The Gentleman Lawyer
Gerald McMahon has been killing them with kindness for 44 years
Published in 2009 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine
on June 14, 2009
Updated on October 2, 2019
After 44 years of practice, Gerald “Jerry” McMahon has lost none of his zest for learning, and his experiences have only enhanced his ability to spin a story. Ask him about the two cases in his career he finds most memorable, and he’ll first tell you the tale of a young lawyer thrown into a bitter divorce case.
“I’d only been in practice about four years,” he remembers. “The firm’s senior partner brought in a client to see me: the well-to-do head of a furniture chain who had been married for 30-plus years and was now being sued for divorce. The man’s wife had hired the dean of the family law lawyers in San Diego. I told the prospective client I’d never done a divorce case, and he said, ‘That’s all right; you can’t make it any worse than it already is.’
“So when I substituted into the case, I got a call from the opposing lawyer, who said, ‘You’re really lucky. You get to try this case against me, one of the three greatest trial lawyers in the country,'” says McMahon, chairman of the board and head of the litigation department at Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek. “When I asked him, he said he couldn’t remember who were the other two.”
McMahon, who grew up in northeast Ohio, used a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Southern California. By the end of four years, he had been elected student body president and named outstanding graduating senior.
“When I graduated, I owed the Navy some time,” he says. “So I applied for flight training at Pensacola, and my wife, Donna [to whom he has been married for 53 years and credits for “any success” he’s had], and I were on our way to Florida.”
After flight training, it was back to San Diego, where McMahon was assigned as a naval aviator to the air group aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. In 1959, McMahon went to work at General Dynamics, where he was chief of contracts for the company’s Centaur Space Vehicle Program. In a feat of stamina and time management, he attended the University of San Diego School of Law at night, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1964.
McMahon had clerked at the predecessor firm to Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek while in law school, and has been with the firm since leaving General Dynamics in 1964.
An overwhelming drive to learn led McMahon to the law. “I’ve tried contract cases, insurance, personal injury, family law, patent law, national and agricultural labor relations board cases, you name it,” he says. “No criminal law for me. I did a few pro bono criminal cases early on, and lost my first three. When I won the fourth case, I decided to quit on a high note.”
When you talk to others about McMahon, the word “gentleman” is used often. For him, it’s more than just civility; it’s his approach to the law.
“Family law, in particular, can be a very emotional experience,” he says. “I think it’s vital to remember that you’re dealing with human beings, with all their emotions, flaws and foibles. If you forget that, you can forget the whole reason you’re there.
“I treat every individual with respect and anticipate the same in turn,” McMahon says. “This isn’t a contest; it’s a quest for resolution.”
McMahon is also well-known for his sense of humor.
“I was representing a New York law firm in this one case that involved a tax shelter that had crashed and lost money,” he says. “There were also as defendants a Los Angeles law firm, and an accounting firm, and of course there was the plaintiff: a lawyer himself who had lost his investment in this shelter. So there were a number of parties.
“Anyway, we were working through the pool of prospective jurors, and voir dire was going on and on and on. End of the day, everyone’s bored, this one lawyer for the Los Angeles law firm decides to get chatty with the prospective panel of jurors. He’s talking to this woman, who works in a hospital lab doing blood tests to detect foreign organisms in blood samples.
“‘Mrs. So-and-So, I’m really interested in your job at the hospital,’ he says. ‘Your job is to detect these organisms in blood samples, right?’ ‘Right,’ she says. ‘So when these doctors give you these orgasms, how do you react?’ The courtroom erupts with laughter.
“To this day,” McMahon says, “I’ve never been able to remember that lawyer’s next question.”
His first National Labor Relations Board case wasn’t quite as funny. He had been working in his office when he received two phone calls, 20 minutes apart.
“The first was from the San Diego opposing counsel on the NLRB case, who says, ‘McMahon, this is so-and-so, and I just wanted you to know I’m going to kick your ass.’ Twenty minutes later, the phone rings again. This time, it’s from an out of town opposing counsel in a class action suit I’m involved with; and in a very polite, soft-spoken voice, he says he’s calling to talk to me about my client. ‘But first,’ he says, ‘I just wanted you to know that I did some checking on you before I called, and everyone I spoke with has the greatest respect for your integrity and approach to the law.’
“Well,” McMahon continues, “although he was just laying it on thick, it was such a refreshing moment, coming on the heels of the first call, I was ready to open my wallet and give the guy whatever he wanted.”
“It’s always an education to go up against Gerald McMahon,” says attorney Margo Lewis of Moore, Lewis, Schulman & Moore. “A truly good experience. He’s one of the most pleasant, professional and respectful men I’ve ever met, while at the same time being as well-prepared and dedicated to his clients’ interests as any lawyer I’ve ever known.”
Attorney Gordon Cruse describes him as “the last Renaissance gentleman lawyer.”
“I first met him years ago, when I had just been practicing two or three years,” Cruse says. “Gerald was a complete gentleman then, and he has never lost the art of being a gentleman. When I grow up, I want to be him.
“But you also have to remember he is the ultimate litigation attorney,” Cruse continues. “He can keep an ocean of factors in hand with no apparent effort, and while he would rather resolve issues outside of court, he’s never afraid to go to trial. He knows how to conduct and win a trial, which is almost a lost art form.”
And it’s perhaps the biggest mark of the man that he took the time to make sure that anyone reading this story heard the names of Melody Haak and Christina Peralta, assistants who have been with him for a combined total of 27 years, and who he feels need to be thanked publicly for their contribution to his career.
But didn’t McMahon have a second favorite story from his near half century of practicing law?
“It was a case involving a junior rabbi,” McMahon says. “The members of his synagogue were delighted with the junior rabbi, and all wanted him as senior rabbi when the older man retired. But the way this particular branch of Judaism worked, a governing body would forward a list of candidates it judged suitable for the synagogue’s board to consider. The candidates were all senior, i.e. older.
“The board rejected the list, preferring to stick with the junior rabbi, and he wanted the post, but the governing body said they felt it inappropriate to go outside of the list procedure, and said if the junior rabbi persisted, they would take away the retirement benefits the governing body typically established for serving rabbis. He did, so they booted him out, and he came to me for counsel. I took the case pro bono.”
McMahon, who is not Jewish, remembers wondering if his faith would be a problem, and how his legal training would work in an arena more devoted to the philosophical than the legal.
“The way the appeal worked,” he says, “was that you had to present your case before the entire membership of the rabbinical body, which had 550 members. The time and place of the appeal was their annual convention, which to be held that year in the Grand Ballroom of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and it would take a vote of two-thirds to overturn the board’s decision.
“So here I am, a lawyer from outside the faith, given half an hour to present my client’s case to 550 rabbis, average age of about 60. No jury challenges here. They listened respectfully, and even gave me an ovation at the end of my remarks. However, the not-so-subtle message was ‘Nice try, kid, but you lose.’ Which I did. But it was a great learning experience, a chance to do something truly interesting and different.
“I would try anything, and that’s what makes this aspect of life so enjoyable.”