April 7 was a Sunday. On any other Sunday, Sam Lionel would have been looking forward to going to his office the next day to practice law and possibly argue a case in court. But it wasn’t like any other Sunday because it was Sam Lionel’s one-hundredth birthday. And that, like his life and career, is worth celebrating.
Lionel was born in the Bronx, graduated from high school at age 16, and earned his law degree from St. John’s when he was 21. Then he went into the military several months before Pearl Harbor. He served in North Africa and won five battle stars with the Fifth Army, which liberated Italy. After the war, he returned to New York City and practiced law. But he had a reserve commission, and returned to the army during the Korean War in the Judge Advocate General’s office. He also taught law at West Point. He got to know cadet Phil Wanderer, whose mother Emilie was the first female attorney in Las Vegas. Lionel decided to come west, and passed the bar in 1954. First he practiced with two veteran Las Vegas attorneys … George Rudiak, who had been an assemblyman and introduced one of the first civil rights bills in Nevada history … and Francis Horsey, part of a pioneer southern Nevada legal family and later a judge. Before long, Lionel went out on his own, with his own law office.
The legal profession was less specialized in those days, and Lionel handled varied clients and cases. But he was involved with some of the area’s biggest names. He was a longtime attorney for Howard Hughes and his interests … for Paradise Development, led by Irwin Molasky, Moe Dalitz, and Merv Adelson … for Del Webb … and for Kirk Kerkorian. His commitment to the law also shone in his appointment to represent a murderer. Pro bono, he appealed his death sentence over a 15-year period. He saved the man’s life. What mattered to Lionel was serving his client, and he did it to the best of his abilities—for free.
Lionel also has served the profession. He spent 30 years on the Nevada Board of Bar Examiners. Nevada’s judges recommended him for the senior advisory board for the Ninth Judicial Circuit.
And he co-founded a legal and political powerhouse. In 1967, Grant Sawyer came to Las Vegas after being governor and partnered with Lionel. Their became the state’s leading firm for gaming, legislative lobbying, and all manner of law. They were joined by Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jon Collins, and for a time by Clark County District Judge Al Wartman. Hundreds of attorneys worked there during its nearly half-century, including legendary gaming attorney Bob Faiss, real estate expert Jeff Zucker, others who went on to form their own firms … and me. I joined Lionel Sawyer when I retired from the Senate in 2001. When the firm closed, Lionel and I went to Fennemore Craig, and we’re still there, though I’m still just a kid.
I’ve practiced with Sam for nearly two decades, and known him far longer. He always has been a hard-working, dedicated attorney, as sharp as they come, and loyal to his friends. And now that he’s 100, his career has only just begun.