Lawyer of the Year – Richard Hoffelt … A Unanimous Selection

The award selection process of the Sacramento County Bar Association typically follows one of three courses. The first involves consideration of many proposed nominees, rigorous evaluation and discussion, and ultimate selection. The second is precisely the opposite: no candidate comes to mind and the nominating committee must search actively for potential recipients. The final route, which presents itself much less frequently that the first two, is where one person is recommended by a multitude of distinct parties, the accomplishments of that individual stand out, and the choice is made by acclamation.

This year’s recipient of the Lawyer of the Year Award, Richard Hoffelt, falls clearly within the third category. His name was mentioned repeatedly both within and without the SCBA as the most deserving recipient of this Award, and his selection by a unanimous Bar Council followed effortlessly.

The Lawyer of the Year Award honors an SCBA member who, through the practice of law, has made Sacramento a better place to live and work. Past recipients include Virginia Mueller, Forrest Plant, Sr., and Joseph Coomes, Jr. The award is given for achievements during a single year or over the course of a lifetime.

Hoffelt’s selection is justified on both grounds. Hoffelt, the 1990 SCBA President, has served as a guiding force to the SCBA and legal community during his 42 years of association with the Sacramento law firm of Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt, Gould & Birney. During his presidency, he conceived the idea of, and made possible, the creation of the successful Minority Hiring and Retention Program, by which minority law students and graduates are recruited by some of the leading law firms in Sacramento and trained to be successful lawyers and leaders in the community. This program continues to be a tangible source of inspiration for law students and a testament to the vision of Dick Hoffelt and the SCBA.

Hoffelt has been active in numerous other professional activities, having served as a founding member and early president of the Barristers Club, on the Executive Committee of the California Association of Local Bar Associations, and as delegate to numerous conventions of the State Bar. He is a member of the ABA’s Forum on Health Law, the ABA’s Construction Law Section and ADR Section, the National Health Lawyers Association, the California Society for Health Care Attorneys, and the SCBA’s Healthcare Law Section. Dick also served as the SCBA’s first representative and delegate to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, its policy-making body.

In addition to his lifetime of service to the SCBA and other professional organizations, Hoffelt’s efforts on behalf of charities and arts groups is legendary. 1997 marks the culmination of Dick’s charitable work as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Shriners Hospitals of Northern California. In June, the Shriners dedicated the Sacramento Shriners Hospital, which provides free treatment for children throughout Northern California and the Western United States who are suffering from spinal cord injuries, acute burns, and orthopedic disabilities. The only conditions on admission are that the child must be under 18, the condition must be treatable, and the child’s family must be without means to pay for the child’s treatment.

The $79 million, 300,000 square foot state-of-the art hospital is located on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and X Street, across from UC Davis Medical Center. The Hospital is unique among Shriners Hospitals because it combines the three separate specialties of other Shriners hospitals in one setting which, together with its advanced facilities, makes it the nationwide leader in the Shriners hospital system.

According to Margaret Bryan-Williams, Administrator of the Sacramento Shriners Hospital, the decision to locate the hospital here has worked out “wonderfully,” based on the proximity of the “outstanding medical center” of UC Davis and the presence of the “pre-eminent orthopedic and burn surgeons to whom health care providers in the area can turn for advice and counsel for the care of complex cases in their specialties. Clearly, when you can deliver pediatric specialty services at no charge, it’s a wonderful addition to the region’s health care system.”

Hoffelt’s charitable work is balanced by his attention to his active law practice and service as an arbitrator/mediator. Hoffelt has served at various times over the last 20 years as judge pro tempore and arbitrator for the Superior Courts of Sacramento, El Dorado, Solano, Yuba, Amador and Calaveras counties. Dick also serves as an arbitrator for diverse organizations too numerous to recount here.

Hoffelt is a third generation Sacramentan. He and his wife of 42 years, Elie, have four children and eight grandchildren. Hoffelt received a bachelor of science degree in business administration at the U.C. Berkeley’s School of Business in 1952, and was awarded his juris doctorate from Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley in 1955.

After passing the bar examination that year, Hoffelt began his long and distinguished practice at the well-respected firm now known as Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt, Gould & Birney, which is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year. The firm was founded in January 1922 by Jay L. Henry and Grover Bedeau. Initially known, not suprisingly, as Henry & Bedeau, its first offices were located in the historic Capital National Bank Building at Capital and I. In 1949, Governor Earl Warren appointed Bedeau to the Sacramento County Superior Court, and Henry was appointed to the same court soon thereafter.

Sherman Wilke and the late Gordon Fleury became partners and renamed the firm Wilke & Fleury rather than trade on the name of the former partners. The firm continued its emphasis on general practice until 1970, when the partners decided that the firm should increase its focus on health care law and complex litigation, with an emphasis on medical malpractice defense. The firm has continued to expand its areas of specialization and its corps of lawyers to its present status as one of the ten largest firms in the city.

Although he has focused on healthcare law, Hoffelt has established expertise in all areas of the general practice of law, including corporate, business and business entities; commercial; real estate and leasing; employment and construction law transactional matters and litigation; administrative law; and probate; estate and trust planning, administration and litigation.

He has participated in several significant appellate decisions, including Morris v. Williams (1967) 67 Cal.2d 733 and California Association of Nursing Homes v. Williams (1970) 4 Cal.App.3d 800. In the first case, the Supreme Court relied on Hoffelt’s arguments to invalidate an administrative regulation which had cut Medi-Cal benefits by ten percent. In the second, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld Hoffelt’s due process challenge to administrative regulations regarding reimbursement to providers of Medi-Cal services.

Hoffelt is justifiably proud of his appellate work, of which he says: “My greatest personal accomplishment is one which can be proclaimed by any practicing attorney: ‘To be an attorney engaged in a system of justice which bestows upon the legal profession a major role in saying what the law is.’ From the lawyer’s point of view, this is the essence of Marbury v. Madison. During the early years of the MediCal Program in California, I represented many clients in a number of significant cases in which my arguments were persuasive to the courts in interpretations of the law in new and innovative ways. Being an advocate in the formulation of the ratio decidendi in this way truly is a lawyer’s greatest reward, as well as accomplishment.”

The cases cited above establish that Hoffelt is held in high esteem by the courts. This fact is confirmed by the knowledge that he is often asked to speak on behalf of newly-nominated or appointed judges.

One such judge is William Shubb, who asked Hoffelt to speak at his investiture. Upon learning of the Award, Judge Shubb remarked: “Dick is an old-fashioned kind of lawyer whose accomplishments include not only what he’s done as a lawyer but also what he’s done for the community. He has blended the highest professionalism with his charitable efforts. Excellent choice.”

George Nicholson, an associate justice with the Third District Court of Appeal, asked Hoffelt to speak at his confirmation hearing. He echoes the views of Judge Shubb: “Dick Hoffelt is very deserving of this award because he is a fine lawyer. He’s also a true gentleman who has a smile for everyone. The Sacramento Bar Association is known for its outstanding presidents. Dick is among the best of them.”

Tom Cecil, Presiding Judge of the Sacramento Superior and Municipal Courts, could not recall whether he asked Dick to speak on his behalf, “but many years ago, at a party at Dick’s home, where my infant son was a bit loud, I did permit him to demonstrate the proper technique for feeding a baby with a bottle. Seriously, though, it was leaders like Dick who set an example for me while I was in law school at McGeorge, and he inspired me to stick with it. The Award is well-deserved, and on behalf of the Sacramento trial judges, it is my pleasure to extend my heartfelt congratulations.” So says one, so say they all.