Some attorneys can trace their skills back to a revered law school professor or a high school debate coach. Vincent J. Bartolotta Jr. gives credit to the Marines. In 1968, he enlisted in a Marine Corps program that allowed him to go through boot camp, complete his education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and train for the U.S. Olympic soccer team, for which he was selected as an alternate.
Bartolotta’s first USMC assignment was as a defense lawyer at Camp Pendleton, Calif. But he was too successful at that, he says, “so they switched me to a prosecutor.” He was later promoted to military judge, which accompanied an offer to finish his last year of duty at Pendleton.
“At that time,” Bartolotta recalls, “the Vietnam War was at its height. I was good at being a Marine. I loved being a Marine, and there was a war on. How could I be a Marine and not go to the war?” He volunteered for duty in Vietnam on the condition he would be attached to an air combat unit. He went to Vietnam as a wing legal officer with Squadron 232, the Red Devils, an F-4 Phantom unit.
Based at Nam Phong in Thailand, Bartolotta’s job duties were diverse. “Everything from trying cases to escorting prisoners,” he says, “whatever was needed at the base, I was kind of all-over over there.” He loved flying, and even “back-seated F-4s on occasion.” During his Vietnam tour, he honed his skills as a negotiator, helped compensate relatives of victims hit by “friendly” fire and protected U.S. Special Forces secret operations.
“I’m very proud to have been, and still be, a part of the Marine Corps,” Bartolotta says. “I think it was a major milestone in my life. I love the physical rigors of the Corps. I love the values they stood for and still stand for. I like the esprit and everything about it. I like the discipline. Those are principles that have stayed with me to this day, and I pride myself on them.”
Bartolotta’s first civilian job was in insurance defense work. But he found it less than rewarding. “What I found out in doing defense work was that really, that’s not where my heart was,” he says. “My heart was always with the little guy, fighting against the big guys. … There were no warm fuzzies about it, the way you feel when you do a good job for somebody that’s really hurt and their life is dependent on your success.”
Now a founding partner of Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, Bartolotta changed the concentration of his practice to plaintiffs’ representation in 1978. He says he’s built his reputation by working honorably and tirelessly for each client. “Integrity,” he says, “is what you do when nobody is looking. I put my heart and soul into all my cases, and I think that’s why I’m successful.”
Take the case of Border Business Park v. The City of San Diego. The jury in this hard-fought case found that the city broke the terms of a development agreement and awarded the developer a landmark verdict of $94.5 million in 2001. In a 2005 eminent domain case, Bartolotta represented a former cigar store owner whom the city ousted from his property to make way for hotel development. The jury awarded the landowner $7.8 million. The case was especially timely in the national debate on whether, in the name of economic development, government has the power to take over private land for development by a private party.
Bartolotta says he is “surprised at the arrogance of our governmental entities in eminent domain and inverse condemnation. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that has really been my experience—that so many of these entities think that because they are a big-deal entity, that they can push individuals around. They can take their property or take their land and not really try and compensate them fully for it. I find it personally offensive.”
During his Marine Corps days in Vietnam, Bartolotta promised himself “that if and when I got out of there, I was going to stop and smell the flowers,” and so, to this day, whenever he wears a suit coat, he sports a white carnation boutonnière and it’s always a white carnation.
Bartolotta’s boutonnière, while an original idea, runs in the family. While visiting family in Pittsburgh, an aunt in her 80s noticed his boutonnière and brought out an old photo album. “[There was] a picture of my grandfather, who was a coal miner,” Bartolotta says. “But every Friday night, he would dress up and go to the Italian Club and entertain, and he would wear a white carnation boutonnière.”
A few years later while visiting a cousin in Florida, Bartolotta noticed another family picture. It was his great-great grandfather, sporting a white carnation boutonnière.