Price, Postel & Parma LLP celebrated its 160th anniversary last week, another milestone for the venerable law firm — the oldest in California and the longest continually running business in Santa Barbara.
Down through the years, the firm’s partners — which have included two Santa Barbara mayors — have played an important role in shaping the history of Santa Barbara, and contributed to a number of landmark court cases that helped the city grow into the community it is today. Today, the firm’s 21 attorneys continue to practice a range of law specialties with clients not only in the Santa Barbara area but throughout California and the United States.
According to Tim Metzinger, a partner and the firm’s historian, firm founder Charles Fernald was drawn to the West Coast from New England in 1849 by the allure of gold. After about a year and a half of unsuccessful mining, Fernald finished his law studies in San Francisco and was sailing back to the East Coast when his ship stopped in Santa Barbara for a few hours to take on provisions.
Fernald went ashore to meet up with a law school classmate and found him in the midst of a heated discussion with county Judge Joaquin Carrillo and a few others over who would take over as the next sheriff. At some point, it was suggested that Fernald might be a good candidate for the job, and, soon after, Fernald became the sheriff — only hours after stepping off the ship.
As sheriff, Fernald had his work cut out for him. Two of the previous three sheriffs had been killed by outlaws and, at the time, 35 of the first 52 business licenses issued by the City of Santa Barbara were for saloons.
“The town was full of ruffians,” Metzinger said. “It was a typical sort of Wild West town and what they were looking for was someone who could tame it. That was Fernald’s job, which he did, apparently very successfully.”
Fernald went on to become district attorney, a county judge and eventually mayor of Santa Barbara. During this time, he founded the law firm that would become Price, Postel & Parma and began to build a reputation for expertise in land-use cases that remains a firm strength to this day, Metzinger said.
Metzinger said the firm has gone through distinct eras of specialization depending on the expertise and interests of the leading partners at the time.
Partner Jarrett Richards, who was famous for becoming mayor of Santa Barbara after beating the editor of the Santa Barbara Daily Press in a very public fist fight on State Street, defined a new era for the firm when he won a landmark victory in the “Railroad War” court case, which brought the railroad to Santa Barbara. Francis Price — who “had his finger in almost every pie in town,” according to Metzinger — steered the practice more in the direction of municipal law by winning crucial court cases for the Montecito Water District.
“(Land use) was the defining characteristic of our practice and what we did in those days,” Metzinger said. “When Richards came along, he was more of a champion of the little guy, of the taxpayer against our moneyed interests, and that, in a certain sense, set the tone of that era. Then when Price came along, that’s when we really became involved in municipal law and representing government entities.”
Metzinger said PPP’s attorneys have always had a reputation for being very involved in city affairs and municipal government and this has been reflected in the many Santa Barbara landmarks and traditions the firm’s partners have helped establish throughout the years. Price was one of the founders of the Old Spanish Days Fiesta and the Santa Barbara Foundation, and his efforts helped build the Santa Barbara Yacht Harbor and the Lake Cachuma reservoir.
This tradition of community involvement is still important in the firm, which is located at 200 E. Carrillo St., Suite 400. Metzinger said many of the attorneys are active in different aspects of city government, including serving on the boards of the Cottage Health System, Santa Barbara MTD and the Lobero Theatre.
“We’re all very interested in the local community,” he said. “All the partners and associates are active on various boards. An important part of what we do is allow firm members enough time so they can participate in local boards and local nonprofits. We encourage that strongly.”
Metzinger attributes the firm’s longevity to its attorneys’ focus on client service, which he said has always been their biggest priority.
“It has to be client service because that’s what makes any law firm successful,” he said. “If you put your clients first, clients come back to you. If you don’t do that, you are not going to survive as a law firm.”
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