Celebrating 50 years of practice this year, Jeffrey S. Portnoy, a partner of Cades Schutte’s Litigation Group, has known the century-old firm for half of its history, a feat that only a handful of other currently practicing attorneys have. He has served many roles at the firm, including serving on its Management Committee and as Chair of the Litigation Department.
Despite spending his entire legal career in Hawai‘i, he was not born or raised here. He was originally from the East Coast (New York) and is a graduate of Duke University School of Law in North Carolina. During his first year at Duke, he was in the law library with a friend discussing fun places to clerk for the summer, and they settled on Hawai‘i. At the time he knew nothing about Hawai‘i beyond what he had seen on Hawaii Five-0.
They turned to Martindale Hubbell, the directory which listed all of the law firms in the U.S. and found four law firms that had six or more lawyers. Jeff and his friend arbitrarily split the four firms up and each wrote a letter to two firms, one of Jeff’s was Smith, Wilde, Beebe & Cades (now Cades Schutte). The letter expressed Jeff’s interest in becoming a first-year law clerk, however, he received a reply soon after thanking him for his interest but explaining that the firm did not hire first-year law students.
Jeff had thought this was the end of his endeavor to go to Hawai‘i until two years later. He was exploring options post-graduation: he was being considered for several federal court clerkships in North Carolina, he had job offers in public defender and legal aid offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Augusta, Georgia, and he was working on a presidential campaign for the former Governor of North Carolina Terry Sanford. When he went home to Long Island, New York for the holidays, his father gave him a letter he received from the firm asking if he was still interested.
“This is a joke,” Jeff says he originally thought and threw the letter in the garbage, but his father convinced him to reconsider and at least write back to be polite. Jeff replied to the letter saying he was still interested, and then came home to North Carolina to find a job offer in the mail.
It was a complete shock to Jeff because the firm didn’t have anything from him other than a first-year resume. He asked his classmates who had taken trips paid for by big law firms (which Jeff had not done since he was only applying to public defenders and legal aid clinics), who told him he should try to get a free trip to Hawai‘i.
Jeff called Bill Swope, who was the hiring partner at the time, and started to explain that he was Jeff Portnoy from Duke and had received the firm’s offer letter. Bill immediately stopped Jeff and said, “Mr. Portnoy, if you’re looking for a free trip, we aren’t giving any.” He then explained why Jeff received the offer. The firm did its standard recruiting at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and other “prestigious” law schools. They invited certain applicants to Hawai‘i, but none accepted a job offer. They discussed next whether they should go through a second list or look at the resumes they’ve received in the past. They decided to do the latter, and offered Jeff a job.
Jeff explained that he didn’t know anything about Hawai‘i but Bill told him he could have a week to decide. He started considering the position more seriously, talking to Terry Sanford (the North Carolina primary was coming up in May), who told him he would be crazy not to take the position, and that if he did end up getting the nomination he would fly Jeff back to work on his presidential campaign (Sanford lost the North Carolina primary).
Jeff was still waiting for responses from the clerkships, but he needed to make a decision, so he accepted the offer (knowing he would decline if he got a clerkship). In the end, he did get two federal district clerkships, but they would not start until the following January, and Jeff did not want to wait that long (“bar trips” after law school were not as common back then) so he declined the clerkships and came out to Hawai‘i.
When Jeff arrived, he was not what the firm thought he was from his first-year resume, and he had little in common with the other lawyers at the firm. His second and third years at Duke were a time of significant political and social changes, and Jeff came to a Cades firm that was quite conservative and represented established clients like banks, insurance companies, and big corporations. Nevertheless, many of the older attorneys took him under their wing including Bill Fleming, Russell Cades, and Fred Schutte.
One example: there was a mandatory department rotation at the time: each lawyer was required to spend time in each of the four departments before the firm decided the attorney’s practice (Litigation, Real Estate, Tax, and Probate). He was initially assigned to the Real Estate Department, it was not a good fit. “Reading loan documents, I’d rather put my finger on the stove” he says. He always knew he wanted to be a litigator.
Over the decades, the firm has gone through a very positive transformation. Bernice Littman, the firm’s first woman attorney, had joined a few months before Jeff. They were followed by additional like-minded and diverse associates leading to improved compensation, family leave, partnership admission, and a recognition of the firm’s responsibility to better reflect the community in which it practiced. “The firm changed and became an interesting, fun place to work,” Jeff says.
When asked if there are any specific cases during his 50-year career that he would highlight, he says that it is difficult to go back and chose from the hundreds and hundreds of matters he has worked on. He has argued many cases in the Hawai‘i Supreme Court and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Most important to the public are his media cases including defamation, privacy, and public access to the courts and government meetings and records, but also significant decisions in other areas including insurance, personal injury, professional liability, commercial disputes.
Outside of the office, Jeff was President of the Board of Directors for Manoa Valley Theatre (MVT) for over 25 years. During this time, the theater progressed from a broken down early turn of the 20th-century old wooden church to a $1 million state of the art modern black box theater that entertains several thousand people every year by presenting Broadway and off-Broadway plays and musicals. MVT has provided an opportunity for hundreds of local actors, designers, directors, and technicians to pursue their passion or advocation, several of whom have gone on to professional theater in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Broadway.
For 27 years, Jeff was also the radio color commentator for the University of Hawai‘i Men’s Basketball team. He broadcast literally hundreds of basketball games, as well as hosted a weekly basketball college show, a post-game show, and a coaches show, and he continues to do a once-a-week radio show on college basketball.
As the longest-tenured partner at Cades Schutte, Jeff has certainly had an illustrious career. Although those first few years were challenging both for the firm and him, he says he never regretted coming to Hawai‘i and practicing at Cades Schutte. “I’m the longest active partner,” he chuckles, “and it probably will never happen again. Nobody’s gonna work 50 years, let alone at one place.”