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Lawyer who pioneered legal ethics tools to be honored

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Preeminent. A mentor. “Dean” of legal ethics in California.

Those were but a few words supporters used to describe attorney Paul W. Vapnek recently when they nominated him for the Harry B. Sondheim Professional Responsibility Award. An intellectual property attorney who has devoted more than 40 years to legal ethics, Vapnek is only the second lawyer to receive the award, which will be presented at the 2013 Annual Statewide Ethics Symposium on April 20.

Paul Vapnek

Vapnek, 84, is modest about the honor, explaining that his commitment to the field of ethics stems from the fact that “I really enjoy the work.”

“I have played it down, if you will, but all my colleagues have said, ‘that’s wonderful,’” Vapnek said. “I have never done what I did seeking recognition. But it’s wonderful to be recognized for your achievements.”

Established to recognize an outstanding long-term contribution to advancing professional responsibility standards in California, the Sondheim award is given every three years. Recipients are chosen based on a combination of career achievements such as: at least 15 years practicing law in California, service on a county bar or specialty bar’s ethics committee, experience teaching professional responsibility to students, and extensive writing and continuing education presentations on professional responsibility.

Jerome Sapiro, Jr., one of two attorneys who nominated Vapnek, called him a person of integrity and said it is clear Vapnek “takes pride in our profession.”

“He is personally concerned with the professionalism of the practice of law and wants to improve the quality of the practice of law,” Sapiro said, “and is tireless in his efforts to improve the profession.”

Though an expert in the Rules of Professional Conduct himself, attorney Kurt Melchior said at times he needs a third-party opinion and won’t hesitate to consult Vapnek.

“He is simply universally knowledgeable in this field, very steady, very informed, and very constructive in his views,” Melchior wrote in a letter in support of Vapnek’s nomination.

Senior Counsel at Kilpatrick Townsend in San Francisco, Vapnek practices intellectual property, copyright and trademark law. He has chaired the legal ethics committee of the Bar Association of San Francisco and the State Bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct and has represented clients in disciplinary cases.He was one of the original members of the Bar’s Commission for the Revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which led to the Supreme Court’s adoption of new rules in 1989 and adoption of further revisions in 1992. 

Vapnek is also credited for starting the process that led to the creation of the California Compendium on Professional Responsibility, serving as its first editor in chief. Published by the State Bar for more than 30 years, the compendium is considered an important resource on legal ethics. Vapnek is also a co-author of the Rutter Group’s California Practice Guide on Professional Responsibility, another key tool for California lawyers.

Vapnek said he enjoys knowing that he is helping attorneys find answers which “aren’t always crystal clear in the ethics field.”

“It’s gratifying when they talk to me and say, ‘God, we use your book all the time,” he said.

In addition to contributing to books, Vapnek helped obtain funding from what was then known as the Board of Governors to establish the State Bar’s Ethics Hotline in 1983. Shut down for a short time following the funding crisis in 1998, the service remains one of the State Bar’s most popular attorney resources. Staffed weekdays, the hotline helps lawyers resolve their ethical questions by referring them to statutes, rules, cases, and bar opinions.

Harry Sondheim, who in 2010 was the first recipient of the award named after him, noted in his letter of support that by working with Vapnek over the years on various professional responsibility committees, he came to “realize what an asset Paul is in the field of legal ethics.”

“He consistently provided both excellent work product and well thought out guidance to each of these groups, thereby demonstrating how knowledgeable he is in the field of ethics and how he applies his knowledge for the betterment of the bar, while also giving appropriate weight to the needs of our clients,” Sondheim wrote.

What’s more, Sapiro said, Vapnek “gives of himself.” He cited as an example several years ago where Sapiro was supposed to lead a continuing legal education session on ethics but ended up having to back out at the last minute because of illness. Rather than see it canceled, Vapnek volunteered to fill in.

“He’ll talk to lawyers’ groups. He’ll talk with the public, law students, people who are interested in learning the ethics of our profession,” Sapiro said. “I don’t know anyone who can’t say ‘I respect Paul.’”