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Lawyer on Familiar Turf Helps Resolves View Disputes

Where others see irreconcilable differences, Laguna Beach resident and attorney Larry Nokes sees an opportunity to reconcile.

Nokes defies the portrayals of litigators in courtroom dramas as either out for blood or hackneyed automatons, and strives to achieve the best outcome for his clients. Even as he ably prepares them for trial, he stresses the value in meaningful communication with their opponents, and alerts them to any possibilities of settlement, which can give them more control over the terms of a resolution. This willingness to dig deep to understand the conflicting positions and envisioned outcome of each party, and his ability to cultivate points of consensus out of seemingly unfertile ground, frequently yield compromises rather than writs.

So earlier this year, when Laguna Beach Mayor Kelly Boyd asked Nokes to chair the view equity committee, an unenviable task with the contentious mission of drafting a new city view ordinance, he readily accepted the challenge. Nokes optimistically figured he could apply the same tactics he’s used professionally with groups holding opposing perspectives on the divisive view issue.

Nokes, 58, chalks up his mediation skills up to experience and common sense.

It’s more than that, according to former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, a veteran of 25 years on the bench. Nokes began as a volunteer helping Gray with settlement conferences in 1988. “He has a way about him,” Gray said.

Nokes’ mediation skills, for instance, resolved an emotionally charged and polarized wrongful death case, according to another local jurist, Superior Court Judge William Monroe. In a 2003 letter, Monroe said, “it required a person with extraordinary skill and patience and a great degree of empathy to resolve all of those conflicts.”

Nokes, who grew up in Salt Lake City, moved to Laguna Beach in 1984, and this year celebrates his 25th anniversary with his wife Cathy.

After earning a law degree from the University of the Pacific in 1982, he landed a job with the Newport Beach office of the Los Angeles firm Cummins & White. He became a partner in 1987 and there developed an interest in construction litigation, which he cultivated with a switch to the Chicago-based firm McDermott, Will & Emery in 1989. But it included travel demands that he grew to rue with the 1992 arrival of a daughter, McKenna.

“I knew I had to change something,” said Nokes, who resigned his partnership and started a practice in his hometown in 1993 with Thomas P. Quinn.

McKenna, 21, now a senior at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C., remains close to her father, who visited recently. In May, McKenna returned home to participate in the high school’s Shap Show fundraiser, singing “Wagon Wheel,” accompanied by her father on banjo.

Nokes has a passion for picking the strings of his guitar, mandolin and banjo, and he’s happy to oblige friends, such as providing guitar back up for Judge Gray when he crooned a song he wrote for his bride at their nuptials. When he’s not strumming or mediating, Nokes stays fit playing tennis or pedaling on weekly bike rides with a group of local guys.

Taking on civic responsibilities also comes naturally to Nokes, who continues to volunteer as a mediator in settlement conferences at the county courts. “Over time I discovered he was the best, most able volunteer that I’ve found,” Judge Gray said. “I would love Larry Nokes to become a judge someday…he would be a sensational judge.”

Nokes is also president-elect for the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and on the advisory board of his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Utah.

And while just 10 percent of the law practice’s business is related to Laguna Beach, Nokes’ local cases stand out.

In 2007, La Casa del Camino’s owner Chris Keller fought to keep the party going on a rooftop deck that didn’t comply with city permits. He turned to Nokes to provide the legal brawn to a team that included architects Marshall Ininns and Anders Lasater, along with gallerist Peter Blake. They reversed the decision.

Nokes said the process involved getting parties to look past the black and white regulations to the interests of everyone involved.

“I like this job every day. It’s a lot of fun,” said Nokes, keen to interact with people of varying professions and absorb the nuances that affect their work. He also relishes observing how his colleagues process facts and interpret the law. And his ability to find common ground before entering the courtroom pays off for clients: just three percent of his cases go to trial.

The conundrums encountered by the view committee, which recently submitted a revised draft ordinance for staff to review, rivaled those of a complex case. In addition to learning insights from his fellow committee members, Nokes distinguished three well-defined groups: the strong view proponents who dominated earlier meetings, the vegetation proponents who began showing up later, and the beautification people advocating the right tree in the right place. He then arranged to meet with these groups separately, spending two to three hours with each.

Nokes said “it became clear that they all had a position and an interest.” Negotiators refer to “position” as what a party advocates (e.g. views, trees, the right tree), while their “interest” is what they can reasonably hope to achieve in a compromise. The next step was getting the groups focus less on their position and more on their interests.

It should be no surprise to find a lawyer engaged by the procedure from which laws emerge. Even so, Nokes found his element within the grass roots process: studying the issues with talented people, extracting information from impassioned constituents, and then tweaking roadmaps from other cities to craft an ordinance customized to Laguna’s interests.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job leading the committee and keeping it together,” said Boyd.

“Whatever Larry does, it’s always for the right reasons, and it’s always with the community in mind,” said Keller, who also serves with Nokes on the Chamber’s board, adding that Nokes’ constant effort to do what’s best for all parties, is “what I love about Larry.”

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