Antitrust Law & American Rag: Larry Russ ’78 gives his advice on success in law and entrepreneurial ventures

Larry Russ ’78, founded Russ August & Kabat in 1990 in Los Angeles with partners Rick August and Jules Kabat with a focus on creative solutions to solve complex legal problems. Larry, along with partner, Marc Fenster, guided Russ August & Kabat to become one of the go-to firms for taking on a major tech company in a patent case on the plaintiff’s side.

Additionally, as part owner of a popular restaurant in Newport Beach and the fashion forward retail outpost, American Rag, Larry boasts an impressive business portfolio that rivals his legal accomplishments. Larry took some time from his lively schedule to answer seven questions that delve into his keys to success in both the legal and business world.

What motivated you to attend law school at UC Hastings?

I am from Los Angeles originally and attended college at UC Berkeley. I really wanted to stay up north for law school and only applied to UC Berkeley and UC Hastings. Berkeley had an overflow of their undergraduates applying, so I attended UC Hastings, which turned out to be a great experience.

At the time, I was interested in social justice matters and being a lawyer would help me accomplish some of my social goals. It was at UC Hastings that I took my first antitrust class with Professor McCall. He was phenomenal and created a compelling interest for antitrust law in me. Antitrust was consistent with my social goals to fight unfair competition and prevent small companies from being forced out of business.

The advantage of attending UC Hastings and being in the city was that I was able to work as a law clerk for a protégé of Joe Alioto, then-mayor of San Francisco and the most successful antitrust lawyer in the country. His protégé was working on some major cases with Alioto’s firm and I clerked with him for two years during law school. It was an unbelievable experience. I was working on huge cases against huge companies. I don’t think I would have been able to do that had I not been attending UC Hastings.

After graduation, you kicked off your career by challenging Levi Strauss’s Resale Price Maintenance Program. How did that opportunity come about?

When I graduated, I was going to stay in San Francisco. Unfortunately, somebody became ill in my family and I decided to move back to Los Angeles. I interviewed with some small antitrust firms and because of my work in San Francisco I was able to get a job with a small patent, trademark, and antitrust law firm.

One of my first cases with that firm involved Levi Strauss and Resale Price Maintenance on jeans. At that time, Levi Strauss had a near monopoly in the denim arena, with very few large competitors. It was the first opportunity to deploy my skills in antitrust litigation as an attorney.

I was at that firm for three years until it dissolved after a significant monetary victory in an antitrust case in Chicago against Pillsbury flour. I was in trial for four months as second chair, as a third year as a lawyer. The firm’s partners started fighting over the money, the firm dissolved, and I lost my job. But that experience taught me a very important lesson about not putting myself in the control of others and I decided to go off on my own and start my own firm.

How did you evolve your firm Russ, August, and Kabat?

When I first started, I focused mostly on antitrust law and different litigation of every sort; unfair competition, trade secret theft, and intellectual property. The firm grew and experienced various partner changes over time. I later decided the real opportunity coming up for small firms would be in the patent infringement arena.

I sought out a very talented lawyer in that genre from a highly respected law firm. This ultimately led me to Marc Fenster, a star lawyer from Irell & Manella LLP. Marc set about the task of building a patent infringement team that could rival any in the country. That was about fourteen years ago.

We tried to attract lawyers with technical experience in the patent field and recruited from the best law firms in Los Angeles. We ultimately built a team of twenty such attorneys. What that meant for our clients, whether they were an owner of a patent portfolio or an inventor, is that if they were going to have to take on Microsoft, or Apple, or any other tech company with a huge law firm on their side, our firm could field a team of ten or more highly experienced and skilled litigators to meet that challenge. We have developed that team and it is continuing to grow.

Lex Machina, the publication that reports on the details on what’s going on in the courts around the country, reported, just a few weeks ago, that our firm is number one in the country, in terms of patent filings on the plaintiff’s side. We have become one of the go-to firms on the plaintiff’s side in terms of taking on some of the major tech companies in a patent infringement case.

In addition to our patent practice, we have a high-level real estate transactional litigation team. Rick August, one of our founding partners, created our sophisticated real estate department. We were one of the principal law firms involved in the acquisition of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. That transaction was over a billion dollars and was the largest real estate acquisition at the time.

What advice do you have for present UC Hastings students looking to establish a successful legal career?

The world has become much more specialized. General practitioners can barely survive in the legal world. I think it’s really important that law students and young lawyers focus on what they’re passionate about and pick an area of law to become an expert in. Expertise in a particular area is critical to building one’s practice and ultimately attracting clients. It is important to distinguish yourself in the legal community by virtue of becoming the most knowledgeable person in the field.

I was lucky because I became interested in a specific area of law while in law school. My experience clerking helped me get a job as soon as I graduated. The firm that I interviewed with perceived me as a resource, and not a liability, because of my experience. That is what has to happen.

If a law student is interested in copyright, or trademark, or patent, or real estate, it’s important for him or her to really become as knowledgeable as possible about that particular area in law school. Try to clerk at a law firm that focuses on that area, and then try to do the same thing in obtaining a first job in that area of focus. This advice is contrary to advice people were giving years ago, where a graduate just gets a first job, and then gravitates in a direction the firm requires. I don’t think that works as well today. I think it’s far better to focus on what field you want to become an expert in, and do that as soon as possible. That will increase your chances of getting a good job and rapidly propelling your career forward.

We’ve rediscovered the UC Hastings’ motto “Fiat Justitia,” which means, “Let Justice Be Done.”  What does justice mean to you, and what does it mean to your clients in your practice of law?

What you find out after practicing law for a long time and becoming accomplished, is that lawyers, particularly good lawyers, have a lot of power to effectuate change. It’s important to deploy those skills for the benefit of people that come across your desk. Sometimes that can be assisting a client that really can’t afford to pay you because you relate to their story and you want to help. It’s good for your soul, good for the community, and it helps you become a more respected professional. The little things that you can do on a daily basis to fix injustices are important.

Do you have a typical day?

So you noticed I wear a lot of different hats [laughs]. I am managing partner of the firm and also stay busy with the actual practice. Beyond that, I have various entrepreneurial interests. I’m one of the owners of American Rag, which is a well-known fashion forward retailer. We recently started manufacturing a new line of clothing called “321” that is taking off. I also have a restaurant in Newport Beach that is doing well.

Being involved in several businesses keeps my interest peaked in many different areas. Believe it or not, it’s also very helpful for the law practice. Not only does it develop a practical perception of legal and business problems, it facilitates a client’s ability to appreciate your practical advice from a business point of view.

Most problems suffered by a client are not purely legal. Sometimes there’s a mixture of business and legal issues. I think it’s the responsibility of a lawyer to look at both the legal problem and the practical nature of the problem in the context of a client’s business. This can also help determine whether there is a worthwhile case to pursue from an economic sense. You have to ask some questions, like is there another way to approach the issue? Or is there a peaceful or diplomatic approach that is better under the circumstances? Those are all things you learn over time to help give you a perspective on what your clients are thinking and what they’re experiencing.

Any parting words of wisdom?

I think, generally, my advice is to remain focused in setting a goal. When you wake up in the morning and get in your car, you don’t start driving until you know where you’re going. Life is that way too. In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to map out where you’re going. Make a plan and stay focused, no matter what it is.

You may not succeed and things may change. That’s life and it happens all the time. But even if you modify the plan or adopt a new one, still have a plan. Sooner or later, it will lead to satisfaction and success. That’s the best advice I can give.