October 26, 2012
Benjamin Reznik: L.A. based lawyer who takes on Goliath
Among land-use attorneys working in Los Angeles, Benjamin Reznik is better known than most, perhaps because of his success at suing the City of Los Angeles. In 2009, the partner in the firm of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP told the Los Angeles Times he had probably sued the City of Los Angeles about five or six times a year.
Reznik, 61, leads a 15-lawyer team that focuses on government, land use, environment and energy cases, and he has represented major clients, many who have changed to the shape and skyline of the city. A little more than a decade ago, Reznik helped one developer get more than 3,000 apartments approved downtown.
So how did this powerhouse attorney come to be in Los Angeles’ City Hall on two successive days in June, arguing on behalf of a partially built Chabad synagogue in Sherman Oaks that will have a capacity of about 200 people, and will stand barely two-stories tall?
“I believe that these kinds of institutions belong in neighborhoods and they’re very difficult to get approved,” Reznik said, sitting in his corner office in Century City. Reznik describes himself as “not a good board-member type person,” so he said he instead chooses to support Jewish communities by offering to help them gain approval, occasionally dealing with neighborhood opposition, often working on a voluntary basis or for reduced rates.
He’s worked with a number of synagogues, including the one where he and his family are members, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He’s worked with other Chabad communities, and in Chabad of Sherman Oaks’ case, though the scores of religious Jews in the community who came to the two hearings certainly helped persuade the Los Angeles City Council to allow the project to go forward, Reznik’s simple testimony, which focused on what the law allowed, no doubt prepared the ground for the approval.
Reznik doesn’t consider himself an ideologue or a “rabid property rights advocate”; there are certain clients he won’t take on, and though he’s usually representing the interests of builders, he has argued on behalf of clients who oppose developments, as well. Reznik pointed out the windows at a neighboring vacant lot on Avenue of the Stars, where a developer is seeking permission to build more office space than the current city plan allows. The owners of every adjacent office building teamed to hire Reznik’s firm to oppose that effort.
“There’s a balance between community and development,” Reznik said.
So-called NIMBY activists — the acronym stands for “Not In My Back Yard” — regularly oppose the building of senior residential facilities, a stance that Reznik said was not in line with the needs of the whole community.
“I don’t think we have to house all our elderly on major boulevards,” Reznik said, “just because that way the neighborhood doesn’t have to see them.” Rather, Reznik said, there should be some consideration to having such facilities built in residential neighborhoods, which are, of course, the neighborhoods where those people grew up and lived.
“I think those are Jewish issues,” Reznik added.
Reznik began his own law practice in the San Fernando Valley by taking on the kinds of clients who couldn’t pay the rates that firms like JMBM charge, and he still sees himself as something of an upstart — even when representing developers who might appear to have tremendous resources and power at their disposal.
“Compared to the city, the developer is David and the city is Goliath,” Reznik said. “The city’s resources are endless.”
In September, Reznik was in the familiar position of arguing against a Los Angeles city attorney in court, this time at a hearing regarding a planned single-family project in the exclusive neighborhood of Benedict Canyon. Reznik’s client, a Saudi prince, has faced relentless opposition from a billionaire couple who once tried to buy the property, and September’s hearing was aimed at forcing the city to drop a technical objection holding up the project.
That, Reznik explained, “is why so many of my cases ended up in court — because that’s where my client can get a fair hearing with the politics removed.”
Reznik hasn’t met this particular client — he deals with an intermediary — but he’s fairly certain that, ironic though it might seem, the Saudi prince is aware that the lawyer representing him is not only Jewish, but an Israeli-born Jew who is fluent in Hebrew.
“I’m sure I was vetted,” said Reznik, who has Hebrew listed as his foreign language on his resume.
Born in Haifa in 1951, Reznik said his parents came to Israel from Poland after the Holocaust. His father, who survived by “hustling on the black-market routes in Russia” as a young teenager, selling coffee, tea and tobacco, worked as a truck driver in Israel.
But he was ambitious, and in December 1960, when Reznik was 9, the family moved to the United States. After a few years in Rochester, N.Y., they moved to Los Angeles in 1962. Reznik’s father bought an interest in a liquor store in South Central — Reznik worked there as a stock boy during summers and when he wasn’t in school — and managed to send his children to college and law school on the proceeds.
Reznik went to UCLA as an undergraduate — he met his wife, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, at the Hillel there — and then on to USC for law school. The Rezniks have, over the years, gotten involved in a number of political causes — they were active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry — and Janice went on to become the founding president of Jewish World Watch.
Not surprisingly, starting in 1975, when they helped recruit volunteers for Zev Yaroslavsky’s successful campaign for Los Angeles City Council, the Rezniks have also involved themselves in supporting candidates running for various offices. They recently held a fundraiser for Jackie Lacey, who is running for Los Angeles County district attorney.
And the Rezniks, who built up their practice in the Valley together, look like they’re about to have one more lawyer in the family; their youngest son just started law school.
Reznik, when he was just starting out, said he went into business for himself, in part because he enjoyed all different aspects of legal work, but also because he had a good deal of his father’s independent personality in him. So I asked if — in 2012, in today’s economy — a young lawyer, like his son, could set up shop on his own and have the kind of success Reznik has.
“Absolutely; clients are rate-sensitive,” Reznik said, thinking back to his own experience of taking on the clients who were priced out of bigger firms. “You just have to work, really, really hard.”