The Remarkably Resilient Richard S. Yugler
For this Portland attorney, defeat has never been an option
Published in 2008 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2008
Updated on April 15, 2013
Richard S. Yugler’s path to success hasn’t been easy. At one point, the current president of the Oregon State Bar lived on food stamps. He spent years tarring roads, sometimes working two jobs at a time, to get through school. Then it took him a decade to pay off his student debts.
The manual labor came after he turned 18—three years after his parents divorced—when Yugler spent 5 1/2 years working at various jobs, including cutting and welding sheet metal, operating a backhoe, working on roofs and roads, driving a dump truck, working as a commercial landscaper and managing a rock club.
While attending Syracuse University and Lewis & Clark Law School, Yugler worked days and took classes at night. That’s when he had to rely on food stamps. But he remained undaunted, determined “to lift myself above what I was doing.”
Now a partner with Landye Bennett Blumstein, Yugler, 53, spent his childhood in Wayne, N.J., a middle-class town near New York City. It was a “nice suburb,” he says, though, growing up in a Jewish family, he was keenly aware of the restrictive covenants and ethnic quadrants that existed there in the 1950s. At age 19, he became estranged from his father, whom he calls a “jeweler to the stars,” after the two came to blows, landing young Rick in the hospital with a broken jaw.
After that, no money was forthcoming from his family, so Yugler went to work. The father and son had a brief reconciliation after Yugler’s grandmother spread the news that he was in law school. Then, after Yugler’s son—now in college himself—was born, the estrangement ended for good as Yugler’s father started paying visits a couple of times a year. Yugler and his wife of 22 years, artist Christine Tarpey, also have a daughter in ninth grade. The avid golfer spends his spare time on the course—he’s a 15-handicapper—and occasionally downhill skis.
In college, despite the financial obstacles, Yugler was a top student, majoring in philosophy. Uncertain about his career path, he took a professor’s advice to apply to law schools. At the time, “I didn’t know any lawyers and had no idea what they did,” admits Yugler, who had several choices of schools but followed a girlfriend to Oregon.
Yugler became an associate at Merten & Saltveit, the surviving partnership of Oregon’s first public interest law firm, and found early success as a civil rights lawyer. After his first big jury trial, Yugler knew he had found his niche. He handled a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a group of teenagers accused of spray-painting “KKK” and racial epithets, and terrorizing Yugler’s African-America clients by burning crosses on their front lawn.
“At the end of my opening statement, the jury was crying, the defendants tearfully apologized, significant compensation was paid, and the jury insisted on deliberating to deliver an ‘apology from the community,'” Yugler says. “Of all the cases I’ve brought and tried, this one still resonates deepest for me.”
Yugler spent his first six years of practice in two- to three-person firms representing plaintiffs, then became a sole practitioner, with his practice shifting to business litigation. A security fraud-and-racketeering case won him his first verdict exceeding $1 million, for a client who had invested in a movie that was never made, by a producer who did not reveal that investors in past films had all lost money. He says it remains the leading case defining the term “security” under Oregon law.
Since joining the mid-size firm where he has practiced since 1999, Yugler still handles some tort, civil rights and accident cases, but focuses on complex business litigation.
To his knowledge, he is the only lawyer in Oregon who has tried a consumer class-action trial to jury verdict. It was an insurance case, Strawn v. Farmers Insurance, with a $9.5 million award in 2003. The jurors agreed Farmers had underpaid medical bills for more than 7,000 customers injured in auto accidents. In his ruling, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Jerome E. LaBarre, who awarded more than $2.8 million to Yugler’s firm, lauded Yugler’s skill and emphasized the importance of rewarding lawyers who pursue consumer-protection cases at the risk of receiving nothing.
Robert A. Shlachter of Stoll Berne, who has worked with and against Yugler at various times over the past 17 years, says he’s “a tough opponent but plays fairly.”
David L. Blount, a partner with Landye Bennett Blumstein who has been a friend of Yugler’s since their first day at Lewis & Clark, believes Yugler’s broad life experience shaped his style of lawyering. “Rick was a hard worker outside of law school, out of economic necessity,” says Blount. “I know he benefited from working early on. It was in that kind of arena that he became disciplined and self-sufficient.”
And he’s as driven as ever—though on his own time he’s more inclined these days to operate a golf cart than a backhoe.