Zebra Lawyer

When he isn't refereeing at the Super Bowl, Ed Hochuli runs one of the largest litigation firms in Arizona        

Published in 2007 Southwest Super Lawyers — June 2007

If there's a secret to the double life of Ed Hochuli, it's that he loves the pressure—the pressure of being a defense litigator; the pressure of being one of the nation's top professional football referees; the pressure of staying in great physical shape. "You want to be the one on the line," he says, sitting in his high-rise office in midtown Phoenix. "You've got to want the tough call to come your way, on the field or in the courtroom. You have to enjoy the pressure or it gets to you."

Hochuli's schedule would get to most people. In his top-tier personal injury and products liability defense practice, he's tried some 150 civil jury cases to verdict in the past 25 years. And on weekends, Hochuli is known as No. 85, one of the most popular and well-respected NFL refs in the country. In his 17 years with the league, Hochuli has officiated at 15 playoffs and two Super Bowls. (On his right hand, he wears a honker of a ring he earned at Super Bowl XXXII in 1998—12 small diamonds, one big one.) "All most people see is the glamorous three hours on the field on a Sunday afternoon, but that's just a small part of it," he says. "I work 30 to 40 hours a week on mostly dull and boring stuff—studying the rule book, viewing the game tapes. I spend 50 hours a week on the law, and a lot more of those hours are enjoyable, but none are as thrilling as those three on the field."

With two full-time, high-stress careers, you might expect Hochuli to be an intense, on-the-edge-of-your-seat and—well—intimidating sort of guy. So it's a bit of a surprise to meet the easygoing 56-year-old Midwest native who wears a sports shirt and casual pants and slumps a little in his swivel chair. He smiles easily, speaks gently, jokes, laughs at himself and is not sure why anyone would be that interested in him. Still, he makes a visitor feel right at home, and loves to chat about his action-packed life.

"A game is a tremendous adrenaline rush. You have to make decisions like that"—he snaps his fingers—"and you are right or wrong," Hochuli says. There are similarities between the courtroom and the law—both are governed by rules, and both demand intense preparation and an ability to articulate what you mean. But the bottom line is this: "There's far more pressure on the football field. ... Just think about this: 300 million people can be watching a game; in the courtroom, maybe there's a dozen people. Football has been very beneficial to my law practice, it has taught me a lot. I'm never the slightest bit nervous in a courtroom."

In both arenas, Hochuli is known for his decisive calls and elaborate explanations. His decisions have become so sacrosanct, David Letterman once quipped that sign number seven of "The Top 10 Signs You've Been Watching Too Much Football" is: "In every situation you ask yourself, ‘What would NFL referee Ed Hochuli do?'" A Web site selling Ed Hochuli merchandise—everything from infant creepers to coffee mugs emblazoned with the "WWEHD?" logo—declares that "Ed Hochuli is the kindest, smartest, fairest, tannest and most muscled referee in all of football and perhaps in the world." (Hochuli has nothing to do with the site.)

At 6-feet and 210 pounds, Hochuli still resembles the linebacker he was as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso from 1969 to 1972. Nicknamed "Guns" for his unusually large biceps, he keeps the physique by working out with a Stairmaster and weights for a couple of hours most days at a gym near his home. As Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb once put it, "You look at him and it looks like he needs to be on our side of the ball. ... He stands on the sidelines looking like one of the linebackers." And darned if some jurors haven't noticed. Hochuli laughs at the times he has been recognized, not as the defense attorney in the case, but as Sunday's referee. Reacting to Hochuli's celebrity doesn't automatically disqualify a potential juror, but it does prompt the judge to get assurances that the fan can be fair and impartial.

"Anybody would like to be recognized, but at times it would be nice to escape," Hochuli says of his public-figure status. "At parties, all people want to talk about are the games, and there are lots of things I'd rather talk about-my kids, my grandkids, other sports.

"I don't watch much football I don't have to watch," he admits. "I didn't watch this year's Super Bowl. You know, it gets old."

 

Hochuli was born on Christmas Day 1950 in Milwaukee. His family moved to Tucson when he was 8. He played football at Canyon del Oro High School in the Tucson suburb of Oro Valley, and then at the University of Texas, but always knew he'd follow his late father, Walter, a wills and estate planner, into the law. "I was going to go into partnership with him," Hochuli recalls. But while at the University of Arizona Law School, he was offered a clerkship with Carl Muecke, the liberal U.S. district judge who drove conservative Arizona crazy in his many years on the bench. He remembers his dad telling him, "Ed, you can't turn down an opportunity like this, and you'll never be back."

"[Muecke] didn't treat me like a lowly clerk," says Hochuli. "He told me, ‘Your job is not to agree with me, but to tell me what you think.' I had a tremendous amount of respect for him."

