Home on the Range (and in the Courtroom)

Jim Nichols saddles up

Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2004

Jim Nichols has been a true American cowboy most of his life, beginning at the age of 9, when he received his first horse on his father’s Arizona ranch. Today he is still a cowboy, riding, roping, rounding up cattle and mending broken cattle fences on his own California ranch, many decades later. “It’s in my blood,” he says, “like a virus that burns through me.”

Most days, however, Nichols puts away his lasso and picks up a pen and legal pad. Nichols is also vice president and managing shareholder at Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, O’Keefe & Nichols (www.bonnebridges.com), where he specializes in medical malpractice cases with one of the largest malpractice firms in California.

These two passions — cowboying and upholding the law — seem far removed from each other. In fact, in the old Western movies he loved as a child, one is usually chasing the other. But, as Nichols has discovered, inside the heart of many a lawyer there lives a cowboy. So many, in fact, that he decided to bring them all together in the Cowboy Lawyers Association — an L.A.-based association of nationwide membership and acclaim.

It all started in Judge Alfred L. Margolis’ chambers. The judge had a picture of himself wearing cowboy boots, hat and chaps beneath the glass atop his desk. Right then came the revelation: Nichols knew he was not alone. After much jawboning between the kindred spirits, the two men unearthed a network of peers who were both legal authorities and cowboy enthusiasts, including the association’s other two founding fathers, Judges Victor Chavez and Manuel Hidalgo.

“So we thought,” remembers Nichols, “wouldn’t it be fun to take that common interest — not unlike the boaters, golfers, skiers and the cross-country runners — and put together an association of people who love the West and Western things?”

The four drafted a charter and set up a nonprofit, independent corporation. Then, by word-of-mouth, they began soliciting people who they knew loved horses or expressed an interest in the Wild West. Once the association was conceived, Nichols says it was easy to find new members, and they continue to receive application requests from around the world.

In 1989 the Cowboy Lawyers Association had its first meeting in Nichols’ kitchen. The organization is now 215 members strong — including several cowgirls — and includes members from as far away as New Zealand. Each applicant must be a lawyer or a judge who will pay the $100 yearly dues. In order to become members, interested applicants have to be sponsored by an existing member and prove themselves worthy of membership.They do so by making themselves familiar to established association members by attending two-day rides or one overnighter to substantiate their love of horses and America’s great outdoors.

The organization sponsors a handful of day rides and overnighters all over California throughout the year. “Sometimes,” adds Nichols with a smile, “we don’t even ride. We just have play dates where we chase cattle.”

The members take much pride in their annual “President’s Party” that ropes in the entire posse. On this one night a year, all members and their significant others dress in their best Western attire and share the wonders of a high-class dinner dance at a Western-themed location in or around Los Angeles.

“In a world of high pressure and freeways and billing sheets and clients who make huge demands, it is the ultimate decompression,” Nichols explains. “When I’m on my horse I don’t carry phones or faxes.You’re moving along, you’re seeing new country, you’re breathing clean air, you’re listening to the birds, you’re crossing meadows and you’re splashing through streams.… It is just the ultimate relaxation.”

For more information on the Cowboy Lawyers Association, call Mary Bennett at (310) 277-4857.

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