SAN FRANCISCO -- The mantel over a fireplace in Christopher Dolan's law office is lined with photos of his family, notably pictures of his two young children. And as far as he's concerned, those photos -- not money, fame or a lawyer's hubris -- explain why he took on an Oakland family's heart-wrenching public battle over 13-year-old Jahi McMath when she was declared brain dead more than a month ago.
And it hasn't made him popular. Dolan has received death threats, been called a liar, unethical and accused of exploiting a family's grief. But the tough-talking Connecticut native, who sprinkles his narrative with a healthy dose of profanity, makes no apologies for his very public role in helping Jahi's family get her out of Children's Hospital Oakland and preserve some form of medical treatment.
"If it was my daughter, I'd do everything I'm doing for this family," Dolan said Tuesday during a two-hour interview with this newspaper. "The one thing the family was going to know at the end of the day is that the family had somebody who fought for them."
In Dolan, Jahi's family found a 50-year-old trial lawyer who has sparred in court against a host of powerful adversaries, from Stanford University's hospital to companies such as Federal Express. The delivery giant found out just how tough Dolan can be when he persuaded a federal jury a decade ago to award $61 million to two Lebanese drivers harassed by a manager with racial slurs in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dolan even took on the Ladies Professional Golf Association on behalf of Lana Lawless, a transgender golfer who won the right to play on the tour and forced the organization to change its rules to enable transgender golfers to participate.
Dolan was drawn into the maelstrom over Jahi's fate on Dec. 16, when he got a phone call at his San Rafael home from her uncle, Omari Sealey. He knew nothing of the controversy, having been immersed in a federal court trial, but Sealey pleaded for help, urging him to turn on the television to watch the latest coverage of the drama. Dolan flipped on the TV, and could see Sealey in the background of the newscast, holding his phone, as their conversation unfolded.
After discussions with his wife, Dolan decided to take on the family's cause, convinced they should have a choice in the decision over whether Jahi should be taken off a ventilator. Describing himself as a "cafeteria Catholic," Dolan admits he did a lot of soul-searching on his views about end-of-life treatment, but kept coming back to the conclusion that a family, rather than just doctors and hospital administrators, should have a voice when they still believe a child can be saved.
But critics have questioned Dolan's altruism. After Dolan and Sealey appeared on CNN's Piers Morgan show Monday night, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin decried the role of a lawyer in the case, saying he was "preying on the false hope of the family." Children's Hospital spokesman Sam Singer, Dolan's chief antagonist in the Jahi saga, calls the lawyer "heartless," adding: "I've never seen such reckless disregard for the truth."
Dolan is particularly dismissive of Singer and the hospital, claiming that they've libeled him. He points to a wall full of lawyer awards in the entryway of his Market Street office, some singling out his ethics, and merely jokes that Singer needs "to get some decent clothes."
"The whole thing about me giving them false hope is a construction of public relations because they needed a villain," Dolan said. "It's OK if I take the heat. You can still have sympathy for the family."
Describing himself as "about as pro-choice as you can get," Dolan is not an avenger for groups devoted to the end-of-life treatment issue. "I didn't know (expletive) about it when I took this on," he said. "I knew nothing about it."
And Dolan stresses that he's representing the family for free, and will not handle the inevitable medical negligence lawsuit sure to come against Children's Hospital, where Jahi developed complications and suffered cardiac arrest after a three-part surgery to remove tonsils and clear tissue from her nose and throat on Dec. 9. Multiple doctors have declared Jahi brain dead, but the family has rejected that diagnosis, hoping she can live. She has been moved to an undisclosed location, where Dolan concedes the medical outlook is grim.
Dolan insists it would be unethical for him to handle any negligence or wrongful death case, which could expose the hospital to millions of dollars in damages, although he will continue to press a separate federal constitutional case he hopes might define family rights in such situations in the future -- if Jahi's family wants to pursue it. Dolan matter-of-factly states he's already made a "boatload of money," so he can afford to subsidize such causes.
Dolan has no shortage of adjectives for himself, at once describing himself as a "scalpel" and "hard-ass" to a "highly educated juvenile delinquent (he graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University Law School)."
He shows a visitor texts he's received in recent days from Jahi's family, one from her mother saying she was "forever grateful" for his help. He insists he won't do another case like this one, but has no regrets about spending all those days trying to help the motionless Jahi and her family.
"I'll go down swinging," Dolan said, tearing up at one point when he recalled the day they got the right to move Jahi. "I don't care. I'll lose the money. Maybe that's why people are having such a hard time understanding what's my angle. This lady asked me to save her kid from being killed."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz
Profession: San Francisco trial lawyer
Major cases: Represented two Lebanese Federal Express drivers in $61 million verdict against the company in racial harassment lawsuit. Represented Oakland man in lawsuit against five BART officers accused of brutality. Represented transgender golfer in lawsuit against LPGA over ban on transgender participation, forcing organization to change its rules. Currently represents family of Jahi McMath, 13-year-old Oakland girl declared brain dead in December.
Education: Law degree from Georgetown University. Masters and undergraduate degrees from Boston University.
Personal: Married with two children, ages 3 and 7. Lives in San Rafael. Describes himself as an avid motorcyclist who has traveled more than 250,000 miles over five countries.