Diversity in Practice: Reflections of a Latino Lawyer
MoFo Perspectives Podcast
Diversity in Practice: Reflections of a Latino Lawyer
MoFo Perspectives Podcast
In this episode of Diversity in Practice, Litigation Partner Alexis Amezcua is joined by her mentor, colleague, and friend, Trial Partner Arturo González, to discuss his career path, from working in the fields to Harvard Law to becoming MoFo’s first Latino partner. He also shares how he’s survived 35 years in Big Law, how much the legal landscape has evolved during that time, and why he feels it’s important to have more diverse representation in the courtroom, and beyond.
Speaker: Welcome to MoFo Perspectives, a podcast by Morrison & Foerster, where we share the perspectives of our clients, colleagues, subject matter experts, and lawyers.
Natalie Kernisant: Welcome to the Diversity in Practice Podcast, a part of MoFo Perspectives. My name is Natalie Kernisant, and I am the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Morrison & Foerster. This podcast series is designed to provide a space to discuss a wide variety of issues related to diversity in the law, and to introduce you to some of our talented, diverse attorneys, their areas of legal expertise, and the work that they and their MoFo allies do in furtherance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s also our hope that by sharing D&I best practices wherever possible, we can help make the legal industry a more inclusive place for those who are, in the words of MoFo’s former chair, Bob Raven, just a little bit different.
Natalie Kernisant: In this edition of the Diversity in Practice Podcast, we hear from two of the firms and the broader legal industry’s most talented Latinx litigators, Alexis Amezcua, who is a partner in the firm’s San Francisco office, practices class action and commercial litigation, and has been at the firm for the entirety of her career. Alexis speaks with her friend and mentor, trial partner, Arturo Gonzalez, about his experience as a Latino lawyer, what it was like to be one of the first Latino lawyers in the bay area and the first at the firm, and how he survived 35 years in big law. Today, Arturo is one of the nation’s top trial lawyers. He’s had great success representing both defendants and plaintiffs in state and federal court around the country. He’s a fellow with the American College of Trial Lawyers and the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. Arturo is also an associate with the American Board of Trial Advocates. Arturo, would you mind starting off by telling us about your current practice and how you selected your practice area?
Arturo Gonzalez: Sure. Thank you for doing this. I am a trial lawyer, and I’ve been a trial lawyer since I joined the firm. I knew I was going to be a trial lawyer when I was in high school. It’s too long of a story, but I spent a fair amount of time when I was in high school watching other lawyers perform, and I concluded that I could to do it and that I could do it better. And so I decided I was going to be a trial lawyer and that I was going to go to Harvard Law School, even though I couldn’t tell you at the time where Harvard was in a map, somehow it got into my head. That was the best law school. And so that’s why I decided I was going.
Alexis Amezcua: And can you tell us a little bit about your practice today?
Arturo Gonzalez: So today I try cases in all sorts of different areas. Many lawyers today at big firms specialize. My specialty is trying cases, so whether it’s a contract case or an intellectual property case or a trade secrets case, it doesn’t matter. Any case that’s going to trial and if you’re going to have people in the box deciding it, that’s what I work on. So I’m either in trial or I’m preparing for trial.
Alexis Amezcua: There are lots of law firms out there. How did you choose this one?
Arturo Gonzalez: So the MoFo story is interesting. I did end up the Harvard law school and knew nothing about law firms. In fact, the only thing that I found intimidating at Harvard was when my classmates would talk about the various law firms and where they might be interviewing or applying. And then they’d come to me and say, hey, Arturo, where are you going to apply? And I just shrugged my shoulders and say, well, I’m still thinking about it. And honestly, I could not identify a single law firm in America when I went to Harvard. So I went to the placement office and spoke to a very nice lady there and told her that I was from Northern California, that I knew I wanted to go home, and I needed some help identifying law firms. She asked me what kind of law I wanted to practice.
Arturo Gonzalez: And I told her I wanted to go to court. I want to be trial lawyer. But I said to her, I don’t want to just represent big corporations. I want to help poor people, too. And she said, well, then you want to go to a firm that where you can do pro bono work, a phrase I’d never heard of. And she said, I can recommend two firms in San Francisco, Heller Irman and MoFo. And I remember my reaction to that was MoFo. What do you mean, MoFo? How you spelling that? She said M O F O. I said, you got to be kidding me. There’s a firm called MoFo? She says, well, it stands for Morrison & Foerster, but I was sold on the name MoFo. So that’s where I was going. And that honestly is how I decided where I was going to work initially is just from that conversation.
