Introducing the DBA’s 2012–13 President: ‘Ultimate Lawyer’ Benjamin Steps Up to New Role
by Sara Crocker
There was just one time when his seemingly inevitable path to becoming a lawyer took a turn in another direction. When Benjamin took a test in high school to determine what career he was most suited to, like the other students, he received a few career options. One was lawyer and the other was accountant. Another student had drawn lawyer as a career, so Benjamin had to write his report on being an accountant.
Other than that, "it never changed," Benjamin said.
California Boy with Colorado Roots
Benjamin grew up in the idyllic town of Granada Hills in Southern California. He was a typical California boy—surfing, rodeoing, and later attending the University of Southern California, where his paternal grandfather was head of the history department.
His mother, who is originally from Colorado, had family there, and the Benjamins would visit in the summers. It sparked a lifelong love—fly fishing. His uncle Bill Mason, the attorney, would take him fishing when the family visited.
"He took me to the most fabulous places," Benjamin said.
His favorite trip was to go on horseback into the flattop wilderness near Buford. He’s fished around the country, and enjoys the challenge the sport brings.
"You’ve got to figure out what it is that’s going to entice these fish, how can I present it to them perfectly, and then there’s the little adrenaline rush when they hit the fly—and you’re out in the middle of nature," Benjamin said. "There’s no phones, no faxes, most places no cellphone service, and you’re enjoying the beauty of Colorado."
Benjamin admired his father, Gilbert, and his career in the FBI. He was involved in exciting cases such as the Frank Sinatra, Jr. kidnapping; the investigation of assassin Sirhan Sirhan; and, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., identifying shooter James Earl Ray, which led to his arrest.
"I always wanted to be a U.S. Attorney. I wanted to be a prosecutor. I wanted to do federal cases," Benjamin said. "I was following closely in my father’s footsteps."
While in law school, he paid his way by working full time at Security Pacific National Bank.
"I would open the bank at 8 o’clock in the morning, I’d close the bank at about 5:15 at night, I’d jump in my car, I’d run down to night classes at Loyola University–Los Angeles, and I’d go to law school from about 6 to 11 every night, five nights a week," Benjamin said.
It was a hectic schedule, but Benjamin persevered and graduated a semester early. While in law school, he set himself on a track to become an in-house counsel at the bank, and did so when he graduated and passed the bar. Though Benjamin had a fantastic mentor, his hours were long, as was his commute. After one such drive, aggravated by rain, he got home and plopped onto his sofa. He didn’t even have the energy to turn on his television. He realized this wasn’t the kind of life he wanted.
"I signed up to take the Colorado bar exam the next morning," he said.
Building a Practice
After passing the bar in Colorado, Benjamin couldn’t be sworn in with the other new admitees—at the time there was a requirement of residency, and Benjamin had not yet found a place to live. Once he settled, his aunt suggested that he call her friend Jimmy, who was a judge, to swear him in. Jimmy was Colorado Supreme Court Justice James K. Groves.
When Benjamin called, he and the justice had a surprising exchange. Benjamin called the number his aunt had given him. When the other line picked up, he explained who he was and asked if he was speaking to Groves’ clerk.
"He said, ‘Well, no. You want to talk to my clerk?’" Benjamin recalled.
Benjamin was surprised the justice had answered his office phone, and said, "You mean this is Justice Groves?" Groves replied, "Isn’t that who you called?"
When he later had his private swearing in with the justice and his aunt, he realized how special the moment was, as well as the community he was joining.
"The first thing that made me fall in love with practicing law here was when I was sworn in," Benjamin said.
Throughout Benjamin’s life, his uncle kept up his promise, writing to Benjamin that he was looking forward to him joining the practice in Rifle when he finished law school and passed the bar. In Benjamin’s second year of law school, his uncle passed away. His aunt sold the practice, but with a stipulation that Benjamin would have the opportunity to join it. He had planned to get there, but wanted to get more experience in Denver before he moved.
In Denver, Benjamin worked at firms large and small, practicing litigation and transactional work. He built a practice specializing in transactional real estate and joined Roath & Brega in 1981. When he started, the firm had 22 attorneys; it eventually grew to 98. It was "as great an accumulation of superb lawyers as you can imagine," Benjamin said.
With legal greats like Larry Atler, Harold Bloomenthal, Ed Barad, John Birkeland, Chuck Brega, Carl Eklund, David Stark, Ted Gelt, and Roger Thomasch, it was "a place where you had to have something shielding you to not end up learning an awful lot," he said.
In 1991, he started what is today Benjamin Bain Howard & Cohen. One of their biggest clients was the Denver Technological Center, and Benjamin has been able to see that area expand.
