Nevadan at Work: With childhood pals, lawyer builds long-standing practice


For Gardner Jolley, a career in business seemed a natural fit.

Jolley's father, Rube Jolley, founded Nevada's first television station, CBS affiliate KLAS-TV, and helped build the Desert Inn and the Sahara. The younger Jolley figured he'd follow in his dad's footsteps as a business owner, or perhaps become a stockbroker.

But as Gardner Jolley wrapped up his junior year at the University of Utah, his new wife gave him a different idea: She knew Jolley liked the law, so she urged him to try for law school. Business management would still be waiting if he didn't enjoy being a lawyer, she said.

Enjoy it he did. After earning his law degree from Berkeley School of Law at the University of California, Jolley clerked for Justice David Zenoff of the Nevada Supreme Court. In 1974, he circled back and went into business ownership after all: He started a law firm with his childhood friend, William Urga. Another childhood pal, Bruce Woodbury, joined the firm shortly after.

Today, Jolley Urga Wirth Woodbury & Standish has 20 lawyers and a practice that includes bankruptcy, gaming, probate, real estate, construction and finance. Jolley focuses on cases involving banking, probate and trusts.

Question: How did you end up in business with your childhood friend?

Answer: Mr. Urga was working for Lionel Sawyer & Collins, and I was working for Weiner, Goldwater & Galatz (now Gordon & Silver). Back then, the firms were about the same size. One day, Mr. Urga talked to me about going out on our own, so we thought we'd try it. It worked out well. Mr. Woodbury, also a childhood friend, came in later. We've all been together ever since.

Question: Do you throw stuff at each other from back in the day, like, "Remember when I beat you in stickball?"

Answer: Childhood memories -- I could go on for hours. We used to play baseball together at John S. Park, and we all went to Las Vegas High School together. We had a "Leave It To Beaver" childhood. We didn't lock doors.

There were a lot of empty lots when we were little boys. One time, Urga and I were playing on one of those lots, just breaking pieces of wood and having a good time. A guy came up to us, looked at Urga and said, "I told you not to come out here and break stuff." So I've accused him for years of always getting me in trouble. He'll probably deny that story.

We played football on Mr. Woodbury's lot all the time, because his parents had a big front yard. I remember having to wake Mr. Woodbury up to go to church, and I remember that if you weren't Mormon, you had no one to play with, because the whole town was Mormon.

Question: Are your relationships with each other different than they were back then?

Answer: Yes. That's one reason we've been together for so long. Mr. Urga has a different outlook on a lot of things than I do, and we all work well together because we look at a case from different angles. So yes, we have three different personalities.

Question: Do you like the new Las Vegas?

Answer: If you ask the three of us, we like the old Vegas, because it was so friendly. You went into places and they didn't ask you for your ID. Today, you go to the bank to put in a check, and they want to see your debit card. You just lose that informality.

Question: What do you enjoy most about your work today?

Answer: It's nice to feel you've developed knowledge, and people call you because they rely on your knowledge. I get calls from attorneys asking for advice in areas I specialize in. It makes you feel it was worthwhile learning a specialty.

Question: What were some of your more memorable cases or experiences?

Answer: I represented a title company in an 11-day trial in 1991. The judge said before the trial started that I should settle because he thought I would lose. And I won. One of my strong points is that I have a very good memory -- they give me a hard time at work because I remember things they aren't sure happened.

I remember a lot of dates and facts without having to look them up in files. I spend a lot of time preparing, and I have an ability to review documents that other people think are tedious to review. I don't mind going through documents and cross-referencing. That's one of the reasons I've done well.

In the title company case, I brought in evidence the other side hadn't looked at, because they didn't think anything in there was that important. The judge gave me a hard time introducing the documents, but he referenced them when he gave his order. I saved the title company about $2 million in a real estate deal.

I was in another trial involving a bank case where an office manager for a doctor screwed up an office lease. Three people testified that a meeting occurred on Feb. 28, and the office manager, who thought she knew everything, insisted the meeting was on March 3.

I said, "Are you sure it was March 3?"

She said, "Yes, I'm sure."

I said, "Do you have trouble with dates?"

She snapped back, "I get plenty of dates!"

Question: What has been your biggest career accomplishment?

Answer: Building the firm to where it is now. Urga and I are very proud of what we started. Also, being involved with the Nevada State Bar. I've been on a lot of committees, and I was president of the bar. A lot of people are critical of attorneys. They don't see how much time we volunteer to do things that benefit the community in general. While I was president and on the board of governors, we set up education initiatives, and a foundation to benefit people who couldn't afford their own attorneys. It was nice to see how much time attorneys would spend on that. We appointed an ethics committee and a fee-dispute committee, and people served free of charge. We got lay people involved too, so it wasn't just attorneys deciding.

I was also always glad I clerked for the Nevada Supreme Court. It was a nice transition from law school. It gives you a lot of confidence to see the work of others, and to know you could do that quality of work or better.

Question: How unusual or strange do things get in probate or trust?

Answer: We see people fighting over cremation ashes. We see a lot of fights between stepchildren and the stepparent. They get along fine while the natural parent is alive, and then something seems to happen after death. In one case, a dad told his daughter she'd get his piano when he died. The dad remarried after his wife died, had too much to drink one night and told his new wife she'd get the piano. They did work out a deal where the daughter got it. Those are fairly typical kinds of issues.

Question: How has the nature of your work changed with the economy?

Answer: Banking work hasn't changed that much, but I used to do a lot more real estate work. Now, real estate has tanked. We have a bankruptcy department that increases when the economy is bad. Otherwise, our practice hasn't changed that much since the late '80s.

Question: What the heck happened to our real estate market?

Answer: We just overbuilt. And they built all these high-rise condos on the Strip, and didn't fill them up. Land prices were sky-high on the Strip where developers built condos. Then, when the housing market dropped, it affected businesses. There are so many commercial centers that remain empty. It's unbelievable to drive down the street and see a beautiful building with no one in it.

Question: Does the city's economic fall surprise you?

Answer: I've seen it before. Back in the 1970s, when we had the gas crunch, I represented some shopping-center landlords, and we watched as several small casinos went under because people weren't driving from California anymore. I'd say the late '70s were worse than today from the casinos' point of view. But this is the worst I've seen it from homeowners' point of view. It's really sad. We have a lot of homeowners going through foreclosure.

I think it'll come back. A lot of investors are coming into Las Vegas, buying up property because they know it's going to come back. The town will start growing again. But we have to diversify.

Question: Is there an end in sight?

Answer: Experts say they think it'll probably be about 2014. I would agree based on what I see in business at the firm.

Question: What do you see in your career's future?

Answer: Our firm is progressing well. The younger partners are coming along, and handling a lot of cases, so I think our firm is in a good position right now. We haven't tried to merge with larger firms. We've retained our independence, and we like that.

I intend on continuing to work, and I know Woodbury does, too. Urga is going to be the Sam Lionel of our firm (the Lionel Sawyer and Collins founder who's still active in the firm his 90s). I may start to cut back a little, and not try as many cases. The advantage of being an attorney is, you can work part-time.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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