Alexis Amezcua: I love that. How are you spelling that? That’s great. According to the American Bar Association, the percentage of Latino lawyers in the U.S has remained relatively unchanged over the last decade, ranging from 3 to 5% of the legal workforce. Only 2% of partners in big law are Latino. Even fewer of those are women. 2.7% of associates and 0.8% of law firm partners are women. So under 1%. Going back to the beginning of your legal career, your summer associate class, you’re the only Latino lawyer. You’re the only Latino lawyer at the firm, even, just as a summer associate. There were no partners, there were no associates that were Latino. What was that like?
Arturo Gonzalez: You know, it was really strange. I did—I just didn’t know. I was unaware of what the situation was at big firms pertaining to people of color until I had a conversation with some of my classmates at the law school. I told them I was going to work at MoFo, and they kind of chuckled and I thought they were chuckling because of the name, and I told them it stands for Morrison & Foerster. They knew what it stood for. They just didn’t think that I had a good chance of getting hired there, which I couldn’t understand. I mean, after all, we’re at a school that I think most people would agree is at least one of the best. And they asked me if I had seen the book and I said, no, what book? And they said you better go back to the placement office and look at the book.
Arturo Gonzalez: And sure enough, there was a book back then. This was before computers, folks. There was a book about three inches thick. It had every state in alphabetical order. And within each state it had every city, at least the medium to big cities. And within each city, it had the law firms in alphabetical order. So you can go and look in the book and it had one page for every law firm in your city. So I went to San Francisco, I went to MoFo, and it had a lot of stuff at the beginning about what the firms do, and I thought most of that was very similar. But what was interesting is it had a breakdown of partners and associates by gender and by race. So you can go to associate, Hispanic, and see how many there were. Hispanic partners and see how many there were.
Arturo Gonzalez: And I was quite surprised. I went to MoFo, Hispanic associate zero. Hispanic partner, zero. And then I just went through the start of the alphabet for San Francisco and started flipping through the pages. And my recollection is I only found one Latino lawyer in the city of San Francisco back then. And I just didn’t realize that the firms were built that way. Ironically, the one Latino who I do recall was a partner, not an associate, but a partner at Brobeck. And I ended up meeting him later, but that was quite distressing to be the only one, not only at the firm, but really one of the few in the entire city.
Alexis Amezcua: That’s so interesting. I didn’t realize that even then they were tracking those sorts of demographics. That’s so interesting. After your summer at the firm, you were offered a permanent job. Obviously you took it. When and why did you to accept the offer to work as an associate at Morrison & Foerster?
Arturo Gonzalez: You know, I was torn candidly. I was torn between working big law and working public interest because my heart really was public interest. And that’s why it was important to me to go somewhere where I could do pro bono work. I got an offer after the summer program, which was very nice, because going into my last year of law school, I already had a permanent offer making $38,000, which was almost double what my father made working for the railroad. So I thought I was in pretty good shape at the age of 24, however old I was, but I—this was torn and conflicted.
Arturo Gonzalez: I’ve been very lucky in life. And one of the things I was lucky about is that in my third year of law school, Cesar Chavez came to Harvard law school to give a lecture, and I had nothing to do with it, but he came. Snd after he spoke, the Latino law students had a little reception for him. And he was mobbed when he first got there, as you might imagine, but I waited for people to clear away and I had an opportunity to speak to him one on one. I spoke to him Spanish, and I said to him, Cesar I’m a farm worker, too. And he looked at me, I think a lot of people probably said that to him when it wasn’t true, and he asked me, oh yeah, where did you work? And I said, well, I picked peaches in Gridley and Marysville and Wheatland, and my guess is that most people listening to this podcast are not going to recognize those three towns.
Arturo Gonzalez: And the reason you won’t is because they’re very small towns in Northern California, where there’s not much there but farms. Students at Harvard law school are not going to know of those towns unless you actually worked in the fields. And Cesar knew that, so he kind of lit up a little bit. He recognized the towns, and we had a nice conversation. And so at some point I felt comfortable asking him what I should do. And I explained to him that I had a job at a job offer at a big law firm, but I wasn’t sure what that’s what I should do. And I wanted to know what he thought. And candidly, I thought he was going to tell me, you know what, Arturo, come work for me. I could use a Harvard man. And had he done that, I would’ve gone to work for the farm workers, but he didn’t do that. Instead—
Arturo Gonzalez: He said to me, if you can, you should go work at one of those large firms where there are no Latino lawyers and you should be the best lawyer in that firm. And every time I tell that story, I kind of get goosebumps because I remember how I felt at the time. I was stunned. That’s just not what I expected to hear. And unfortunately, I never did ask him why. I guess there was no need to, Cesar had spoken. But that gave me comfort that I was doing the right thing. And so I accepted my offer and I joined MoFo the September 17, 1985.
