Morris B. Chain (Founder)
"He's the Rembrandt of the courtroom."
Morris B. Chain founded Chain | Cohn | Stiles in 1934, only two years after graduating from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Mr. Chain quickly rose to prominence in the local courts, building his reputation as a champion of the underdog and laying the foundation for what has become Kern County’s leading law firm. Renowned for his dramatic and witty court performances, Mr. Chain fought most effectively for “the little guy.” The following articles published in The Bakersfield Californian highlight Morris Chain and the history of the law firm he founded. ———————————————————
Written by columnist Eddie Griffith, the following article first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Saturday, May 21, 1977, the day Morris Chain was buried.“Never spit against the wind”
This was one of many robust maxims Morris B. Chain often employed in conversations and, to the uninitiated, it may have been construed as one of his philosophies in life.
Nothing could be further from the mark.
Morris Chain went through life spitting against the wind. And with a remarkable degree of success.
I first witnessed Mr. Chain in courtroom action in the early months of 1941 when I joined the old Kern Herald for a reporting career that budded, bloomed and withered in a few short weeks. I did not know that the fragile morning newspaper was a terminal case.
Even so, within that span I twice watched Mr. Chain bounce into Superior Court in his role as criminal defense attorney and twice win victories in cases where the prosecution evidence assembled against his clients appeared insurmountable.
Mr. Chain was then in his mid-30’s and acquiring the seasoning of experience. His greatest years lay ahead.
Ten years later when I returned to Bakersfield, Mr. Chain was still a one-man show. But, not for long. Helen Banducci became his secretary, Albert Noriega researched law and Leonard Winters tackled full-time investigation. Milton Younger, grass green from law school, came under the master’s tutelage.
They formed the nucleus of what was to become one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
“They wouldn’t hire me for free,” Morrie was wont to recount of other attorneys when he recalled his efforts to make a nickel with his newly-won law degree during depression days. “I had to become a lone ranger or starve.”
“I starved anyway,” he would say, black eyes snapping in amusement and with a wry half-smile which was a Chain trademark.
As in the case of many successful men, Morrie was an egoist but he had the rare ability to fun himself.
His political affiliation was Democratic and he was a power in that cause for a number of years.
His party allegiance, however, was humanitarian. He despised bigots and could spot a hypocrite from here to the nearest dirty book store.
Mr. Chain had unbelievable ability in “reading” a jury which would tend to be favorable to his usually hopeless-appearing case. I think this stemmed from his continued life-long interest in the “little guy” and the problems of the downtrodden, generally.
Anyway, by the 1960’s, Mr. Chain had achieved a state-wide reputation which can be summed up in a popular Civic Center saying of those days:
“If you want to commit murder and get away with it, be sure to hire Morris Chain.”
Mr. Chain was flamboyant in the courtroom. He was dramatic, witty, entertaining and exciting to watch. But his performance always was firmly anchored to the logic of the law.
Edith, his wife of 37 years, once said she overheard a newsman remark after seeing Morrie in action:
“He’s the Rembrandt of the courtroom.”
Only his staff knew how many hours he (and they, since he was a stern taskmaster in this area) spent in the service of his client. It was often 18 or more consecutively and for as many times as Morrie thought necessary.
There will not be another to replace Morris Chain. His death truly noted the end of a remarkable era in criminal law practice.
Morrie and I said good-bye at Greenlawn yesterday. His death has left an irreplaceable gap in the thinning ranks of my friends.———————————————————
As part the law firm’s 80-year anniversary of its founding, The Bakersfield Californian highlighted its history, and the people behind one of the longest standing law firms in the area. It was published on Dec. 20, 2014.Chain Cohn Stiles keeps downtown presence
When Morris B. Chain left the University of Southern California in 1934, law degree in hand, the fresh-faced lawyer didn’t find many help-wanted signs in Depression-era Bakersfield. So he made his own opportunity.
Opening a practice in the Haberfelde Building downtown, the Russian emigre, who grew up in Bakersfield, began laying the foundation for what would become one of the most prominent and longstanding law firms in the valley.
And now, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the practice’s founding, the film is on the move again.
In 2015, the seven attorneys at what is now called Chain, Cohn, Stiles will set up shop in a newly purchased, 30,000-square-foot historical building at 18th Street and Chester Avenue, occupied most recently by the Goodwill Industries of South Central California.
The view from the east-facing building: The Haberfelde Building, where Chain started it all.
“The greatest compliment you can get is from the little guy you do a lot of work for and who comes up and says thanks, you did a hell of a job,” Chain told The Californian in 1976.
Though born in Russia in 1904, Morris Chain developed his Bakersfield roots early. His father ran a store on 19th Street, and Chain attended Kern County Union High School and Bakersfield Junior College.
At BC, Chain is credited with coming up with the nickname “Renegades” while on the football team. It was in school, too, where Chain developed his love for drama, participating in speech, debate and theater, skills he would use throughout his career in the courtroom.
