Trial Pros: Miller Morton's Peter Dessau

April 2016

Law360, New York (April 7, 2016, 2:17 PM ET)Peter V. Dessau is a partner at Miller Morton Caillat & Nevis LLP, a firm founded in 1929 with offices in San Jose and Newport Beach, California. Dessau’s more than 26 year practice focuses on construction law, with an emphasis on litigation involving construction claims, defects and other related issues. He represents developers, builders, design professionals and contractors in payment disputes, and defends and prosecutes delay and impact claims against private owners, contractors and public entities throughout California.

Dessau also provides counsel to members of the construction industry on risk management techniques to avoid litigation. He is a writer and speaker on construction law topics, including serving as a guest lecturer for construction law classes at Santa Clara University School of Law and San Jose State University (Extension). He is a member of the American Arbitration Association’s Panel of Construction Arbitrators.

Q: What’s the most interesting trial you've worked on and why?

A: Perhaps not surprisingly, my first trial as a young associate sticks out in my mind as the most interesting. I was “second chairing” the case for the partner in charge of the matter, Frank Hughes. The case involved Western Transplantation Services (WTS), a cutting-edge tissue transplant research team that had relocated its laboratory in order to separate itself from a loose association of medical researchers. The groups had all joined up very informally to pool common area expenses at a facility, and, unfortunately, they had also pooled their revenue. Subsequently, when WTS relocated, the association tried to keep all of WTS’s revenue, which was substantial. WTS prevailed in the case, primarily on the charm and charisma of the neurosurgeon that founded the organization, Dr. Donald Prolo.

The case was fascinating because of the personalities involved and the unusual legal theories that had to be employed to explain what was a highly unusual business relationship between the individuals and entities.

Q: What’s the most unexpected or amusing thing you've experienced while working on a trial?

A: I was in San Diego Superior Court before the Honorable Linda B. Quinn. During the course of a jury trial — outside the presence of the jury — a lawyer exclaimed, “F---- yea,” while entering an important stipulation on the record. I thought Judge Quinn was going to scream, but instead, she burst out laughing! She was a good sport.

Q: What does your trial prep routine consist of?

A: Due to the fact that my cases are so expert driven, the vast bulk of my trial prep routine relates to working with my experts and ensuring that we come out of the box strong after their testimony. Client witnesses also receive a lot of my prep attention. I generally meet with clients two or three times to review their testimony and ensure that they fully understand their role in the case and the facts that they are charged with moving into the record. I also spend a considerable amount of time anticipating evidentiary objections to my case and visualizing arguments in response thereto.

Q: If you could give just one piece of advice to a lawyer on the eve of their first trial, what would it be?

A: If it’s a civil or business case: it’s only money — no one is going to die if you make a mistake, so relax and do the best you can. No trial attorney ever has a perfect trial.

Q: Name a trial attorney, outside your own firm, who has impressed you and tell us why.

A: Arthur Shartis of Shartis Friese LLP. After listening to him speak I wanted to pay his client! Imagine crossing William F. Buckley Jr. with Laurence Olivier — send him to law school and you get Arthur Shartis!

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.