Correction: An item in the Sept. 4 Law column titled "Broken Trust" said Eve Cohen claimed that her sister, Helen Fabe, secretly asked lawyers to rewrite the trust that held their father's estate. In fact, Cohen, Fabe, and their mother, Sara Sternlight, all signed off on a revision to the trust in 1993.


Kirkland & Ellis LLP has taken on an unusual pro bono case because it wants to support the public school system, the firm says.


The Los Angeles law firm is defending an Alaskan school district that suspended a student who held up a sign reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as the torch relay passed by prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics.


Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, trial lawyer Rick Richmond and veteran patent attorney Eric Hagen are representing the Juneau School Board and Deborah Morse, former principal of Juneau-Douglas High School.


The board wants to appeal a court ruling that supported a student's right to display the banner as the torch relay wound through Juneau. The banner was visible during the televised parade.


The pro bono team filed a petition review with the U.S. Supreme Court last week. If four justices agree, the case will be given a spot on the docket.


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said school officials violated Joseph Frederick's First Amendment rights by suspending him from school and that he had the right to any speech that didn't disrupt school proceedings or its educational mission.


Frederick originally sued the school board to get the suspension removed from his permanent record.


Kirkland & Ellis, one of the country's largest and most profitable firms, was drawn to the case by the idea of protecting the schools.


"It's no secret they are struggling," Richmond said. "There are so many challenges these days with funding, teachers' unions, competition from private schools, charter schools."


He pointed out that schools can lose federal funding for failing to provide a consistent anti-drug message and noted that students were allowed to leave class and stand in front of the school as the relay went by. Although Frederick was one of the students across the street from the school, he was attending a school-sponsored event that was being supervised by teachers and administrators, Richmond contends.


"I don't think it makes any difference if he was in his classroom or if it's a school-sponsored event 20 miles away," Richmond said. "The school has to be able to control school activities with respect to anti-drug messages."


Frederick's attorney disagreed.


"What the Kirkland & Ellis petition failed to note is that the school district admitted it had not disrupted the school," said Douglas Kemp Mertz. "It is not even clear that a reasonable person would take that as a drug reference as most people who saw it only thought it was a funny meaningless phrase."


The High Court hasn't addressed free speech in public schools for nearly 10 years, Kirkland attorneys point out, and they may be due. They've taken up the subject once a decade for the last three.


Broken Trust
Hoffman Sabban & Watenmaker PC, a major trust and estate law firm with a large entertainment industry clientele, is embroiled in a nasty spat over its handling of the largest case of financial elder abuse ever prosecuted by the Los Angeles District Attorney.


Helen Fabe, the daughter of a furniture business owner was convicted by a probate court of bilking the family assets and abusing her mother, Sara Sternlight, in 2004.


The probate department of the Los Angeles Superior Court entered a $10.4 million judgment against Fabe, who subsequently declared bankruptcy. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, died in 2000.


Fabe admitted stealing $1.4 million in bonds, taking over her mother's home and gradually repatriating funds from the family trust into her own account.


But now her lawyers are being sued and accused of gross negligence.


Eve Sternlight Cohen, Fabe's sister, claims that in March 1993, Fabe secretly asked Hoffman Sabban to "rewrite" her parents' estate plan and to allow herself, her sister Eve and Sara to serve as co-trustees.


The suit claims that Hoffman Sabban took Sara and Eve on as new clients despite being aware that the potential for conflict exists whenever a lawyer represents multiple clients in the same matter. The plaintiffs claim that the firm had explained the conflicts issue at length in a retainer agreement with Helen and her husband, Morris


Sternlight, in connection with a prior representation but omitted the standard section on conflicts in the trust. The suit also alleges that Hoffman Sabban concealed from Sara and Eve the fact that Helen was already a client.


Sternlight's attorney, Phillip Heller of Fagelbaum & Heller LLP, further alleged that the firm did not require the Sternlights to purchase insurance for the trust, which was worth about $5 million in 1993, when it was opened. It was worth less than $50,000 by the time Fabe's shifting of the funds was discovered in 1998.


Hoffman Sabban Partner Paul Gordon Hoffman said in a statement that the claims have no foundation and that the firm expects to be vindicated.


"Helen Fabe admitted that she stole from the trust and she pleaded guilty to financial elder abuse. However, she has testified that she and her mother lied to Hoffman Sabban, and hid assets so that Hoffman Sabban was unaware of them. Eve Cohen, another plaintiff, admitted that she concealed important information.


"Since Helen's siblings can't collect from the guilty party, they are trying to recover from Hoffman Sabban, an innocent bystander."


Staff reporter Emily Bryson York can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 235, or at eyork@labusinessjournal.com.

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