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David Pasternak tackles bar presidency while battling cancer

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

When he is sworn in this month as the 91st president of the State Bar of California, David J. Pasternak plans to introduce a special guest without whom he would not be holding office. That person: his oncologist.

“I have cancer,” Pasternak says in a matter-of-fact tone, reminiscent of Jimmy Carter when the former president revealed his cancer in August. “I haven’t kept it a secret. I believe in transparency.”

David Pasternak
David Pasternak received a Bruins T-shirt signed with get-well wishes from Supreme Court justices and fellow State Bar trustees. Click on the photo to view a slideshow of photos. Photo by Stephanie Diani

When Pasternak shared the news of his diagnosis with his State Bar colleagues last April via email, he said it was like being “hit between the eyes by a couple of Kenley Jansen fastballs.” Jansen pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of Pasternak’s favorite sports teams. Pasternak’s cancer, like Carter’s, started in the kidney and was removed. But while Carter’s malignancy spread to the brain, Pasternak’s went to the lungs.

Pasternak said he received his doctor’s blessing before he stood for election. Experimental treatments have shrunk the lung tumors. He continues to undergo monthly infusions at City of Hope every three weeks that thankfully don’t carry harsh side effects. He says he feels well and is more bothered by a bum knee than he is by the cancer.

But he is realistic about the uncertainties in his future. He’s already talked to Vice President James P. Fox and Treasurer Danette E. Meyers to make sure they are willing to make some public appearances on his behalf if needed.

When Pasternak, 64, joined the board in 2012 it was as the first California Supreme Court appointee. Under governance reform enacted by the Legislature in 2011, the court gained five appointments to the board.

In addition to his State Bar responsibilities, Pasternak heads Pasternak & Pasternak, A Law Corporation, in Century City. He’s one of only a few dozen lawyers in California who are full-time receivers – those appointed by the court to hold money or property in a dispute.

About three times a week you can find him at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown LA or another court. On a typical morning this summer, he appeared before Judge Joanne O’Donnell in Department 86 to wrap up a case in which he handled the assets of defendants who were sued by the state for violating corporate securities law. Pasternak said he was able to salvage about $600,000 from the defendants, although the extent of the fraud was estimated at more than $7 million.

The scheme centered around a warehouse call center that targeted the elderly, urging them to invest in technology purported to protect credit card investments. However, the defendants never created anything of value. The case’s closure allowed Pasternak to write checks to the fraud victims. Any that aren’t cashed will fund legal services at Public Counsel, a charitable purpose under the cy pres doctrine.

The State Bar, in partnership with other state agencies, has been warning the public about such scams at town hall workshops across the state.

“This is exactly one of those scenarios,” Pasternak said.

It’s satisfying work for Pasternak. He enjoys receivership work not only to help people get their money back, but because of the variety each case brings. He describes the time he joined federal marshals in a search of a defendant’s high-rise condo. The marshals unearthed $10,000 hidden under a planter but they only later discovered that the man had managed to stuff $50,000 cash into his shorts.

In some cases, Pasternak oversees the day-to-day operations of various kinds of businesses. All kinds. Recently, he found himself unexpectedly having to learn the ins and outs of running a medical marijuana dispensary. In other cases, Pasternak manages real estate, a role which often forces him to decide whether it makes more financial sense to fix dilapidated buildings or tear them down.

That role often makes him a thorn in the side of defendant property owners, who have brought pickets, threats and lawsuits against him. But the experience has given him a thick skin.

“It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. In fact, it probably means you’re doing something right,” he said.

On a recent day driving back to his office from court – expertly maneuvering his red Audi sports car through traffic as a Bruce Springsteen-themed radio station played in the background – an associate calls him about the hearing, and he allays some of her concerns.

When he arrives, a caller is waiting to discuss a potential building sale, and another associate stops by to talk about another case involving the recovery of assets that wound up in India.

Later, the other half of Pasternak & Pasternak arrives: his wife, Cynthia. The two are a recognizable pair in Los Angeles area legal circles, and both have been involved in local bar association activities. Cynthia Pasternak recently received a lifetime award from the Beverly Hills Bar Association.

“She’s very supportive,” including his decision to assume the responsibilities of the State Bar presidency, he says.

Cynthia Pasternak practices mediation and, according to her husband, is the more social one. She describes her husband as driven and an avid reader whose idea of relaxation is playing poker.

They have been married since 1988 and raised three sons together, the oldest of whom is from her first marriage. Greg, 33, is an actor and singer preparing for a career change: law school. Kevin, 24, is already a law student at Loyola School of Law. Their youngest, Matthew, 21, studies industrial design at Syracuse University in New York, the state where Pasternak was born.

David Pasternak was born in New York City but raised in the San Fernando Valley. Rubin Pasternak, his late father, was a Holocaust survivor who learned to sew and went into the fur business. His father wouldn’t discuss the horrors of war with his son or the rest of the family much, although he did agree to a videotaped interview with the Shoah Foundation as part of a history project. Still, it’s a difficult topic for David Pasternak – he still hasn’t seen it.

“I haven’t brought myself to watch [it],” he said. “It’s unimaginable.”

It was Pasternak’s father who encouraged him to pursue a career outside the fur business. From an early age, Pasternak knew that he wanted to pursue a career in law, even though he never actually met a lawyer until entering Loyola Law School in 1973.

After graduation, his first jobs were with the government – the Department of Corporations enforcement division and the business and tax section of the California Attorney General’s Office. In 1980, he joined the Century City firm of Tyre & Kamins as an associate. A few years later, he took his first receivership case on referral from a former supervisor at the Department of Corporations.

That first case grew into a specialty. He formed his own firm in 1993 and was a founder of the California Receivers Forum, a statewide practice group.

Michael Wachtell is a longtime friend who has served with Pasternak on the boards of the receivers forum, Bet Tzedek and Stephen Wise Temple. He said Pasternak has somehow figured out how to balance his work life with an active volunteer and social life.

“He’s a hard worker. He never stops. He goes 24 hours a day,” Wachtell said. “He’s just a good human being.”

Holly J. Fujie, who served as State Bar president in 2008-2009 and went on to become a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, described Pasternak as “one of the most kind, ethical and hardworking lawyers I know.”

Pasternak was Fujie’s mentor and encouraged her to get involved with bar activities. “I don’t know I’d be where I am today without David,” she said. “He was always my biggest cheerleader.”

In his spare time, Pasternak enjoys attending plays, concerts and sporting events, his favorites being Dodgers baseball and UCLA basketball and football.

Displayed prominently in his home office is a keepsake that recalls both his State Bar service and his passion for UCLA sports. It’s an orange Bruin’s T-shirt signed with get-well messages from justices of California Supreme Court and State Bar trustees. Trustee Miriam Krinsky knew he was upset that his illness prevented him from attending an annual event with the Supreme Court and arranged for the gift.

“Miriam knows I’m a loyal Bruin, and the combination of personal get well messages from the Supreme Court justices and board members on a UCLA shirt meant a lot to me,” he said.