Aitken Takes the Stage – Wylie in the Irish Legal 100
November 17, 2014
On October 30th, Wylie flew out to Washington D.C. to receive the high honor of being a part of the Irish Legal 100, a list comprised of the most accomplished and distinguished lawyers of Irish descent in the nation. Below is the article written about Wylie’s foundations and beliefs and how his heritage helped form them.
‘AITKEN TAKES THE STAGE’ California attorney Wylie Aitken has a passion for justice, politics and the arts. He speaks to Debbie McGoldrick about how he’s managed to incorporate all three into a thriving career.
WYLIE Aitken, one of the most celebrated attorneys in California thanks to his numerous court victories on behalf of clients who have suffered great harm, always harbored dreams of entering the legal field.
What he really desired, he confesses, was fame as an actor. Aitken had a passion for the stage throughout his youth, and would have liked nothing better than to be a big star.
But making it big in Hollywood is no easy feat, he eventually realized. And it is not a stretch to say that some of the acting skills he acquired back in the day have served him quite well in his legal career.
“I thought I was going to be the next great Irish American actor,” Aitken recalled during an interview with the Irish Legal 100.
“I was in drama all through high school and college. But I saw my friends going off to attempt to make a living as actors and realized it wasn’t all that easy.”
So law school beckoned – he earned a JD from Marquette University in 1965 – and Aitken has never looked back. His personal injury firm in Orange County’s Santa Ana, Aitken * Aitken * Cohn, has earned a national reputation throughout the decades not only for achieving justice for its clients – some of his court victories have been record-setting – but also impacting change in the law.
“I appreciate what the legal system is able to accomplish,” says Aitken, whose maternal grandparents emigrated from Co. Cork in the 1850s. “As lawyers, we have the opportunity to represent the afflicted and I think we can also afflict the comfortable too, which is a great Irish tradition. Law is a natural place to do that.”
AITKEN’S firm, which he founded in 1978, specializes in an array of areas such as personal injury, truck and motorcycle accidents, wrongful death, medical malpractice and business litigation. His three children, Christopher, Darren and Ashleigh, are also members of the practice “And they’re married to three attorneys as well,” Aitken says.
Aitken’s cases are often catastrophic – children maimed, people killed in horrific accidents – but he has learned to keep the emotional aspects of the job in check.
“It’s very enriching to be able to take a disaster and see that at least those left behind are taken care of,” Aitken says.
“The most significant aspect is the stress of responsibility. What happens if we lose? You try as hard as you can. When you’re looking at someone who’s already suffered a serious tragedy, you don’t want to see them experience another tragedy.”
Aitken’s firm has accumulated several notable court victories, including a groundbreaking one which prompted changes in California law with regard to safety at amusement parks.
On Christmas Eve 1998, a huge piece of metal broke off the popular Columbia sailing ship ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, striking and killing a man and seriously injuring his wife as their five year old child looked on. Aitken represented the family and won a multi-million dollar settlement for them. California also tightened regulations at its many theme parks as a result of what happened to the family.
“The Disneyland people allowed the Columbia ride to deteriorate,” Aitken said.
“Following Walt Disney’s death, they were using the park more for profit and not having the same standards that Walt set up. This poor family’s life was turned upside down. The husband came all the way from Vietnam and worked for Microsoft in Seattle. It was devastating.
“And what really made a difference in that case is that there was no regulation whatsoever of private parks in California, and now there is as a special law passed after that case. That’s exactly what we tried to do and what we should be doing.”
Another case that Aitken considers a significant turning point in his career came in 1986, when a five-year-old girl was nearly mauled to death by a mountain lion in a wilderness park, suffering severe head injuries and paralysis as a result.
Aitken sued Orange County, claiming that officials were warned about the dangers of lurking mountain lions, and after a lengthy trial which received national media attention the case was settled in the young girl’s favor. The compensation helped her and her parents re-claim their lives, and she eventually put herself through college.
“The case was very challenging, putting it mildly,” Aitken recalls.
“But the work we did shows how important it is to be a trial lawyer, and why I run to work and enjoy what I do every day. It’s all about making a difference.”
AITKEN’S success as an attorney has allowed him to pursue a particular interest that he developed at an early age thanks to his family background – Democratic politics.
His father worked with Boeing and the family moved from Aitken’s birthplace, Detroit, Michigan to various cities for the job, eventually settling in California in 1955.
“My parents were very strong New Deal Democrats. They went through the Depression and they were just passionate Roosevelt Democrats,” Aitken recalled.
“That was our tradition, and I probably would have been excommunicated from the family if I hadn’t followed through.”
The ascension of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert sealed the deal for Aitken, who worked on Bobby’s presidential campaign. Aitken and his wife Bette were present on the dreadful night when Bobby was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968.
