Erika Engle

Honolulu law firm marks
four decades of the practice

The law firm of Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert turned 40 years old last month. It is named for Cyril Francis "Frank" Damon Jr., Charlie Key, Denis Leong, Ken Kupchak and Diane Hastert and has gone through half a dozen name changes since its founding in 1963 by Damon and Henry Shigekane. Shigekane was originally from Hilo and met Damon at Yale.

Damon and Shigekane were the first Caucasian and American of Japanese ancestry to together establish a law firm in Hawaii. It was a rare move in 1963 when civil rights were at the forefront on the mainland.

"We're proud of it," said Damon, who calls himself semi-retired but says his wife laughs whenever he says that. He's in town every day.

Honolulu law firm Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert is marking its 40th year in business. From left, Cyril Francis Damon, Charlie Key, Dennis Leong, Ken Kupchak and Diane Hastert.

The ethnic mix of the firm is commonplace today.

"We were and have always been race- or culture-blind in the office," said Kupchak. "I'd like to think that that is good for law, to wear blinders in personal life and blinders in analysis of the law. It's a good theory and we've tried to practice it."

The theory lends to the numerous immigration cases the firm handles, along with corporate law, wills and trusts, real estate and something called navigational servitude.

Charlie Bocken, once partner but now of counsel, argued a case before the Supreme Court of the United States that caused the justices to reverse 100 years of precedent on the issue, Kupchak said.

"Until that case, if you could put a canoe on a stream anywhere that would be considered navigable waters, they were not subject to private ownership. The court ruled that Hawaii was different," Kupchak said. Under Hawaiian law, fishponds were deemed land, "therefore the U.S. government could not say that was public waterway."

The ruling meant that Kuapa Pond could be considered private and it has come into play in other cases.

"We now have essentially become the nation's expert on navigational servitudes," Kupchak said, with Bocken, Hastert and Robert Thomas designated the "navigational servitude team of national repute."

Kupchak has handled numerous high-profile cases, including those surrounding proposed development at Sandy Beach and other hot-button land-use matters.

Perhaps less common than the firm's ethnic mix is that its letterhead makes "no distinction between owners and associates. We're alphabetically listed," he said. "We like for everybody to feel they're a part of the team."

The attitude was present at the foundation of the firm.

For Henry to have someone of Frank's exalted status to invite him ... it was quite something," Kupchak said.

Damon had been with the firm now known as Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright, but went to Washington, D.C., to serve as administrative assistant to U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong.

Upon returning to Hawaii, Damon was asked by Gov. William Quinn to serve as director of the state Labor Department, which he did for a year until John Burns was elected in 1962.

That experience caused Damon to nudge one of his own from the nest. Attorney Nelson Befitel had been offered the labor director's position by Gov. Linda Lingle.

"We hated to lose him, but I encouraged him to take the post," Damon said.

Befitel notes that Damon was the last director under a Republican governor, and "40 years later we have a new Republican governor and I moved out of the firm to move into the department as director."

In its four decades the firm has had four addresses, including its current digs encompassing the 16th floor of the Pauahi Tower at 1001 Bishop St. It has also grown, sporting 12 owners who are partners, shareholders, directors and officers, as well as more than two dozen associates.

According to Damon, "It is the only firm in town with three former bar presidents in their partnership." They include Damon, Key and partner Alan Van Etten.

The largest commemoration of its anniversary will come June 8 when the firm will help Honolulu Habitat for Humanity build a home.

"A significant part of our practice is construction law, and they are certainly building homes in Kapolei. We intend to help them as a group, with friends, family and maybe a few of our clients might join us."

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin.
Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached


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