After working in so many facets within the law, Benjamin has found that he most enjoys working in a small firm.
"The small firm just feels more like a family," he said. "It’s more laid back."
Throughout his career, Benjamin has established a solid reputation. Steve Clarke engaged Benjamin after working with him across the table in a real estate transaction because he appreciated how well he works with others.
"He is a real student of the law and he likes the law," Clarke said. "He likes the nuances of the law. He likes to get into an issue and dissect it."
Benjamin also regularly serves as an expert witness. Franz Hardy, president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado and a partner with Gordon & Rees, has worked with Benjamin as an expert since he started with the firm as a young lawyer in 2000.
"I just recall as a young lawyer being impressed with how he handled himself, how he expressed himself," Hardy said. "It was ‘wow.’ I want to emulate the way he expressed himself and articulates himself. That’s something that resonated with me."
Benjamin also made time for fun. He and colleague Kurt Horton, who now is a district court judge in the 18th Judicial District, would have a friendly competition any time the USC football team would play Notre Dame, where Horton attended and played quarterback. If Notre Dame won, Benjamin would have to display a Notre Dame banner over his office door. If USC won, Horton would have to wear a USC tie the next day in the office.
"I think I got the worst of that," Horton quipped.
In the time Benjamin has been in Colorado, he hasn’t made it to Rifle to take over his uncle’s firm. He fell in love with Denver and started a family.
A Tight-Knit Family
Though Benjamin has focused his practice largely on real estate, he did handle one divorce proceeding. He learned it was a practice he didn’t want to do for the rest of his career, but there was a silver lining. In the office of his opposing counsel, there was a charming secretary, Isabella, who would become his wife.
"That was the only good thing that came out of that divorce and that was the only divorce I ever did," Benjamin said.
The Benjamins have two children –Troy, 30, and Brittany, 24. The family grew close because they did everything together, Benjamin said, from volleyball leagues to real estate symposiums.
"They’ve been as much involved in all of the things in the practice of law as I’ve been," Benjamin said. "If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be a proper balance for sure."
Their children have been drawn to their father’s childhood home. Troy works for a film company producing bonus features for movies on DVD. Brittany is a case worker at YWCA San Diego.
Finding a Place in the DBA
Benjamin got involved with the DBA as a young lawyer. He served on the DBA Young Lawyers Division Executive Council in 1978–79.
Members of that executive council included Karen Mathis, who served as president of the American Bar Association from 2006–07; Karen Metzger, who served on the Colorado Court of Appeals; and Alan Friedberg, a business attorney with Berg Hill Greenleaf & Ruscitti.
"What a phenomenal group," he said. "It demonstrates when you get involved in the bar what great things it can do for your career."
That same term, real estate attorney Willis Carpenter was president of the DBA. That got Benjamin more involved in the Colorado Bar Association’s Real Estate Law Section, among others. Over time, Benjamin became more involved in the leadership of the bar associations. He has served on the DBA Board of Trustees since 2010.
Plans as President
Benjamin’s main goal as president is to ensure that the DBA continues to run smoothly and that the organization’s signature programs continue to be supported by the membership.
"I’m going to be the one who is going to try to facilitate in making all the projects that people before me have adopted in becoming ingrained in the system and operating successfully," he said.
One of those is the DBA Mentoring Program, which in January became a pilot program of a revamped mentoring program launched by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Supreme Court. It’s the kind of program that must be focused on because of the benefits it brings to members and the overall success of the profession, he said.
"It’s not only good for the profession, it’s good for society in general that we’ve got experienced lawyers who know what they’re doing," Benjamin said.
Friends and colleagues are pleased he’ll be taking on this leadership role.
"He’s known as someone whose word is his bond," Horton said. "He just practices at the highest ethical level."
Colleague Larry Atler agrees, noting that Benjamin is very articulate and a "gentleman with impeccable integrity."
"Jim epitomizes what I consider to be the ultimate lawyer," he said. "He just is top-drawer."
Benjamin does hope he can offer the DBA some guidance in his area of expertise.
"I’ve raised the issue of it being a great time to be an owner of real estate or a renter looking for new space because of sales prices and rental rates that are available in this market," he said.
In the next year, Benjamin plans to work with the leadership of the bar to determine what the best financial path is when it comes to its office space—whether now is the time for the DBA to purchase property or to find the best possible leasing opportunity. Benjamin admits he doesn’t have any preconceptions about which answer may best suit the DBA, but he knows the economy has created an opportunity that cannot be ignored.
Indeed, the legacy Benjamin hopes to create is one that will leave the DBA in a better economic position for years to come.
"I hope the result of engaging in this investigation is that 10 years from now, we’re going to be able to say, boy we made a good decision 10 years ago," he said. D