The Attorney Who Built a Practice on a Single Case

Between his baseball games, watching over his restaurant, and a few years of ducking angry protestors, Duncan Barr has been working the same case for over two decades

Published in 2005 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Larry Rosen on July 20, 2005


To enter the Double Play restaurant and bar is to step back in time to a San Francisco of smoke-filled rooms, $100,000 mansions and Pacific Coast League baseball. The restaurant sits at the intersection of 16th and Bryant streets, diagonally across from what used to be Seals Stadium. Its walls are covered with baseball memorabilia, snapshots of old-timers like the Babe, Frankie Crosetti and Joe D. Especially Joe D. Seals Stadium was home of the Pacific Coast League Seals, who played what passed for big-time ball before the Giants came to town in ’58.

By that time, the Double Play had already been open for 49 years. Willie, Cha-Cha, Willie Mac and the rest brought the majors to Seals Stadium that year, playing at the old ballpark until the windswept eyesore that is, was and will be Candlestick Park was completed in 1960. Seals Stadium, then 28 years old, was demolished on September 20, 1959. Where Lefty O’Doul once stalked the dugout, teens now rifle through sale racks at Old Navy.

Thirteen years ago attorney Duncan Barr, of O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr, bought into the Double Play. Barr, a veteran of the local restaurant scene, has made his name as an iconoclast and defender of high-profile cases. Most notably, Barr was involved in what was then an eight-year-long case involving blood banks and AIDS activists. It is now a 21-year-long case, and counting.

In 1984, Barr was retained by Cutter Laboratories (later to become Miles Laboratories, and then Bayer) to defend against claims that HIV-tainted blood had been distributed to hemophiliacs. “Hemophilia is an awful condition,” says Barr. “I can’t blame these people [hemophiliacs]. They did nothing wrong. And I was the guy getting in the way of their getting their money.” The case quickly mushroomed into a series of cases, trials and settlements, 20-plus years that have largely defined Barr’s career.

O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr is the only law firm Duncan Barr has ever worked for. He joined in 1971, following two years of clerking for U.S. District Judge Oliver Carter. After a period in the 1990s of expansion, Barr steered O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr down to what was for him a manageable size: five lawyers — enough to fit snugly into their new offices, one flight of stairs above the Double Play.

Duncan Barr is now a man just starting his 60s. He is large, 6 foot 5 inches, and more of a slap-onthe-back guy than a hard-handshake guy. As advertised by the orange mock turtleneck he wears under his pinstriped suit, Duncan Barr is no buttoned-down attorney. He is a man who goes against the grain, yet is also comfortably rooted in reverence for the past; witness the walls of his office, which, covered with old-time baseball memorabilia, seem an extension of the restaurant downstairs. With his large frame hunched over a table at the Double Play, Barr seems a memory of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, a Damon Runyon character by way of Herb Caen — the smart, wise-cracking small-town boy comes to the city and makes his way.

Growing up in Yreka, California, hard up in the Siskiyous by Mount Shasta, Duncan Barr had anything but big-city ambition. By his own admission, Barr, the son of a local judge, skated through high school, then college at St. Mary’s in Moraga. “My dad went to St. Mary’s,” he says, “so they had to let me in. Frankly, for me, going to law school was like entering the family business.” Nothing in his life at that point suggested he would eventually become a notably colorful part of the fabric of a notably colorful city like San Francisco.

Barr’s father died three days before he took the California bar 

exam. “I had no idea what to do,” he says now. He took a job clerking for U.S. District Judge Oliver Carter, a former state senator and California Democratic Party state chair, and found himself surrounded by the cream of the graduating law school crop. “Oliver Carter was a friend of my father’s. So the first week, we all go to lunch, all the clerks, and we go around the table, introducing ourselves. This one’s from Yale, this one’s from Harvard, top of his class. They get to me and I say, ‘Well, I graduated from Golden Gate, bottom of my class, but Judge Carter is a good friend of my father.’ At that point they all hated me.”

Duncan Barr is a man who takes his triumphs and tragedies in stride. And he is a loyal man. Following his stint with Judge Carter, he signed on with what was then called O’Connor, Cohn & Lynch. After a year, he became office manager. He has stayed there, eventually adding his name to the plaque on the door and leading the firm through expansion, contraction and several site changes, ever since.

