What is your practice area?

I run a boutique litigation firm with my law partner Houman Chitsaz that we call Nardell Chitsaz & Associates or “NCA.” Houman and I just celebrated our tenth year in business together this April. I think the best label for our practice is “general civil litigation,” with an emphasis on commercial and real estate disputes. Our office is located at 999 Fifth Avenue in the heart of downtown San Rafael. We are both from Marin and we both enjoy having a Marin-centered law practice.

I started my legal career at a firm in San Francisco that was then called Cooley Godward, now just Cooley. Although I mostly worked on commercial cases, the partners trained us young associates to eschew specialization in any specific kind of case. They liked to say that as litigators we were experts in solving problems, and each case had its own unique business and legal problems to solve. Later, I spent a year working as a prosecutor for the Marin DA’s office, working mostly on consumer and environmental cases. Then I spent a few years at the Coblentz firm, doing more civil cases, with an emphasis on real estate cases.

Since forming my own firm in Marin, I’ve worked on a wide gamut of civil cases, just about everything except family law, because I saw right away that there were plenty of good family lawyers in Marin. In addition to practicing litigation, I also give business advice to clients to help keep them out of litigation, and provide some “corporate organization” and contract drafting type advice for a few business clients.

Houman and I have worked with our office manager Terry Odetto since day one, and have worked with a few associates over the years. We’ve tended to work on cases venued in Marin but I’ve worked on cases all over Northern California from Humboldt to San Luis Obispo, and even a few in Southern California. I tend to gravitate towards commercial and real estate cases, but I have also worked on employment and injury cases, as well as municipal litigation and estate and trust cases.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I’ve got a few origin stories. One is that back in my Berkeley undergraduate days, I got pulled over for riding my bike through two stop signs in a row coming down the hill below Telegraph. When I blurted out, “This is bull***t. I’m not going to sign those tickets,” the overzealous officer decided it would be a good idea to tackle me and throw me in jail, “to teach this punk kid from Novato a lesson,” he said. Anyways, I decided that if he was teaching these kinds of lessons to me he must be doing it to others, and so I brought a case against him to the Berkeley police review commission. At the hearing, I had the fun of trying a mini case against the officer and his union lawyer, complete with cross-examinations, opening and closing arguments, and so on. At the end of it all, the lawyer shook my hand and said that I should really think about going to law school. I guess it was always in the back of my mind since high school, but I didn’t know any lawyers and didn’t think that much about it until that experience. After finishing undergraduate school, I was living in New York and got an internship at the U.N. Centre for Human Rights. My supervisors there all suggested that I drop the PhD program I was enrolled in, and go to law school instead. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why did you choose to live in Marin?

I didn’t exactly choose to live in Marin, Marin (or my parents) chose to have me here. My parents were living on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, up on Sequoia Valley Road near Panoramic. So, though I was born at Kaiser in San Francisco, I was a Marin resident from day two of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in Redwood Creek and on the rocks in Muir Woods and in the sand at Stinson Beach. Later, my family moved to the Bahia neighborhood of Novato. I grew up there as a “lagooner” from first grade until I finished at Novato High and moved across the Bay for college.

Years later, when it came time to settle down and buy a house, after adventuring in Berkeley, New York and the rest of the world, and then going back to Berkeley for law school, my wife Roselle and I started our house search in Oakland, where we were living. We happened to come over the bridge to visit with some old family friends who were living in Fairfax, and we immediately decided to shift gears and look here instead. Fairfax still had that old Marin community charm that I remembered from growing up in Marin in the ‘70s.

In 2000, we bought a little two-bedroom bungalow in Fairfax. Roselle opened a Montessori preschool, originally in the back room of our house and later as a small stand-alone school in the heart of downtown Fairfax. She still runs the school and that has been a great way for her to get to know many of the families in Fairfax and the Ross Valley. I was still working in San Francisco at the time, but later moved my practice in Marin to keep it closer to home and be able to have a bit more control over my work life. We are now living in San Anselmo, almost directly between the homes where I grew up on Mt. Tam and Bahia, as the crow flies. I love practicing law in the community that I grew up in.

If you could pursue any career other than law, what would it be?

While I don’t have special artistic talent, I like to think that if I wasn’t practicing law, I would do something artistic. My dad was a good musician. He taught music and played classical guitar and Hawaiian slack-key guitar. My mom was a painter and potter. Of course, they both had day jobs – my dad was a teacher and my mom was a nurse. I’ve always enjoyed writing. So, yeah, if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I’d like to say that I’d be spending my time doing something artistic. Of course, I’d probably be a starving poet, living out of a van, far from Marin and the Bay Area. If I wasn’t doing law or writing, I’d probably be teaching social science somewhere, probably also a long ways from here.

What do you love to do when you are not practicing law?

My wife, our daughter and I all love to travel. We’ve had some great family trips together, including a fantastic four month trip to Ecuador a few years back. I grew up with boats on the Bahia lagoon, back before it silted up. We keep a canoe under the deck at home and a small sailboat out in the Delta. Every summer, we enjoy spending weekends up on the Delta, which still feels much like old California.

Why did you choose to join the Bar Association?

For me it was a no-brainer to get involved in MCBA once I opened up a practice in Marin. I had the good fortune to start my practice at 790 Mission Avenue, which at the time was owned and operated by local lawyers. A lot of the attorneys there had been involved in the bar association over the years, like Marlene Getchell, Craig Dykman, Len Rifkind, Kate Rockas, Colin Claxon and Jerry Ackeret. They encouraged me and others who moved into the building to join the Marin County Bar Association. Joining seemed like the obvious thing to do anyway because two of the main reasons that I decided to open a practice in Marin were to be closer to home and more involved with the community that I lived in. I finally decided to get more involved in MCBA at the board level a couple years ago as way to give back to the community myself and to encourage my peers to give back as well.

The Bay Area has changed enormously over the past 40 years. While there have been a lot of good and fascinating changes that have made the area a fantastic economic engine and have given birth to some amazing new technologies, I have a lot of concern for the contractors and electricians, the teachers and nurses, the artistic types whom I grew up around, who now find Marin and the Bay Area hard places to live.

We are privileged to practice law in Marin. Even though we work really hard as lawyers, I still think there’s a lot that we can do to give back to the community through pro bono work and other volunteer efforts. There’s a huge need for legal help out there, and fewer and fewer people can afford decent legal representation. Beyond the local level, there are also worrisome legal changes afoot that will require people with legal training to step up. I’m excited about programs like Lawyers in the Library and the Marin Pro Bono Network and am excited to work with others at MCBA to do more. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a lot of great lawyers working in Marin and MCBA is a great way to stay connected and stay in touch.

If you could pick a single highlight of your career, what would it be?

You know, I don’t have a good answer for that question. It seems like every year I’ve practiced law, there have been highlights, and every year is different. Back when I was working at big firms I had the chance to work on some “high profile” cases that went to trial and through appeals, et cetera, but I’ve taken just as much if not more pleasure in helping individual clients and small businesses with much smaller but still daunting legal problems, and getting them to good resolutions through mediation, a business agreement, or some other out-of-court deal.

I think that is what I like most about the practice of law, or at least the practice of general civil litigation. Every dispute is a human story or set of problems with an arc to it. The one thing that is constant is the variety. It sounds corny, but what I enjoy most about practicing law is helping people. I love the challenge of getting clients through the difficult and expensive labyrinth of civil litigation to some kind of judicial vindication or a good settlement result that they can live with. I have many great memories of the cases that I’ve worked on, and especially the clients whom I’ve had a chance to help and get to know along the way.