Alexis Amezcua: That is such a powerful story. I’ve heard it before, and it still gives me goosebumps when I hear it. What a treasured memory and how lucky you are to meet one of the elders of our community. So September 17, 1985, you walk into Morrison & Foerster as an associate. The firm at the time had over 200 lawyers. As you said, you were still the only Latino lawyer. You’d been there before as a summer. Now you were there as a full-time associate. What was that like?
Arturo Gonzalez: One thing that was a bit strange. I encountered this as a summer associate, but especially as an associate is that I had this big, huge corner office overlooking the bay of San Francisco. Now you got to understand. I worked in the fields picking peaches as a kid. My parents didn’t have much education. My mother never went to school. My dad went to school for one day and worked for the railroad, and there I was 35th floor, whatever it was, overlooking the bay in this big office. And honestly, when I first arrived, I remember asking myself, what the hell are you doing here? It just felt like I was in the wrong place, especially when everybody else looked different than me. That was a little bit of a challenge for me. I got to be honest about that. When I went to firm functions, people were always nice, right?
Arturo Gonzalez: Nobody was, like, racist to me, but I just wouldn’t feel very comfortable at firm functions being the only Latino, and sometimes I felt like I was having to go out of my way to break into a conversation and just kind of wandering around, you know how it is at those receptions, it’s just kind of wandering. I remember one reception in particular where the litigation department had a little reception to greet the new lawyers. And I went there and wandered around, and I chatted a bit with a couple of the people that I knew from the summer program. But other than that, I just did a lot of wandering. And finally, I just wandered out the door and I just left. I left really early. I remember that. And I don’t think anybody even knew that I’d left. So undoubtedly it was challenging for me.
Arturo Gonzalez: There were two things that, again, I’ll say this a few times, maybe I was lucky the partner that I was assigned to when I first joined the firm was Jim Garrett. Jim Garrett was married to Maria Evera who ended up serving on the California court of appeal in San Francisco. It’s probably why they put me on Jim’s team. And so Jim was a very, very good person for me to work with. Good teacher, gave me good instruction, and I just felt he was very much for me a fatherly figure. And I was very fortunate to have him as my initial partner mentor. The other thing I was lucky about is I’ve always been a good baseball player, and the firm had a softball team. We weren’t very good. But then I joined, the team started playing. Then we got a little bit better and ended up winning the championship as when I was an associate one year. But in any event, that for me was something that helped me survive. It helped me to get to know people outside of the environment of the law firm, just in the softball field. Once you get to the softball field, everybody’s equal. And I enjoyed that.
Alexis Amezcua: Do you remember the team name?
Arturo Gonzalez: Morrison Marauders.
Alexis Amezcua: I love that. I love that.
Arturo Gonzalez: Yeah. I think the team’s retired now.
Alexis Amezcua: You know, I just had to pause for a moment on the experience of what it feels like to be a junior lawyer and for the first time walk into your office on Market Street or whatever major town you—downtown your office is in and take that elevator up to your very own office and have some expansive view and think to yourself, how did I get here? I have very similar experience and I’ve spoken to so many summer associates that come from backgrounds where they never thought that they’d be there, either. That feeling alone of just going up the elevator to your office for the first time is something I think that so many of us can relate to. Another thing many of us can relate to is mentoring. And you mentioned that one of your mentors was Jim Garrett. Can you talk more about your mentoring relationship with Jim and how that experience framed your own process for mentoring others?
Arturo Gonzalez: Yes. Jim Garrett was very good to me, and so I tried to pay it forward. I remember that he gave me very good feedback after my first deposition. Sat down with me, went over the transcript. And he would always talk to me about what the assignment was instead of just giving me an assignment, explain to me where the assignment fit in. And he provided me with feedback on my written product as well. And so I try to do the same thing, but the main thing I learned from Jim is that he gave me opportunities. He frankly gave me opportunities that maybe other partners would not have. And so I try to do the same. I try to give people opportunities to step up, make an argument in court, play a role in a meeting with a client, take a deposition. I think that’s very important for lawyers as they progress. And so that’s what I try to do is give people opportunities and provide feedback.