“Suddenly you could hear what sounded like pop guns and nobody quite knew what had happened at first,” Aitken remembers.
“I grabbed my wife … we were getting all kinds of contrary reports as to what really happened a few feet away in the kitchen. We got outside the room where everyone had assembled, and along comes the LA Police Department. They have Sirhan Sirhan in tow, but we didn’t know at the time why this young gentleman was taken through the hallway.”
The murder devastated the nation and Aitken was badly shaken by the turn of events, so much so that he stepped away from politics for several years. Bobby Kennedy had it all, he felt, and the sense of loss was overwhelming.
“He was so incredibly spiritual in a very tough way. You could not spend any time around him without getting the feeling of how clearly this person was influenced by helping people who didn’t have all the advantages he had in his lifetime,” Aitken says.
“You got the sense that this was a person who so truly and deeply cared. I thought he was the whole package. He had the charm and humor of his brother and the deepness of his commitment, and to see it all go up, and to be there about 15 feet within the podium … it was just so disheartening, so depressing.”
Aitken’s return to politics came during the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and he has stayed active ever since as a top fundraiser for both local and national candidates. Hillary Clinton, he believes, will definitely run for the White House in 2016, but he cautions against the air of inevitability surrounding her candidacy.
“I’ve met her and I’ve met Bill. I’m not, quote unquote, a Clinton insider, but those I know who are perceived as insiders seem pretty convinced that she’s going to be running,” Aitken says.
“I would support her candidacy, but I always want to know who else is running. It would be interesting to see if someone dramatically enters the race. As a very good friend of Senator Dianne Feinstein, we both definitely want that glass ceiling for women to be shattered once and for all.”
A particular point of pride for Aitken, given his life-long love of theater, is his chairmanship of the California Arts Council. He was first appointed to the post by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in March of 2010, and re-appointed the following year by Governor Jerry Brown. The council seeks to advance California’s interests through the arts and creativity, which Aitken considers vitally important.
“I love all the arts given what they can do for people, especially young people,” he says.
“The entertainment value is terrific for sure, but in reality the arts can help kids in so many ways while they are in school. The biggest faux pas in California was when we let the arts go out of the public school system. It’s probably the worst public policy decision we’ve ever made.
“Now we are trying to turn that around and get the arts back in schools again. This will help with drop-out rates and help to improve grades, which has been shown time and again.”
A few years ago, Aitken and his wife Bette (“absolutely the smartest person I know, and she’s not a lawyer,” Aitken laughed), made a substantial donation back to Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law in Orange County to establish the Bette and Wylie Aitken Family Violence Clinic, which offers assistance to survivors of domestic violence.
“It’s a particular passion my wife and I have,” Aitken says. “It’s important not only to help wives and mothers break the cycle of violence, but also the children who are scarred from it. We want to be a substantial part of helping to take care of them and give them an opportunity to succeed.”
IRELAND, Aitken believes, is not just a place, but a dream.
“Our cleverness, our sense of humor, is unsurpassed. It’s what helps us succeed in life,” he says.
Aitken has traveled to Ireland on several occasions. His first trip taught him exactly why Ireland has so many shades of green.
“It was raining all the time,” he recalls with a laugh. “But so beautiful.”
Orange County has a thriving Celtic Bar Association, thanks to Aitken’s foresight. He was acquainted with a number of Irish bar associations throughout the country and found them valuable networks from a business and personal standpoint.
“I thought we needed to duplicate that in Orange County, which is actually the seventh largest metropolitan community in America,” he says.
The Celtic Bar Association came into being in 2000, and Aitken’s son, Darren, was among those suggesting that it should be broadened to include all the Celtic nations. The group meets once a month in an Irish pub and Aitken says it has been a great success.
“There are a lot of Irish lawyers out here, and I think I’ve met most all of them all,” he says. “We’re a very active group, and we’ve brought something really unique to the Orange County legal community.”
Ireland, unlike England, maintains a jury system for civil cases, which Aitken applauds as being a much fairer way of administering justice. But unlike the U.S., Irish lawyers, or barristers, do not have the opportunity to question potential jurors for possible conflicts or biases.
“I was watching a trial in the Four Courts in Dublin once, and I asked the barrister why he didn’t get a chance to question the jurors on whether or not they worked for insurance companies, claims adjustors or other things like that,” Aitken recalled.
“And the barrister told me it’s not in their system to do that. ‘I’ll put it to you this way,’ he said. ‘I’ve won some cases I never should have won, and lost some that I should have won, so it all works out in the end.’ So I took that message back to California with me.
“Working out in the end is no consolation for an injured party. Thankfully, the U.S. system of justice helps prevent such injustices.”
Wylie Aitken, whether being referenced as an activist, philanthropist, or advocate, certainly has the track record to prove he fights for those suffering harm – with juries usually in anonymous agreement.