Don Bartell: My Friend, My Law Partner – A True Legend

“What do we get to do today? We get to practice law!”

These were the words I often heard. Don would walk down the hall of our Canyon Crest office, stop at my open door, and remind me how lucky we were to be lawyers.

I was lucky to work with Don Bartell. When I started at the firm in 2010, it was like going to criminal defense attorney bootcamp. Soon after I was hired as the firm’s first associate attorney, he established “Thursday lunches.” Don Bartell and Don Hensel (whom we affectionately call “Vito”) took turns giving me a topic to study. Don provided the criminal defense or constitutional law topics and Vito gave me family law or evidence subjects to research. We ordered lunch, I told them what I learned, and got peppered with questions. This undoubtedly prepared me for my later chosen focus of appellate advocacy.

Don Bartell was unlike anyone else. He didn’t concern himself too much with things most of us do, like eating at normal times, or getting eight hours of sleep every night. Indeed, he sometimes worked in the office until 2 or 3 am. Don was endlessly searching for another cutting-edge approach. He would say, “There’s something wrong with the DA’s argument, I just haven’t quite figured it out yet.” He never stopped thinking. Then he would call me, or come into my office and say, “Ace! When does luck come?” (His nickname for me was Ace.) Familiar with all of Don’s favorite sayings, I responded, “At 3 am in the law library.” He would then explain his theory and dispatch me to further research the issue.

I eventually started to come up with these cutting-edge theories on my own. When I did, it was like I was channeling my friend and mentor, Don Bartell. When I proposed the theory to him, he would immediately argue against it. It was his knee-jerk reaction. But after I showed Don the law, he beamed with pride at my ability to do what he loved – create arguments no one has ever heard. When the prosecution was about to get served with our brief, Don would say, “They’re about to meet the lawyers from La Mart Drive (where our office is located).”

A couple of years after I began at the firm, I told Don I wanted to get into appeals. He was excited about the prospect and we immediately took on appellate cases. Don was always up for something new, and we shared a passion for writing. He asked me to write a chapter on appeals for his book, Attacking and Defending Drunk Driving Tests, which I did. I also drafted “writing tips” to include in the book at Don’s request. He had the best ideas. Our associate attorney, Mike Donaldson, called us “The Writing Team.” We were better together because we each had different ideas, and Don came up with the most interesting verbs. In our last brief we will ever write together – two weeks before his passing – that verb was “outflanked.” He never disappointed.

Don and I were supposed to lecture together on November 9, 2022. We had a legal writing webinar scheduled for the members of California DUI Lawyers Association. Don would not want me to cancel, so I won’t. Mike and I will do the honors. But Don’s presence, his enthusiasm for writing, and his ability to brilliantly relate the material is irreplaceable.

Don and I didn’t always agree. When I first told him of my plans to run for District Attorney, he tried to talk me out of it. He told me there was no one better for the job, but feared I would not be successful given the odds. But when he saw my determination, he got right alongside me. Don was proud of me for speaking out and fighting for what I believe in. There were many decisions I had to make along the way, including whether I was going to change in order to get contributions and votes. Don believed I wouldn’t, and he was right. Don was fiercely ethical and did everything with integrity. He was my example.

I have so many memories of Don, our visits to the United States Supreme Court, flights in his plane to courts across California (he was a pilot), and our extravagant office Christmas parties, which were all about the children. Don didn’t have any of his own, but he treated the children of those closest to him like family because they were. We were Don’s family and he was ours.

The witty banter, the jokes, and the laughs were prevalent in our firm, but when it came time for trial, Don meant business. Don taught me everything he knew about trial preparation, jury selection, cross-examination, and brief writing. Every case was handled as a team. That team approach was Don’s pitch to every prospective client and he never let them down. He led us to victory in many cases because he had the uncanny ability to see what needed to be done to win. He got along with prosecutors, won the respect of judges, and stole the hearts of jurors. Don was never aggressive unless he needed to be. And if he got yelled at by a judge, he was unfazed and told me, “We don’t work for the judge. We work for our client.”

Don taught me that as criminal defense attorneys, we are the only Sixth Amendment lawyers in the courthouse. He understood the privilege of advocating for those who have no voice. Don recognized that we are all human beings who have made a thousand mistakes. His compassion was great. Don’s heart was even bigger than his brain.

Don was famous. Walking into a courtroom with him was like accompanying a rockstar onto the stage. As one of the most sought-after DUI defense attorneys in the state, Don handled high profile cases, lectured lawyers around the country, and worked with me on the most impactful of matters in the California Supreme Court and in the United States Supreme Court. His book helps countless lawyers defend seemingly impossible cases.

Don was also my best friend. We talked constantly. More often than not he began the conversation with, “If you’ve run out of problems …” and then he would tell me about a new challenge we faced or some other issue. I usually cut him off by saying, “Don, I will never run out of problems.”

My problem now seems insurmountable. I have to go on without my beloved friend, my son’s uncle, my mentor, my law partner, my big brother. He was my teacher and my  protector. No one messed with me because they would have to deal with Don Bartell. He made me laugh, and he also drove me nuts. But working with Don was an absolute joy. He was always there for me, and for anyone in the legal community who needed advice. He gave so much. Don Bartell will never be forgotten. And he will always be missed, especially by me.

Donald Joseph Bartell passed away of natural causes on October 2, 2022. He is survived by his two sisters, his nephews, and his law firm family. Don deeply impacted the lives of countless people. A memorial service is being held from 2-5pm on November 5, 2022 at the Commemorative Air Force Hangar “S” at the Riverside Municipal Airport.

About the Author

Lara J. Gressley

Lara Gressley

Lara Gressley has been an attorney for over two decades. She focuses her practice on criminal defense, DUI defense, and writs and appeals in state and federal court, and has worked on cases before the United States Supreme Court. Lara also lectures lawyers across California on various criminal defense topics.

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