It was loyalty that brought Barr to the blood bank case. “I had represented Cutter in the ’70s,” he says of his involvement. When things got hot for Cutter, the company turned to Barr. Cutter (and Barr) made the argument that, in 1982, during the infancy of AIDS awareness, there was no certainty that AIDS could be caught by blood transfusion. There was no existing test to accurately indicate HIV-tainted blood. And thus, no way for Cutter (or any other blood lab) to warn hemophiliacs using their blood-clotting agent, Factor VIII. That, plus the fact that the long incubation period of AIDS makes it complicated to determine its initial

causes, convinced Barr that the case was worthwhile and winnable (eventually, after 17 defense wins, Cutter and three other pharmaceutical companies settled with 6,200 hemophiliacs to the tune of $100,000 per person).

This earned him the focused hatred of the hemophiliac community, but not of a gay community still wrestling with the details of AIDS and HIV. “I spoke to several gay groups,” he says, “and to groups of doctors involved with AIDS. To the great credit of those doctors, they helped me make the gay community understand. This had nothing to do with the gay community. I must have spoken to [gay groups] a hundred times, but there was never really any anger toward me. I was the hired gun.”

The enraged hemophiliac community couldn’t see that distinction. It took to picketing the offices of O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr, then located at 101 Howard Street. “There was a period of about two years, where every Wednesday, we’d be picketed,” Barr says. “The hemophiliacs. Downstairs they had tombstones. It was awful. The building elevators opened right into our office. They’d come in and throw hypodermic needles full of red water at us.”

Though the cases continue through the present, most of the heavy lifting has already been done. “There shouldn’t be any new cases,” says Barr, “none since 1985. After that, tests for blood donors were established. I mean, it’s been 20 years. Technology has changed. But we’re still working through all of the settlements. There were a large number of cases. It just snowballed. Compensation funds were set up around the world, and it’s still going on today.”

Barr was the youngest person (32) ever to join the American Board of Trial Advocates. “I started trying cases immediately,” he says. “By the time I was 32, I’d already done enough [20] to qualify.” Now, he says, he wouldn’t mind if he never tried another case. After all, he has been trying cases, often at odds with public opinion, for more than 30 years.

Barr has never shied away from controversial cases. Or any cases, for that matter. His firm represented Motorola in the first cell phone class action suit. He personally represented San Diego Gas & Electric in its case against homeowners who claimed that the overhead power lines were causing health and property damage. Later, he was retained by Southern California Edison for a similar case. Both were thrown out of court.

One of Barr’s most unusual cases involved the defense of Dr. John Brown, a notorious “sex-change chop shop” doctor, who was sued for $3 million by an unhappy former client. Barr went up against famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli. Brown is now serving life in prison for second-degree murder, relating to a case in which a “patient” died after Brown removed his healthy left leg to satisfy the man’s bizarre sexual fetish. “You know,” says Barr, returning to an earlier theme, “I realized awhile ago that we, defense lawyers, are nothing more than hired guns. I’ve never felt good about a win. Even though I feel good about doing a good job, I’ve never felt good about ‘winning.’ People, defense lawyers, who think they’re doing some kind of societal good are just kidding themselves.”

Long after the hemophiliac protest incidents, O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr moved to 16th and Bryant, above the Double Play. “We’d considered lots of places,” says Barr. “Then I came in here, sat down, ordered a drink, and said to myself, ‘Well, the office manager approves, the transition team approves, the site manager approves. F—- it.’” All of the above were Duncan Barr.

Like the Double Play and like Barr’s own office, the walls of O’Connor, Cohn, Dillon & Barr are lined with baseball memorabilia. Though he says he’s “not obsessed with baseball,” Barr is an avid memorabilia collector. He also has season tickets to both the Giants and the A’s, and figures he attends “100 to 125 games” per season. He has met Willie Mays “several times.” “But I’ve never personally gotten an autograph,” says Barr. “My kids, some, but generally, others get them for me.”

And if Barr tires of his own photos, or feels the need for more, he can always go downstairs to the Double Play. “This is just something I do,” he says, of his career in law. “It’s given me a good life.”

For Duncan Barr, the good life includes loyalty to his city, his family and his firm, to the Giants, and to himself. “I practice law my own way,” he says. “If the client doesn’t like the way I practice law, we part ways. Hell, if the client doesn’t like where my office is, we part ways. I’ve always felt that people who hire you don’t have the right to tell you how to live.”

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