Victor A. Bertolani, an influential lawyer and educator who opened doors to the legal profession for many judges, prosecutors and litigators, died April 5 of an aortic abdominal aneurysm, his family said. He was 80.
Mr. Bertolani was widely respected in the legal community as one of the top personal injury and labor lawyers in Northern California. He also was revered for making the study and practice of law affordable to students from all walks of life as co-founder of Lincoln Law School in Sacramento.
After graduating first in his class at Santa Clara University Law School, he returned to his native Sacramento in 1961 and later started a firm with boyhood friend Andrew J. Smolich. He also began teaching torts at McGeorge School of Law, which was then a part-time program with ambitions of being a full-time institution accredited by the American Bar Association.
Unwilling to teach full time, Mr. Bertolani and Smolich persuaded Lincoln Law School of San Francisco to open a branch in Sacramento. The pair sought qualified applicants who did not fit the traditional mold of law school students, including adults working full time, raising families or seeking second careers.
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Serving as dean and teaching torts, Mr. Bertolani and two other professors welcomed the first class of 27 students in 1969.
“He was really the instigator” in starting Lincoln Law School in Sacramento, Smolich said. “When McGeorge went to ABA accreditation, it went in a different direction and had to have bigger buildings, libraries and staff and became very expensive. Our school was really dedicated to serving people who didn’t have that opportunity.”
Mr. Bertolani, who served as dean and torts professor until 1986, led efforts to win full accreditation by the California State Bar for Lincoln Law School in 1981. He was a driving force in building the four-year, evening-class school into a respected institution with high pass rates on the California Bar Exam.
The school has awarded degrees to more than 1,200 students, including prominent professionals throughout the Sacramento region. Graduates include Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl, former Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.
Rob Gold, who graduated from Lincoln Law School in 1986, credited Mr. Bertolani with “everything that I have accomplished.” A veteran Sacramento County prosecutor, Gold was promoted to assistant chief deputy DA earlier this year. But before meeting the Lincoln Law School dean in 1982, he was seeking direction in life.
“I was recently married and working part-time as a sportswriter for the Sacramento Union and playing Frisbee golf,” Gold said. “My wife said, ‘Hey, did you know there is this law school by the Safeway?’
“I’d done terrible on the (Law School Admissions Test), but Victor said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance,’ ” Gold recalled. “He was my first-year torts professor. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile – but he also had high standards and high expectations. He was giving you an opportunity, and he wanted you to take advantage of it and succeed.”
Mr. Bertolani was born in 1934. His parents, Mary and Victor Bertolani, ran a travel agency and were leaders in Sacramento’s Italian American community. He graduated from Christian Brothers High School in 1952 and earned bachelor’s and law degrees from Santa Clara University. He rose to the rank of captain while serving on active and reserve duty in the Army from 1959 to 1964.
A prominent attorney for more than four decades, he represented clients in medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits, including families of victims of the notorious 1972 plane crash into a Farrell’s ice cream parlor near Sacramento Executive Airport. He served as chief counsel for powerful labor unions, including Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 447 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 340
He was married since 1957 to the former Cathy Schuler and had four children. He previously served as a Jesuit High School trustee and a member of the Santa Clara Board of Athletics Control. He was an intellectual man “who read all kinds of history books” and “an avid sports fan who loved the (San Francisco) Giants,” his son Victor said.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Bertolani is survived by three daughters, Elizabeth O’Brien, Kathleen Haack and Mary Liston; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 1:30 p.m. next Saturday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1338 58th St., Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to St. Mary’s Parish in Sacramento, Jesuit High School or the Victor A. Bertolani Scholarship Fund at Lincoln Law School.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.
Note: This story was changed online to include the last name of Mr. Bertolani’s daughter Kathleen Haack.