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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

77 years of practice . . . and counting

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

“I was a young, curious, talkative nuisance. My father said, ‘Look, you’ll make a good lawyer. Go to law school’”

Joseph AidlinAnd the rest, as they say, is history. Despite a love of science and an inclination to go to CalTech, Joseph W. Aidlin did go to law school — third in his Boalt Hall Class of 1933 — after graduating with honors from UCLA at its then-new Westwood campus. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1933.

In the intervening 77 years of active practice — for which Aidlin, who turns 100 this month, was recently recognized with a plaque from the State Bar — the son of Russian immigrants has fought for the rights of union members, worked for the ACLU and been active in Democratic politics, including running for (and losing) an Assembly race. His law practice has included everything from divorces and wills to taxes and corporate dealings, but his most recognized and satisfying accomplishments have been in land titles and natural resources, especially geothermal.

Aidlin, says Geothermal Resources Council (GRC) Executive Director Curt Robinson “has influenced geothermal activities fundamentally, in many ways, for many years. He, along with his partners B.C. McCabe and Robert Bering, created modern geothermal development at The Geysers Geothermal Field, which is to say geothermal development in California, the United States and the Americas.”

Aidlin co-founded GRC, and a prestigious GRC award bears his name. He was the leader in writing state and national legislation relating to geothermal resources, including defining what they are — water, minerals or both. In addition, says John Berger, author of Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means for America, before Aidlin, “no legal process existed for filing a claim to lease a geothermal resource in California and many important legal questions remained unanswered, such as who was in charge of regulating geothermal development and how it was to be regulated and taxed. Joseph Aidlin did pioneering legal work on those questions, drew up the world’s first geothermal lease and contributed to having the Geothermal Resources Act made a part of California’s Resources Code in 1968.”

Aidlin was co-founder of Magma Power Company and served at various times on its board and as vice president, secretary and general counsel. He also was founder and president of Marmac Resources Company and Sespe Lease, Inc., independent oil and gas “producers in Oklahoma and California.

Aidlin’s family moved to Los Angeles from Chicago when he was 10 after his father had taken Southern Pacific Railroad up on its offer of a free trip West to check out Southern California. Aidlin’s father liked what he saw and he packed the family of six into an Overland automobile and headed West. Aidlin played baseball and track at Hollywood High and was second to the concertmaster with the junior symphony, playing the violin. After high school, he went to UCLA, riding his bicycle to the campus, which was then on Vermont Avenue.

When he got out of law school, Aidlin “realized that I wouldn’t be attractive to the established big firms” because he was Jewish. “The only places where an intelligent, promising Jewish lawyer could go were Hollywood or the merchandising industry. I didn’t like either,” he says. His father had a friend in the oil business who offered him a job, but Aidlin “wanted to do it on my own, “despite being in the midst of the Depression. He lived at home and remembers charging $25 for a divorce and $75 for a case involving Standard Oil and tidelands boundaries that was just the beginning of his lifelong interest in land titles and natural resources.

When he ran for Assembly in 1938, Aidlin’s Jewish background and Russian-born parents were an issue, with opponents charging that he’d lead the state on the road to Socialism. Always an independent thinker, Aidlin also did not have the backing of Jewish business groups because he spoke out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He lost the election. But he still supports candidates and even sent the Obama administration his jobs plan.

Looking at the changes in the practice of law, Aidlin laments that the billable hour system has taken over. “When they went on this time billing, lawyers lost their status,“ Aidlin says. “When I became a lawyer, I was respected.” He also thinks the contingency fee system has gained an undeserved bad reputation. He and other lawyers were able to help many people who otherwise wouldn’t have approached them for representation.

In the 1940s-era one-story building he owns on Sunset Blvd., Aidlin, whose wife of 63 years died in 1997, comes to work each day, now mostly to get his own affairs in order. He has three secretaries. Marilyn Mazzuzan has worked for him for 44 years. “He’s very interesting. There’s never a dull moment,” she says, adding that he also is generous — with his knowledge, his resources and his kindness. However, she notes, what’s most important is his integrity. “He’s a man of great principle.”

Aidlin isn’t the kind of man to give advice unless asked. But when he is asked what advice he would give to young lawyers, he focuses on loving the work for itself rather than trying to move up the careeer ladder. “Don’t think of yourself as important. Just think of yourself as a skilled craftsman who can guide people through the maze of the law.” And the man who turns 100 this month, takes vitamins, doesn’t exercise that much and drinks one ounce of Scotch a night also has words of wisdom for the rest of us: “Don’t try to have everything. Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes. Be helpful. Be kind.”