Looking at what laws were intended to do. California firm helps lawyers interpret legislation correctly

``You say the law gives me a remedy -- I say it doesn't!'' That kind of interchange arises daily in courtrooms, says Tom Stallard, a young attorney here. ``There are cases every day in every state in the country where the question comes up, `What did the legislators mean by those particular words?' '' he says.

Mr. Stallard and his partner, Bill Keller, are hard at work giving their colleagues in the legal field better means of answering that question.

Their business, the Legislative Intent Service (LIS), consists of shelves upon carefully organized shelves of legislative background and reference materials; a small staff of fellow lawyers who spend most of their time burrowing through files in the State Capitol, some 20 miles distant in Sacramento; and, of course, Messrs. Keller and Stallard, who handle all contacts with prospective clients and sign off on the packages of documents and analyses that flow out of their Main Street law offices.

The service has been operating for 11 years now. As Stallard explains it, what started out as a sideline for a then-fledgling law firm has become a case of ``the tail wagging the dog.''

During one recent week, for instance, the firm handled 80 requests for research on legislative intent, with as many as 10 packages sent out in a day. Business has experienced ``an explosion,'' says Stallard.

The California legal code directs courts to consider the legislative intent in construing a statute -- if possible.

``We've made it possible,'' says the Woodland lawyer.

There's no doubt the LIS fills a niche, contends Terry Flanigan, the California State Bar's legislative counsel in Sacramento.

``I know there is a need because of calls we get from attorneys around the state,'' he says.

Sometimes, he adds with a chuckle, lawyers call from a phone booth outside the courtroom, frantically seeking information about the history of a bill the bar might have sponsored 30 or 40 years ago.

As far as he knows, Legislative Intent Service is the only firm in the state providing such information on a regular basis.

When it comes to background data that can throw light on what the framers of a law had in mind, adds Mr. Flanigan, ``all of us who work in the Legislature know how to find it.'' You head for the state archives or to the files of a particular committee, he explains. But those places and others like them, all open to the public, are foreign territory to people outside the capital. ``I understand that the Legislative Intent guys look all over for relevant materials,'' he comments.

That's exactly the case, says Stallard.

He and Keller had worked in the Legislature before forming their law firm, so they had a pretty good idea of the primary sources of materials on why and how a law was conceived -- legislative committee reports, the reports and comments of state commissions, and transcripts of hearings, for instance.

In recent years, however, ``we've discovered many sources we never knew of while [we were] there,'' says Stallard.

He mentions the records kept by the governor's legislative unit as one example. Files of press releases sent out by governors over the years is another.

And ``we specialize in keeping track of people,'' adds Stallard, particularly committee consultants and staff members who may have played a key role in shaping a law. He even visited the home of a former lawmaker on one occasion and plowed through boxes of old materials.

In addition to amassing materials relating to particular cases being argued by their clients, Stallard, Keller, and company also ``pre-gather'' documents in subject areas likely to come up in court.

Stallard points out a few titles on file boxes in one section of a well-packed storage room: ``mobile home law,'' ``subdivision map act,'' ``medical malpractice.''

The subject matter they deal with ranges from ``soup to nuts,'' he says. LIS was hired by the Howard Hughes estate to do research on California inheritance law, for example. The legal departments of the Disney organization and NBC have also used the service.

Its findings are increasingly welcomed in court, says Stallard. He and Keller have served as expert witnesses throughout the state, called in to throw light on the original meaning of a particular law.

Now that the ``California situation is pretty well in hand,'' as Stallard puts it, the partners are expanding their service into other states. They've already had clients in New York and Washington, D.C., and have occasionally traveled to other state capitals -- Richmond, Va., for example -- to do some ``on site'' research for clients there.

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