said William Eliopoulos, a partner at Rutan & Tucker in Palo Alto, "so he's just slowly built up the reputation."
Wulff was a partner at Farella Braun & Martel when he began mediating part-time in the late 1980s, but it wasn't until 1994 that he left trial work behind to become a full-time neutral. He remained with Farella Braun for several years, until he and two friends opened their own outfit in 2001 near Oakland's Lake Merritt.
Michael Mukasey, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said he picked Wulff to be chief umpire on the three-member panel handling the World Trade Center claims because he was "very well-qualified by background," adding that his experience in construction law certainly helped.
Alot of Wulff's work as a neutral has arisen from disputes over commercial construction for large projects such as the Arizona Diamondbacks'ballpark and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
"When he started doing mediations, the word in our community was positive," said Nomi Castle, whose Los Angeles firm specializes in the construction industry. "We didn't have many mediators that had experience in construction litigation."
But, as when he was a trial lawyer, Wulff's work at Wulff, Quinby & Sochynsky covers all stripes of commercial disputes, from real estate and intellectual property to contracts and securities law.
San Francisco Thelen Reid & Priest partner John Ralls said Wulff offers a "complete
package" of analytical talents and people skills. "He's just a full-court player."
At the outset, Wulff puts people "in a settling frame of mind," said Peter Harvey, of San Francisco's Harvey Siskind Jacobs, who has brought trademark disputes before Wulff.
When the parties in California consumers' antitrust class action against Microsoft Corp. turned to Wulff for mediation about three years ago, Townsend and Townsend and Crew partner Eugene Crew described himself as "a reluctant trial lawyer who was getting ready for trial. And I wanted to go to trial."
Wulff "wanted me to sheath my sword," said Crew, who represented the class in mediation alongside Townsend partner Richard Grossman. Crew says he remembers Wulff telling him with a smile, "Gene, you're going to let go of this case, and I'm going to help you."
"We laughed," Crew said, "And I thought to myself, `from my cold, dead hands you
will.'" In the end, Wulff got both sides to reach the basic terms of a settlement worth $1.1 billion.
Crew credits Wulff's trial skills, saying the mediator was effective at articulating each position persuasively. "He pounded on us, but we felt confident that he was pounding on the other side."
On the proactive scale, Wulff pegs himself a "9.5" on a scale of 1 to 10. But lawyers say he's adaptable, and skilled at reading his audience.
"I would classify him as friendly, but not overly obsequious, where he tries only to use persuasion," Castle said. "He uses all parts of his personality."
"Most mediators tend to be a facilitator," said D. Michael Schoenfeld, a partner with Sacramento's Murphy Austin Adams Schoenfeld. "The other type of mediator is a head-knocker. . [There are] very few mediators that can transition between the two, and Randy has that capacity."
There are still two occasions, though, when at least a few of his fans say they'd pass on using Wulff's services - due either to his fees of $10,000 to $12,500 a day or his availability.
"It's very expensive to have a Randy Wulff mediation," Castle said. "So if you have a $100,000 case, it just wouldn't seem to pay."
For more significant cases, though, he's a sound investment, said Daniel Miller, a partner with Miller, Starr & Regalia. "The first time I had a mediation with him, two thoughts came to mind: One, how could anybody be worth $10,000 a day. And two, I need to get into the mediation business," said Miller, who estimates that most mediators charge $250 to $600 an hour. "But I was amazed at the end of the mediation that I walked away actually thinking to myself that he was a bargain."
If you make it into his office, the neutral, who also handles occasional arbitrations, might chat you up about his other passion.
"I have my next career firmly in mind," he said: Grape grower.
"I love farming," he said. "Though I admit farming wine grapes is probably different than asparagus."
He's already got a toe in the business; he and his wife, Krys, have a home and two vineyards in Napa.
From somewhere in his office suite, he fetches a bottle of chardonnay made by a winery that buys their grapes and shows off the label, designed by the younger of their two grown sons. He and his wife want to trademark a name for the wine - "Lobo," which is Spanish for "wolf."
"One day, that's what I want to be doing full time," Wulff said. "We're just over the moon about our chardonnays."