November 2019 Cover Story - Neil Pedersen: Doing Some Justice One Fish Shirt at a Time

by Teresa A. McQueen

Throughout his career, Neil Pedersen has been many things to many people: colleague, mentor, partner, volunteer, and friend. Taking on various roles in the legal community like a true Bar junkie, Neil has given of himself and his firm in a tireless effort “to do some justice” and give back to the legal profession. Neil’s strong need to live his faith and serve others with love and humility has been the touchstone of his legal career, including his ongoing commitment to volunteer service throughout the legal community.

The Harmon G. Scoville award recognizes members of the Orange County legal community whose careers exemplify the highest standards of the legal profession through service to the Orange County Bar Association and championing our constitutional system of justice. Neil’s career and volunteer efforts more than measure up.

A Career Begins

Married young with a growing family (Neil’s first son was born when he was just nineteen years old), Neil followed his father Peter “Pete” Pedersen into the grocery industry (Pete started with Alpha Beta markets in 1955 and retired in 1980 as its Senior VP of Manpower and Human Development). Working at a neighborhood Alpha Beta market, Neil diligently attended various community colleges at night earning credits toward an undergraduate degree.

High school and college debate classes and competitions sparked Neil’s imagination and fueled his dream of one day becoming an attorney. During his eleven years with Alpha Beta, law school remained a “down-the-road” dream for Neil. That is, until, in true Neil fashion, he volunteered to drop off a friend’s law school application at Western State College of Law. During a friendly conversation with the admissions clerk, Neil discovered Western State offered a special student status that would allow him to earn his JD while applying credits toward completion of his undergraduate education. This pivotal event started Neil down a road toward the career of his dreams.

Entering Western State College of Law in 1984, Neil thrived. Leaving Alpha Beta behind him, Neil concentrated on his studies and getting as much quality legal experience as his schedule would allow. Neil took a semester off to work as a full-time extern for Justice Edward Wallin at the court of appeal. He later graduated co-Valedictorian and Editor-in-Chief of Law Review. After graduation, Neil accepted a position with the Ford Law Firm. Right away, he was part of the trial team on the Waller v. Truck Ins. Exchange case, a fourteen-week jury trial in Orange County Superior Court that resulted in a $62 million-dollar verdict. Not bad for a first-year attorney.

A constant in Neil’s life, a source of inspiration and strength, his father Pete attended every one of Neil’s trials and major court appearances until his death in 2016.

A Career of Service and Dedication

On the heels of this early victory, Neil continued his litigation practice at the Ford Law Firm, which later became Ford & Pedersen. After leaving Ford & Pedersen and trying his hand for several years as a solo practitioner and General Counsel for QuantumLink Corporation, Neil eventually re-entered solo practice. To this day, Neil is a dedicated small-firm practitioner.

Three common threads throughout Neil’s many years of practice are his steadfast adherence to his beliefs, his love of family (wife of thirty-four years Janelle, three adult children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren), and his commitment to serving others.

Neil first joined the Orange County Bar Association in 1989 and, shortly thereafter, began a legacy of service now in its thirtieth year. As with most Scoville Award recipients, to recount Neil’s many volunteer service contributions and career highlights would require double this space, multiple endnotes, and a few citations. If I did have the space, I would include various leadership roles for the OCBA in both the Insurance and Solo Small Firm Sections, the State Bar in the Law Practice Management and Technology Section, numerous presentations and volunteer hours as a mandatory fee arbitrator, and years as a Mentorship Program mentor. But, more important than the details is the lasting impression made by Neil’s consistent leadership, wisdom, and mentorship efforts. As a Professor of Law at Western State, Neil has mentored numerous law students and young lawyers. In fact, upwards of forty young lawyers over the past ten years have availed themselves of Neil’s “sandwich-and-a-soda” offer. For the price of a sandwich and soda, Neil listens, encourages, refers, and inspires.

Mentee and former student Karmia Gulick tells of Neil’s generosity in donating “his time, expertise and money to educate the next generation of attorneys.” And how “[h]e always leads by example.”

Longtime friends and colleagues Pamela Davidson, Roy Comer, and Carolyn Dillinger all attest to Neil’s contributions to furthering our system of justice through service to seasoned practitioners and young lawyers alike. “Neil’s Law Practice Management course at Western State and his involvement with the OCBA’s Bridging the Gap program have provided an exceptional foundation for literally hundreds of future lawyers,” says Davidson.

Praising Neil for his dedication “to the continued education of both law students and practicing attorneys,” Comer credits Neil with showing “faithful leadership, uncommon humility, and unfailing generosity with his time and his talent.” According to Dillinger, Neil “continually practices what he preaches.” Weaving “ethics into the fabric of the processes and procedures of his law firm,” she says Neil “continues to refine his craft and teaches our law students that lawyer competence is an ongoing journey.”

Feeling “blessed with wonderful opportunities and educational experiences in his life,” Neil shares that he “experiences joy at the development and advancement of others in their career path.” In Neil’s world, money and wealth are not the most important things. In fact, according to Neil, “those are not even in the top five of my most important things in life.” Being somewhat apolitical and at times feeling as if he has very little influence over things on a national level, Neil’s goal “is to be a positive influence over my little part of this world—my family, friends, clients, employees, my profession, and my students.” Believing that if “everyone focused on the same, this world would be a much better place.”

A Career of Fish Shirts and Doing Some Justice

Hang around Neil for even the shortest period and you quickly learn a few very important things about him: First is his willingness to say “yes.” Whether it is chairing a committee, speaking at a Section meeting, Bridging The Gap, or the College of Trial Advocacy, Neil is always ready to step in and lend his expertise.

Second, he has a penchant for fish print shirts; vivid colored shirts festooned with fish of all types. I can honestly say that, for the first six months of working at Neil’s firm, I never saw him wear any other type of shirt (except to court, of course!) and never the same one twice. I remember vividly the first time he wore a golf shirt to the office (nearly nine years into our association); grey, no fish. I was so taken aback I followed him into his office insisting he tell me what terminal illness he had contracted. And yes, he does give thought to the subliminal messages he sends when he wears them.

And finally, there is Neil’s commitment to his clients. Focusing on plaintiffs’-side employment law litigation, Neil’s ultimate professional goal is to be a trusted advocate who puts the well-being of his clients ahead of all other interests. Keeping this ideal at the forefront of his practice, Neil began (I can’t even remember when it started) ending our weekly firm calendar meetings with a heartfelt, “Let’s go do some justice!” This mantra has been passed along to countless interns, externs, law clerks, associates, and partners, repeatedly reminding us all to be champions not only for our clients but for the system of justice that serves us all.

Having known and worked with Neil for several years, I can say from my own experience, his dedication and commitment to giving back to the legal community and “doing some justice” for the clients and our system of justice is truly inspiring. I know that, for many years to come, Neil—wearing one of his many fish print shirts—will continue to inspire future generations of legal advocates to go forth and “do some justice.”

Teresa A. McQueen is the Founder and Principal Attorney at SAFFIRE LEGAL, PC., and 2019 recipient of the Harmon G. Scoville Award. A former named partner at the litigation firm of Pedersen McQueen, APLC, she is proud to call Neil and Janelle Pedersen mentors and forever friends. She can be reached at tmcqueen@saffirelegal.com .