Potter Law Offices fights for the rights of the less fortunate.
Anyone who’s paid attention to local crime stories is familiar with the name Cal Potter. This summer, for example, the downtown defense lawyer was instrumental in a use-of-force body camera case. This federal civil-rights lawsuit resulted in Metro police having to settle for $200,000. The officer involved was dismissed.
However, Potter, who founded Potter Law Offices in 1978, insists he has nothing but respect and admiration for the men (and women) in brown who protect our Las Vegas streets.
“I look at the work we do as addressing police malpractice,” he says during a recent interview. “Young officers, or officers who lack training, sometimes make mistakes. We approach each case looking for a logical reason that something happened. For example, when I first arrived in town, officers weren’t trained on how to de-escalate. Today, that’s changed. Now officers are focused on defusing tense situations.”
That’s not all that’s changed. In the nearly four decades since setting up shop downtown, Potter has watched the city and its legal community grow dramatically. What was once a small city blossomed into major metropolitan area, and the legal community has, in tandem, evolved.
“It used to be Las Vegas attorneys all studied out of state,” says Potter, who earned his degree from the University of Arizona. “We had the usual melting pot of lawyers from all over the country. Now many new lawyers are from the UNLV law school, and the professors there are deeply involved with the legal community. They bring lawyers we wouldn’t otherwise have from outside the state to teach up-and-coming professionals and to provide experience.”
Potter’s own experience has centered on Las Vegas’ urban core. He has always practiced downtown and is currently installed in the historic Union Pacific Railroad building next to UMC. He seems wistful, though, when reminiscing about his first office, which was located next to Howard Wasden Elementary.
“At one time our office had a horse,” he says, smiling. “Hank the horse belonged to the owners of the house our office was in, and would occasionally wander over to the school. My son would lead him back when the bell rang.”
Animal farm aside, why law and why Sin City? Potter says he’d always wanted a job helping people. He was seeking a change of pace after working in Tucson as a public defender when his peers advised him that law was booming in two cities in the ’70s: Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Potter had never been back East, but had family in Nevada. It was a decision he’s never regretted, especially as it put him in close contact with salt-of-the-earth, working-class people.
“My dad was an electrician, so I learned firsthand how important that work is, in addition to having worked on construction sites myself during summers, all the way through law school.”
Potter remains a champion of members of labor unions, which continue to support the integrity and safety of thousands of Las Vegas workers.
“What we’ve seen, particularly with economic problems in the community, is that while unions aren’t as strong from a numbers standpoint, they’re crucial from a quality-of-life standpoint.”
The ironworkers have been among Potter’s major clients over the years. He insists you can see the importance of their work in the dozens of resorts lining Las Vegas Boulevard.
But Potter has fought for more than workers’ rights. A descriptive phrase you’re likely to see affixed to his name is “civil rights attorney.”
“Really what’s unique about Las Vegas is the silent, de-facto segregation that existed here well into the ’70s in what we now call affectionately the Westside,” he says.
Potter quickly learned about different communities of African-Americans from the South who had left to find work. It was while defending African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) minister Alfred Dunn, whom the U.S. government had convicted of counterfeiting, that Potter met many religious leaders from the African-American community, including Coretta Scott King, who testified during the trial.
“I took over Dunn’s case at the request of Sen. Harry Reid,” says Potter. “I learned about the work that needed to be done—that still needs to be done—in African-American communities. As a result, I established a lifetime friendship with the NAACP, including the organization’s local chapter president Jesse Scott, who was also a minister.”
Today, race is a national discussion, in large part due to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think [BLM] is really important because there’s a misunderstanding and a reaction by many people as to what that movement calls into question. What we’ve seen here in Las Vegas, especially in the last few years prior to the de-escalation, were cases like Trevon Cole and Stanley Gibson.”
Cole and Gibson were unarmed African-Americans killed by the Metro police department. Potter attended the inquests for these two cases as well as hundreds of others. He says he recently attended an inquest regarding a Hispanic shooting, and all you could see were white faces—judges, attorneys and police officers.
Potter tries to give back to the community. He admits the PR battle for Las Vegas legal professionals is a challenge, given the glut of cheesy, ambulance-chasing radio and TV commercials.
“Lawyers have conducted severe advertising here,” he says. “People look at criminal-defense and personal-injury attorneys as just out to make a buck.”
Pushing against that stereotype, Potter Law Offices goes out of its way to be involved in homeless and prison issues, trying to help those who nobody else will help. Potter also does pro bono work, including a recent case representing someone being bullied in her downtown community for having too many cats.
“It’s about trying to even the playing field. With the prison litigation we’ve done pro bono, I think it’s especially critical. The law doesn’t serve everyone equally. It’s predicated on the haves and have-nots. So when we have the opportunity, we do what we can to help others.”
Potter is especially proud of his son C.J., who earned his degree from UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, for his ongoing commitment to the Pro Bono Project, which brings together private attorneys to provide legal assistance to people dealing with a range of issues (bankruptcy, domestic violence, child abuse) and who can’t afford a lawyer.
C.J. says the firm’s pro bono work gives his clients—and himself—hope.
“Anytime you get to know people and have a chance to help them, it affects you positively. Providing an opportunity to those who may not have it addresses what my father calls the golden rule: Those with the gold rule. It’s about correcting injustice. Another thing I’ve learned from him: If you’re not the smartest person in the room, be the most prepared.”
So what kind of legacy does the elder Potter hope his firm will inscribe in the Las Vegas history books?
“Realistically they’ll probably say, ‘Who was that person?’ We’re just trying to make a difference now, one person at a time, with each case, helping them with an opportunity to secure justice. It’s about trying to change the judges’ perceptions and trying to change the court system. Raising consciousness is a slow process.”
Jarret Keene is a teacher, writer and editor who lives in downtown Las Vegas.