Alexis Amezcua: Most junior litigation associates spend most of their time doing legal research or reviewing documents. Was it like that for you as a junior associate?
Arturo Gonzalez: It was not. And this again, I thank Jim Garrett for this. The first case I was assigned to when I arrived at MoFo was a huge antitrust case where we represented Continental Airlines and New York Air against American and United. And I remember one of the first meetings I attended, we were talking about discovery and depositions and how we were going to have to take and defend depositions all over the country because witnesses were all over the country, and who was going to cover all these depos. It was me, Jim Garrett, and a senior associate. And Jim, at that time, had four children. I don’t think he wanted to travel too much. Mike Ram couldn’t do them all, the senior associate. So at one point I kind of piped in. I hadn’t even been sworn in yet. You don’t find out if he passed the bar until the around Thanksgiving.
Arturo Gonzalez: And I said, wait a minute, what’s a deposition, anyway? Maybe not the best question in the world, but then I can’t. I said, isn’t it just asking questions? And then Jim Garrett says, well, it’s a little bit more to it than that, but essentially, yes, you’re asking questions. And I said, well, I can do that. Now, you just got to understand that at big law firms, these matters are very important matters. And ordinarily first year associates, even second year associates, are not going to be out taking depositions on these important matters. But Jim Garrett, to his credit, sat me down and said, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to teach you how to take a deposition, and then you’re going to go out and do one. We’ll see how you do, and we’ll go from there. Great. I thought that was totally fair. I loved it. Perfect. So I went out to get deposition. Well, to make a long story short, I ended up spending about eight months as a first-year associate, flying all over the country, taking and defending depositions. And that was an opportunity that Jim Garrett gave me, and I’m very grateful for that.
Alexis Amezcua: I could ask a number of followup questions about your first deposition experiences and things you learned along the way. Maybe we’ll have another discussion about that, but after working as hard as you did, you became partner after only six years as an associate. Did you expect that to happen when you arrived at the firm? Had you walked in with the hope of becoming a partner?
Arturo Gonzalez: No, I don’t know that I even knew what partner meant. My focus was on learning. Really, I really wanted to come to MoFo. I wanted to learn because I knew I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to do good quality work, but just to show you how uncertain I was about my future, I didn’t choose MoFo just because of the name over Heller Irman because Heller Irman was also a very good law firm. At the time, MoFo had an office in LA and Heller Irman did not. And I said to myself, well, if it doesn’t work out for me in San Francisco, maybe they can transfer me to Los Angeles. There are a lot of Latinos down there. Maybe I’ll have a better shot down there. That really was my mentality. Thinking about making partner, oh no. I was thinking about how I’m going to survive at this place and how I could prepare myself to do what Cesar wanted me to do, which is to be the best lawyer in the firm.
Alexis Amezcua: Sounded like you were trying to keep your options too, thinking you might have to go to Los Angeles.
Arturo Gonzalez: Definitely.
Alexis Amezcua: Let’s fast forward a bit and talk about sort of your practice today. I wonder if you could speak a little about how your identity has shaped your practice, both in terms of the kinds of matters you take on and also just in your general day-to-day interactions.
Arturo Gonzalez: One thing that I did early on to try to make it a little bit more comfortable for me to be at the firm is I recruited a couple of my law school classmates. George Martinez was at a law firm in Chicago. He was the only Latino there. And Ed Lopez was another law firm in San Francisco, and he was the only Latino there. I got him both to come to MoFo, and that helped me survive. And it helped me actually with respect to my practice as well because it gave me a sounding board. Sometimes people of color at big law firm won’t know who to turn to if they’ve got questions about strategy or just about firm politics, and the two of them helped me a lot along those lines. The other thing that helped me a lot, whether this is my identity or not, I don’t know.
Arturo Gonzalez: I think that it probably is. I did do pro bono work at MoFo. That was an important thing when I came here. I ended up, I think to date, I’ve tried 12 civil rights cases. I just got into civil rights practice. I know it’s big right now. You hear a lot about police misconduct. That’s been going on for a long time and central valley and California, there was just a great need for Latinos to have representation in those types of cases. And I was able to represent and help a lot of Latino families deal with those problems.
