40 under 40: Norman Yatooma

Biggest achievement: Building visibility through the representation of high-profile clients and cases that now causes major national businesses such as Capital One Financial Corp. to seek him out.

Current goal: To expand his law firm’s size and recognition by landing and winning major cases.

Norman Yatooma’s legal education began at age 20 when his father, Manuel, was shot and killed outside a liquor store his father owned.

While Yatooma dealt with personal pain, the death of his father, who also owned real estate and was involved in many other business ventures, brought about litigation from more than 60 creditors.

“For a time, I simply loathed attorneys,” Yatooma said.

Yatooma eventually became a lawyer and developed an aggressive style partially shaped by the responsibilities he shouldered after his father’s death, said Michael George, founder and previous owner of Melody Farms L.L.C. George has known Yatooma since Yatooma was a child and was friends with his father.

Yatooma’s specialty is franchise law. He currently represents more than 30 franchisees suing Troy based Ziebart International Corp.

He also represents several Thomas Kinkade dealers who are suing Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Media Arts Group Inc. over the mass merchandising of Kinkade art that they believe should be limited to dealers.

Today, Yatooma’s firm has 10 attorneys with 16 support staff and had $6 million in 2002 receivables.

Yatooma’s aggressive style hasn’t always been appreciated. La-Van Hawkins, chairman and CEO of Hawkins Food Group L.L.C., is locked in a suit with Yatooma.

In Nov. 2001, a U.S. district judge told Hawkins he must pay $108,645 in legal fees to Yatooma for the representation that Yatooma provided to Hawkins when the former Burger King franchisee sued Burger King Corp. in 2000.

Yatooma began the case as an attorney with Butzel Long P.C., then continued it for Hawkins after leaving Butzel Long and setting up his own firm in 2000. Burger King settled the case with Hawkins in 2001.

Both Hawkins and Yatooma have appealed the fee award, with Yatooma arguing for a bigger award and Hawkins saying that Yatooma exaggerates his role. Danielle Weksler, assistant general counsel for Glen Allen, Va. based Capital One Financial Corp., likes the results Yatooma gets.

“Part of the reason he stands out is he has really tried to foster a personal relationship with us as a client,” Weksler said. I know I can call him at the 11th hour, and he will drop everything for us.”


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