During his two-year clerkship, several Phoenix firms came calling. Hochuli was lured by Bill Jones, the attorney who for years was the go-to guy when the city of Phoenix was in trouble. "I was very, very impressed with Bill Jones—his personality and knowledge," Hochuli says. "He has been my mentor." In 1983, the men became partners, forming Jones, Skelton & Hochuli. Their firm, which started out with five partners and seven associates, now employs more then 80 attorneys and is one of the largest litigation outfits in the state. At any given time, Hochuli heads up 25 to 50 cases, on top of another 200 or so he's involved with. "He's obviously dedicated to everything he does—almost to the point of compulsion," says Jones of Hochuli. "We've tried cases together, had some fun together and I enjoy watching him on Sunday afternoons. I'm real proud of what he's accomplished."

Hochuli's career as a referee began simply, while he was in law school. His high school coach suggested he might want to officiate as "a way of staying in touch with the game," and so he began working Saturday Pop Warner games at $50 for four games. "I was in law school with a child and I needed the $50," he says. From that humble start he kept moving up and caught the eye of the NFL, which signed him in 1990.

"The key to my life is time management and organization," Hochuli says. He arrives at work at about 5 a.m. and lunches at his desk—one credenza drawer is filled with canned chicken that he adds to salads. ("I watch my diet—a lot of protein, low carbs.") He saves up reading for the afternoon Stairmaster, when the outside world is tuned out by his iPod filled with jazz, rock and pop ("everything but country"). When he flies to the city of his assigned game—leaving early Saturday morning, spending the day in preparation, refereeing Sunday and then flying home to Phoenix—he "never sleeps or watches movies: That's a waste of time." His laptop includes the files of all his cases "so I can work anywhere as if I'm in the office."

Hochuli also finds time for his six children—son Shawn, who is following in his father's footsteps as an NFL referee in European arena football games; his youngest daughter, Rachel, a psychology student at the University of San Diego; sons Aaron and Scott, partners in the Hochuli Construction Team; daughter Jeannie, who works for the March of Dimes and wants to go into politics; and his oldest daughter, Heather, a restaurant manager. There's also his six grandchildren and his girlfriend, Cathie Belcher. (He's still good friends with his ex-wife.) His mother, Mary, lives in Tucson, a two-hour drive, and his five siblings all live nearby. The law runs in his family: One of his brothers, Daniel, is city attorney in Sahuarita, Ariz.; another brother, Peter, is supervisor of the Juvenile Division in the Pima County Attorney's office.

 

On this day in February, Hochuli is relieved to have finally settled a long and complicated litigation involving a South Phoenix chemical fire in 2000 that exposed as many as 30,000 people to toxic fumes. Hochuli defended the owners of the warehouse where the chemicals were stored. "Everybody sued us," he says. The neighborhood residents and the owners of a burnt-down pharmaceutical company next door to the warehouse received a $9 million settlement in a class action against Hochuli's client and the chemical company that stored its products at the warehouse. A trial to divide settlement costs between his client and the chemical company brought closure to the case after seven years. "We are pleased with the results," Hochuli says.

"He's an excellent lawyer and I think some of his football experience transfers over to the litigation front," says former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods, who went head to head with Hochuli, representing the neighborhood residents in that class action. "If you're a football player, you want someone not afraid to make the call. In the courtroom that's certainly what I want-on my side or the other side. Things are a lot easier if you have excellent counsel on the other side, because you know everything will be done at a high level, and everything that needs to be done will be done."

Mike Gallagher, the Gallagher & Kennedy founding partner and former New York Mets scout who is credited with helping to bring professional baseball and football to Phoenix, has watched Hochuli from afar. "He has a tremendous reputation as a lawyer in Phoenix-he's a high-class guy," says Gallagher. "As a referee, I like the way he controls the game."

So do those most in the know. Legendary NFL referee Jim Tunney—whose 31 years on the field include more than 500 games and three Super Bowls—has watched Hochuli become a star. "What's so impressive is he really does his homework and prepares himself and his crew," says Tunney, who retired in 1991 and now lives in Pebble Beach, Calif. "They say worry is the lack of preparation. He doesn't worry.

"He takes a lot of care with the players, the fans and the integrity of the game. He communicates very well, he's very calm and very self-confident. You know, you can't stutter or be hesitant because you create doubt."

Hochuli carries that same wisdom into the courtroom. "On the football field, people like that I'm in charge and know what I'm doing," he says. "But a lot of time, it's just an appearance. I'm going to sell you on my decision. It's the same in a courtroom. You don't stand in front of a jury and say, ‘I think my client is innocent.' You say, ‘We're right!'"        

 

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