Known as a showman, Chain was also hard-working and aggressive. Making little money after opening his shop in 1934, he worked 18-hour days, investigating his own cases with camera and subpoenas in hand. Car-less, he hitched rides with prosecuting attorneys on cases he was defending.
“If young lawyers today had to go through what I went through, I don’t think they would even enter the profession,” he told The Californian.
In 1938, Chain moved into the Sill Building, on 18th Street and Chester Avenue, where he would earn a reputation for taking on some of the highest-profile criminal cases in the area.
In Chain’s 1977 obituary, Californian columnist Eddie Griffith wrote that “this stemmed from his continued life-long interest in the ‘little guy’ and the problem of the downtrodden, generally.”
The firm’s attorneys, many of whom also were born or raised in Bakersfield, would follow Chain’s lead of community service, becoming active in local and statewide Democratic politics, labor and the arts. By the 1980s, the firm also began to diversify its ranks, hiring Latino, black and Asian attorneys and staff.
“The firm promoted diversity long before it was even discussed in the mainstream,” said Robert Tafoya, Kern County Superior Court judge and attorney at Chain, Younger, Cohn and Stiles in the 1990s. “They were visionaries in having a diverse workforce.”
Tafoya joined the firm even after opening his own practice, calling the Chain firm “a major player in the community.”
“I was a fly on the wall, watching and asking questions,” he said. “I learned a lot at the firm about serving the community.”
The firm’s reputation also attracted Gary Ingle, a retired Kern County Superior Court judge and attorney at the firm from the late 1970s to early 1980s.
“In my mind, the firm had the best reputation in town,” Ingle said. “They had flashy cases, but they were smart lawyers who made some good law.
“The attorneys at the firm have always advertised themselves as being the working man’s attorney. I think that’s truly the case.”
Founder’s name stays
At its largest stage, the Chain law firm had 18 attorneys and offered a multitude of legal services, including family law and criminal defense. Today, the firm focuses only on personal injury and workers’ compensation cases.
In 1990, it moved from its headquarters on Truxtun Avenue and M Street into the Bank of America building on Truxtun and Chester. The name was changed to Chain, Cohn, Stiles in 2009, and the practice now employs seven attorneys: David Cohn, managing partner, who has been with the firm 40 years; partner David Stiles, with the firm 37 years; partner James Yoro, with the firm 32 years; partner Matt Clark, who joined in 2006; and associates Marshall Frasher, Chad Boyles and Neil Gehlawat. Nicole Jaramillo will join Chain, Cohn, Stiles in 2015.
Through the years, it was important to keep the Chain name on the firm’s masthead as a symbol to local civic and community effort, Cohn said.
“The name takes us back to our roots. Morris Chain’s mission to stand up for the little guy is what founded this firm, and influences everything we do 80 years later, even those of us coming after him. It’s the guiding principal of everything we do.”
The firm’s new home will be a stark contrast to the way Chain first started his career, said local historian Gilbert Gia.
“When we look at the law firm today, we see a monolithic edifice, but the law firm started out in humble beginnings,” Gia said. “The firm today, inside of the walls, seems to be sticking to its roots.”
The Chain gang
Among the notable attorneys and legal professionals who have worked at the practice through the years are:
- Gary Ingle: Kern County Superior Court judge, practiced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
- Stephen Schuett: Kern County Superior Court judge, practiced at Chain in the 1980s.
- Louis P. Etcheverry: Kern County Superior Court judge, practiced in the 1980s.
- Robert Tafoya: Kern County Superior Court judge, practiced from 1995 to 2002.
- Milton Younger: Joined Chain full time in 1956, and remained at the firm for 53 years; now practices at Milton Younger Law.
- Timothy Lemucchi: Joined Chain in 1965, and remained at the firm for 30 years; now practices at Law Office of Timothy Lemucchi.
- Paul Busacca: Partner in the 1970s and 1980s, now deceased.
- Paul Welchans: Practiced at the Chain firm for 30 years, retired in 2012.
- Leonard Winters: Investigator who worked directly with Chain at the firm for more than three decades. He joined Chain after first helping him in 1946 in his unsuccessful campaign for Kern County District Attorney, reportedly one of the only investigators working for an attorney at the time; now deceased.
- The Noriegas: Al Noriega, now deceased, began as a law clerk working directly with Chain. His son, James Edward Noriega, would also go on to work at the firm. He now practices at Law Office of James E. Noriega.
- Daniel Rodriguez: Worked at the Chain law firm through the 1980s; now practices at Rodriguez & Associates.
- John Tello: Served at the Chain firm from the early 1980s until 2004; now practices at Rodriguez & Associates.
- Others: Rod Williams, Dustin Jameson, Todd Berry, Frank Butkiewicz, Scott Fontes, Stephen Klink, Indra Lahiri.
To learn more about Morris Chain, including the Bakersfield College “100 Stars Award” he received in 2014, click here.
- Bakersfield College
- University of Southern California, J.D., 1934
- Kern County Bench and Bar