Steven Ungar hits his rhythm in the courthouse and on the drums
Published in 2008 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2008
Updated on April 18, 2009
Musicians call it being in “the groove:” that indescribable sense of floating on the rhythm, melody and synergy of a musical performance. For Steven Ungar of Lane Powell, it comes when he’s perched on his drum throne, riffing his way through a jazz tune.
“When it works, it’s beautiful,” says Ungar, chair of the white-collar criminal defense and regulatory compliance practice group.
But the groove is not limited to performing a Count Basie song. “It’s completely analogous to litigating,” he says. “In a courtroom, a meeting, on the telephone, the essence is the same—you know when you’re successful and you know when you’re not.”
In a sense, Ungar’s career has been a search for the sweet spot. A musical childhood in St. Louis led him to the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s to study with Count Basie’s musical arranger, Jimmy Cheatham. The combined impacts of antiwar protests, free-speech debates and social ferment propelled Ungar into a degree in philosophy and politics from Washington University in Kansas City, then the law program at the University of Missouri.
Plying the books in the daytime and playing drums at night, Ungar, 53, began a lifelong balancing act between his musical and legal interests. He got some exposure to criminal law as an intern and, after graduation, started his own practice. But the philosophy major frequently spent weekends on his motorcycle, cruising to Bozeman, Mont., where he had once gone to “sit at the feet of philosopher Robert Pirsig,” author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a seminal book on self-exploration and metaphysics. Eventually, Ungar decided to move to Bozeman. While there, he served as president of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, handling many class action lawsuits.
Bozeman was fine for a decade or so, but Ungar eventually wanted a more urban environment. Portland beckoned. “It’s very much like Bozeman: a vibrant downtown, historical sense, close to nature, but 100-fold as urban,” he says. In his 13 years in Portland, Ungar has become a major white-collar crime litigator, chair of the Oregon Lottery Commission, and an active participant in politics (he co-chaired Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s recent successful reelection campaign). He has also been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including representing Mary Manin Morrissey, pastor of a huge Wilsonville New Thought church, the Living Enrichment Center, which fell into financial shambles after the parishioners’ money was misappropriated. Morrissey’s husband served 18 months in prison but Ungar kept his client out of jail. She is, however, supposed to repay $10 million to 300 congregants, Ungar says.
Being successful doesn’t always involve keeping a client out of prison, Ungar says. In a case involving Capital Consultants financial services company, and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost pension investments, his client—Barclay Grayson, president of the company—served 13 months in prison. Ungar says the outcome was highly satisfying. “He agreed to plead guilty, and we were able to recover almost $350 million for the pension funds. As a result, he avoided a potential 20- to 30-year sentence. I thought the result was the best possible under the circumstances.”
In his time in the Rose City, Ungar has kept his hands on his drumsticks, performing occasionally with various Portland-area jazz groups. But music has taken a back seat to the exigencies of Ungar’s legal career and his domestic life. He and his wife, Nicole Ruffine, have two young children.
However, to Ungar, music and the law are complementary, and the beat will always inform his approach to legal work. “Jazz music is a counterpoint of improvisation and structure,” he says. “Jazz means being able to think on your feet, as does trial law. You have to be prepared.”