The Braided Lives of Cunningham and Lazenby

How two East Coast guys became West Coast best friends        

Published in 2008 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2008

In 1998, when Richard A. Lazenby came to Los Angeles to start his legal career, he was the proverbial stranger in town. A New Jersey native, he had gone to Syracuse University College of Law in upstate New York and had never really ventured west except for a moot court competition. "I decided to move out here with nothing," he says.

Lazenby's job search took him to the L.A. office of Condon & Forsyth, a small aviation law boutique that had placed a recruitment ad for an associate in the legal press. And as he arrived to deliver his résumé, there—sitting in the office nearest to the reception area—was a familiar face.

"What are you doing here?" asked Scott D. Cunningham, a classmate at Syracuse who had joined Condon & Forsyth just a few months earlier.

Lazenby got an interview and then, interjects Cunningham with a laugh, "Over my protests, they ended up hiring him."

In January, both Cunningham, 39, and Lazenby, 36, made partner at Condon & Forsyth, which employs a total of 38 attorneys in New York and Los Angeles. Both, moreover, appear to have found a home there after growing up in difficult circumstances on the East Coast. "It's like a family," says Cunningham, who notes that several of the senior partners have been at the firm for 30 years or more.

And both Cunningham, who played ice hockey as a boy in upstate New York, and Lazenby, who went to college on a basketball scholarship, have found an outlet for their competitive zeal in the high-stakes world of aviation litigation. Much of their caseload involves mass air disasters, representing such clients as American Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air Lines. "It's a challenge, like sports," says Lazenby. "The [opposing] lawyers are the players, the judge is the referee."

"I do enjoy the competitiveness," says Cunningham. "I enjoy working hard and having a good result at the end of the day."

The two attorneys travel so much these days that they don't have much time to socialize—Lazenby has been making frequent trips to France as part of American Airlines' legal team in a case arising out of a November 2001 crash in Queens, N.Y. The carrier and the plane's manufacturer, Airbus Industrie of Toulouse, have sued each other in that case. "Richard's been upgraded to ‘premier' [first class] status on Air France," Cunningham says with mock envy. But he and Lazenby share an easy camaraderie, a similar bachelor lifestyle and, as a joint interview reveals, a similar triumph over hard knocks that has helped get them to where they are now.

Lazenby is a native of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., a small town a few miles outside the gaming mecca of Atlantic City. His mother died when he was 5, leaving his father, a refrigerator factory worker, to raise him, his older sister and younger brother as a single parent in what he calls "very modest" circumstances.

He was an above-average basketball player—"In the winter, we'd shovel a square out of the snow," he remembers. "If the ball went into the snow, it was out of bounds"—who dreamed of making it to the NBA. He received a basketball scholarship from the Richard Stockton College, a small school in Pomona, N.J. But in his sophomore year, he gave up his "hoop dreams." "I needed something more certain," he explains.

A criminal justice major, Lazenby had an internship at the Atlantic County District Attorney's Office, which helped convince him to pursue a career in law rather than law enforcement. "You have a say as a lawyer; you really don't as a police officer," he says. He chose Syracuse for law school, in part because of its strong mock trial program. In the past 16 years, its teams have won three national trial championships; in five of the past nine years, it has been one of the nation's 12 best teams competing in the National Invitational Tournament of Champions. "I wanted to be a litigator, to see the courtroom," Lazenby says. "I've never been nervous about having to stand before a judge or jury."

Among those assigned to Lazenby's section of the first-year class was a student from nearby Hilton, a small town outside Rochester, N.Y., who came from a quite similar background. After Cunningham's parents divorced when he was 4, he and his brother were raised by their mother, who worked at Eastman Kodak's film-manufacturing plant. Ice hockey, rather than basketball, was his boyhood passion, his rinks the frozen lakes and ponds around Rochester. He didn't have the talent to get a college scholarship but attended the University of Rochester, graduating with a degree in political science and economics.

