|//Photos by Jason Kaplan|
BY NANCY ROMMELMANN
That’s his babysitter,” says Greg Kafoury, looking at a yellowed news-clip of former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood leering at a young woman. Her frozen half-smile is a terrific contrast to Kafoury’s glee as he points out other mementos covering the walls of Kafoury & McDougal’s offices in downtown Portland. Here is coverage of the 1997 sexual harassment case the firm pressed on behalf of a Reed College professor. Here, Kafoury and law partner Mark McDougal flanking a blind man for whom they won a $1 million award after he fell through an uncovered manhole. Here, a photo of Kafoury shaking hands with… Fidel Castro?
“That’s at the Presidential Palace in Havana in 2002,” says Kafoury, settling at a desk adrift in paper and VHS tapes, including several of Ralph Nader speaking. Nader features prominently in Kafoury’s 38-year career, the attorney having put his time — and the firm’s money — into organizing rallies for the presidential candidate during several election cycles, including a 2000 event at the Memorial Coliseum that drew 25,000 people.
Stumping for Nader, and the portrait of Che Guevara that hangs over Kafoury’s desk, suggest the 67-year-old trial attorney sees himself as a fighter for the people. Another indication is the firm’s caseload of whistle blowers, victims of police brutality and political activists.
“The first obligation of a trial lawyer, the first obligation of a man, is to defend your community — not to be sexist,” he says, as young people in jeans and fleece (Kafoury himself wears Birkenstocks over socks) pop in and out of his office. “And if your community is the activists — which are the people leading with their chins and calling out people in institutions — they get stepped on. The legal system gives them a chance to stand up to their oppressors.”
Kafoury, who grew up in Portland and graduated from the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1974, spent the first 12 years of his practice doing wills and divorces and whatever the public defender’s office threw his way. “I’d get a call from the courthouse. ‘Hey, Kafoury! We got a crazy for ya!’” he recalls. “You’d get paid peanuts for it, but our rent was $78. I could drink a beer in the evening and take home $400 a month.”
McDougal came to Kafoury “wanting to team up” in the mid-1980s. Working with antinuclear advocate Lloyd Marbet, they waged three initiative campaigns to close down the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant. In 1986 the firm switched solely to tort litigation. “We sue the police; we represent individuals who are wronged, never corporations,” says Kafoury. “We have a unique setup that few other firms do: We’re a small agency that handles large cases.”
Small but busier than it ever has been: With four attorneys and as many paralegals, the firm has brought 27 cases to trial in the past three years, or 10% of what it takes on. This might not sound like a lot until Kafoury explains there are only about 100 civil trials a year in Multnomah County. The other 90% are settled, a handful walked away from.
The cases include personal injury, false arrest, malpractice and civil rights. And it’s lucrative. Though neither Kafoury nor McDougal, via speakerphone, are ready to disclose what the firm brings in, Kafoury offers, “Our income is commensurate with what we would be making if we served corporations rather than people.”
“Blue-chip corporations,” says McDougal.
“Mark and I have to make $400 an hour to keep the doors open, before we can have a beer after work,” adds Kafoury. Moving forward, the firm may focus more on product liability and sexual abuse. These are some of the areas the firm is known for; hence they get exponentially more calls to represent clients thusly wronged. Billed as a “Lawyer for the People” on their website, Kafoury is a true believer, as is his son Jason, 36, an associate attorney with the firm.
“I grew up as a little kid going to Greg’s political activist meetings,” Jason says. “My dad always taught me that with a law degree, nobody can mess with you, and you know your rights, and you know how to enforce your rights.”
“Independent lawyers are the most powerful people in the world because they can’t be crushed,” says Kafoury. “They have to plant cocaine in your trunk to take you out. You can stand up to the big corporations, you can stand up to the government; you can cleanse your community of organized crime, of crooked politicians.”
How might a case the firm is currently pressing, against a too-bumpy slide at PlayDate PDX — a case that could be seen as frivolous — fit this agenda? “Have you seen the video?” asks Kafoury, of a little girl going airborne at the Northwest Portland indoor playground. “We have people who suffer permanent disability because you assume it’s safe because it’s for mommies and toddlers!”
“Plus, it doesn’t make sense to file a frivolous lawsuit,” says Jason. “It’s very expensive. We get nothing if we lose.”
“And we lose a lot of money,” adds Kafoury. “We put $125,000 of our own money in the Cayla Wilson case.” The 23-year-old Wilson suffered a severe brain injury in 2010 when a driver high on meth struck her car. The firm successfully argued that a probation officer as well as a police officer failed in their duties to keep the driver off the road, resulting in a $9.3 million settlement for Wilson and her 3-year-old daughter, delivered three months premature a month after the crash.
As the largest settlement in Oregon history, it is axiomatically the firm’s biggest payday, though what this amount is, Kafoury will say only that their contingency fee is in line with the industry standard of 40%.
“Another attorney referred us the case,” he says. “Any lawyer with brains and integrity who believes he’s over his head — because they don’t have the experience, because they don’t have the resources — seeks out a law firm that has the experience and the resources, and makes an arrangement with them. The bigger cases we’ve had lately have been referrals. That’s the position you want to be in.”
“We have a lot of fun with what we do,” says Jason. “At any moment, we could get a phone call, and it could be the case of a lifetime.” In a family of politicians — Kafoury’s brother Stephen served in the Oregon House of Representatives, as did his former wife Gretchen; their daughter Deborah is running for Multnomah County Chair — Jason will carry forward the ideological torch, though from where is in question. After decades in the Oregon Pioneer Building, the firm must clear out to make way for a boutique hotel.
“I don’t know where we’ll go,” says Kafoury, not sounding particularly concerned. “We are going to continue what we’re doing until we drop. I am.”
“Greg’s never going to retire,” says Jason.
“I’ll just rely more and more on Jason,” says Kafoury, “until I’m sitting in the back of the courtroom drooling and handing him notes at lunchtime.”