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Originally published Sunday, June 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Attorneys in Sonics case described as tenacious, polite

Although colleagues describe Brad Keller, the lead attorney for Sonics owners, and Paul Lawrence, lead lawyer for the city of Seattle, as polite, they've gotten on each other's nerves at times during the grueling Sonics lawsuit.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Lawyers on both sides of the Sonics case have reputations as tenacious courtroom combatants.

Brad Keller, the lead attorney for Sonics owners, is no stranger to complex cases or unpopular clients. He's represented Big Tobacco in lawsuits by former smokers and the state of Washington. The firm he cofounded, Byrnes & Keller, is regarded as one of Seattle's best for trial work.

Paul Lawrence, lead lawyer for the city of Seattle, is a partner with K&L Gates. He's also a board member and former president of the ACLU of Washington who has mixed in civil-liberties cases with corporate work for Microsoft and others.

"It's a really special mix that we have going here," said Randy Aliment, a Seattle attorney not affiliated with either side in the case. "These lawyers are among the best Seattle has to offer, both in terms of their trial skills, in terms of their critical thinking, and also their professionalism."

Although colleagues describe both men as polite, they've gotten on each other's nerves at times during the grueling Sonics lawsuit.

"You know, you're being really obnoxious. Did you not get a good night's sleep?" Keller told Lawrence during the all-day deposition of Sonics owner Clay Bennett in April.

Lawrence retorted: "I got plenty of sleep."

Both men grew up in New York and went to school back East. Keller, 53, graduated magna cum laude from Brooklyn Law School in 1979. Lawrence, 50, graduated cum laude in 1983 from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Keller has represented tobacco companies in several lawsuits, including Washington's 1998 lawsuit — championed by then state Attorney General Christine Gregoire — which ended with a 47-state, $206 billion settlement.

Jon Ferguson, head of the complex litigation division for the state Attorney General's Office, represented the state in the tobacco case. He praised Keller as "courteous and well-prepared."

"He is not a shouter or a fist pounder. He just knows his case and presents it in a straightforward manner," said Ferguson, who also faced off against Keller as a private attorney in a lawsuit filed by the family of a dead smoker. (Ferguson said he lost that case.)

Seattle attorney Jenny Durkan said Keller is so convincing "he could eat nails for breakfast and tell you it was chiffon cake."

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Lawrence has dealt with the world of professional sports before — helping the Safeco Field Public Facilities District fend off several lawsuits challenging the stadium's funding.

Lawrence represented Pike Place Market in its successful effort in the 1990s to avoid a takeover by private financiers. In 1994, he represented the rock band Soundgarden in a successful challenge to the state's "erotic music" law, which restricted music sales to minors.

Like Keller, Lawrence is not known as a showboater in the courtroom.

"He's not a flashy sort of person by any means. He's rather understated and soft-spoken," said Mark Honeywell, a Seattle attorney who battled Lawrence in one complicated case. "He does not miss much. He makes for a tough opponent."

Besides Lawrence, the city's legal team for the trial includes Greg Narver, an assistant city attorney specializing in contract law, and Jeffrey Johnson, a partner at K&L Gates who has represented Microsoft and other corporations in trade-secret and other complex commercial cases.

At the Sonics table, Keller will be joined by Paul Taylor, a partner in Byrnes & Keller who also is a highly regarded trial lawyer, and Jim Webb, an attorney from Oklahoma City.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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