In his senior year, Cunningham began "flirting with a legal career" and interned with a local solo practitioner. Rather than go directly to law school, however, he spent a year abroad as a paralegal in the London office of a U.S. law firm, Crowell & Moring. "I wanted to study international law," he says.

At Syracuse, he and Lazenby were not close friends but crossed paths frequently. They were both on moot court teams and both played intramural sports. "I remember playing against [future NFL quarterback] Donovan McNabb in the championship basketball game," Lazenby says. "He tried to dunk on me and the ref called a foul." Both graduated in the class of 1998 but made no plans to stay in touch. "When you graduate [from law school], everyone goes their separate ways," Cunningham says.

Cunningham's way took him to Los Angeles, where he landed the Condon & Forsyth job. And he was sitting at his desk on the day Lazenby walked into reception, résumé in hand. "It was quite a shock," Lazenby says of the encounter.

Founded in 1935, Condon & Forsyth lists many of the world's major air carriers—Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas, to name a few—among its clients. Like Lazenby and Cunningham, managing partners Desmond T. Barry in New York and Frank A. Silane in Los Angeles studied law together, graduating from Fordham University School of Law in 1973. They were hired out of law school by Condon and have been there ever since.

"It's very rare to see attorneys stay [at their first firm] that long," observes Cunningham. "But it's very tight-knit here."

Lazenby didn't have to wait long to become a jetsetter. As his first assignment for Condon, he traveled to Hawaii to sit in on depositions in a case involving the August 1997 crash of a Korean Air Lines 747 on the Pacific island of Guam. For a Jersey kid, he says, "It was like going to China."

In aviation disaster cases, Condon often represents airlines in countersuits against aircraft manufacturers or parts suppliers. The opposing parties "are not usually the widows and orphans" of crash victims, Cunningham says, "because they settle; whereas the companies are left to fight it out in court." The cases are often highly technical and time-consuming. "You're taking the depositions of senior engineers at Airbus," Lazenby says.

Both he and Cunningham defended a parts supplier, Parker-Hannifin Corp., against claims arising out of the crash of a US Airways jet that slammed into a hillside near Pittsburgh International Airport in 1994, killing 132 people. A federal court jury in 2002 found Parker-Hannifin, which made a valve in the plane's rudder, significantly liable, and Boeing, the manufacturer of the plane, partially liable. The verdict meant Parker-Hannifin would have to reimburse US Airways for most of the hundreds of millions of dollars the carrier paid to settle the lawsuits of victims' families.

"If you try big cases, you lose big cases," Cunningham says, summarizing one lesson from the case.

Another of Cunningham's cases, the October 2000 crash of a Singapore Airlines flight in Taipei, recently settled after more than five years of litigation. "The advantage is you can focus on one case for a period of time," he says. "You're not distracted going back and forth on different cases. You win cases in small increments. You steadily chip away at a case. It's winning the small battles to ultimately win the war."

Both he and Lazenby have also been defending airlines against the claims of passengers who allegedly developed the condition known as deep vein thrombosis during flights. DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in the leg, and can cause serious complications if the clot breaks off and travels to an organ, most commonly to the lungs or brain. The airlines won a major victory in 2005 when the British High Court ruled that any failure to warn passengers that cramped flying conditions and long hours in the air could cause DVT did not constitute a compensable "accident" under the 1929 Warsaw Convention governing air travel.

"The [DVT] litigation has been going on globally and we're working to put an end to it here," Cunningham says. In October 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of failure-to-warn claims against several airlines, saying they were pre-empted by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.

Away from the office, Cunningham, who lives in Culver City, and Lazenby, a resident of Manhattan Beach, both work out at gyms and maintain their sporting connections. Cunningham attends Los Angeles Kings hockey games, while Lazenby plays pickup basketball. Those pickup games may lack the glamour of the NBA but, Lazenby notes, he has played with the likes of star Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens.

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