Alexis Amezcua: You’ve had such a variety of experience throughout your career, as you say, trying civil rights cases, trying some working on antitrust matters, commercial litigation, all sorts of different aspects of the profession. What aspect of your current work do you find the most fulfilling?
Arturo Gonzalez: Actually, what really gets me going is when we have an impossible situation where there’s no way to win and everything is going bad, and that may seem like a strange thing for me to say, because most people would not want to be in that situation, but that’s why I find that I thrive. The minute somebody tells me we don’t have a chance or you’re going to get slammed. And that’s when I—that’s when we got to get to work, right? That’s where being a good lawyer actually makes a difference. It’s very easy to try cases that have simple facts in your favor. What’s challenging is when the facts are against you. And so I’ll just give you two very quick examples of two matters that I’ve found very challenging over the years. One was a civil rights case where a Latino 63-year-old man was shot and killed in the bedroom of his own home in front of his wife by police.
Arturo Gonzalez: And he was shot 17 times. And I remember the settlement conference very well, where the government didn’t offer any money at all because they claimed it was done in self-defense because he came at them with a knife. The wife swore to me and I believed her, that he never had a knife, and that the knife that was in his hand was not his knife and none of his 13 children had ever seen it. So I took that case. They offered nothing. They forced me to try it. And the jury awarded 12 and a half million dollars, which was the most-ever rewarded in the police shooting case in California. So I felt very good about that. I still do. On the other side of the coin on the [inaudible] bono, you got to do [inaudible] bono to do pro bono, and that’s okay. I represented Uber in a big case against Google and Waymo’s, a Google subsidiary, and it’s a big trade secrets case.
Arturo Gonzalez: People called it the trade secrets case of the century, where Uber was in big trouble because we hired somebody that used to work at Google and they had evidence that he may have taken a lot of information with them. And we were being accused of having stolen those secrets and pertained to autonomous vehicles, vehicles that drive themselves, really amazing technology. Headlines all over the country, all bad about how bad the case was for us. The judge, who was a former partner of mine, told me we were in deep trouble and it looked like it was going to be a challenging matter. And it was, and we ended up getting a very good outcome for Uber because our team worked extremely hard on a very challenging case. And so when you do that, when you have a challenging case that looks like you’re going to lose and you’re able to turn it around, I find that to be very rewarding.
Alexis Amezcua: I can attest to that. I’ve seen that in practice on the cases we’ve handled together. And you’re absolutely right. When it feels like, how are we going to get away out of this or what the decks against us, that’s really when the fun begins. And we’ve had several conversations over my career about how in certain cases, the lawyering really matters. And it happens to be a lot of the times when the facts aren’t great for you. So totally agree with that. Shifting gears a little, you have four children. How do you balance your work and personal life, especially when you’re in trial and that can be all consuming?
Arturo Gonzalez: It’s very challenging, clearly very challenging. And especially one of the changes in the last 35 years is the method of communication, right? I remember there was a time when pagers came out, some clients expected you to have a pager on your hip like a doctor and therefore be available 24/7. Today with iPhones, with iPads, with all the methods of communication that we have, many clients expect 24/7 availability. And that does make raising a family a challenge. One of the things that you need to do is you need to set aside your family time and let everybody know what your family time is. And they’ll be understanding, clients, partners, people you work with will be understanding because many of them have families as well. I’ll give you just one example. We had a very important case, a trial for the city of Oakland, involving the Oakland Raiders.
Arturo Gonzalez: It ended up being like a four-month trial. Jim Brosnahan, at the time, was the top trial lawyer at MoFo. And I had the great privilege of working with Jim for about 11 years. Jim’s 85, and he’s still coming into the office. And so Jim was on that trial team with me. Jim was leading the defense of the city of Oakland and I led the defense of another individual who was also a defendant. And Jim wanted to have trial meetings on Saturdays. You’re in trial all week, and Jim likes to have meetings Saturday morning to prepare for the next week. Well, that was a problem for me because I had four kids and three boys, and all the boys played either baseball or soccer and they played guess what? On Saturdays. And that was very important to me. If I was going to miss their games during the week, I at least wanted to be there for Saturdays.
Arturo Gonzalez: And so I had a conversation with Jim. I said, Jim, listen, and Jim had been doing this for a long time. I said, Jim, know you like to have your trial team meetings on Saturday, but I’ve got an issue. My kids, I hardly see them all week because the trial was in Sacramento. I was away from home. We stayed in a hotel. I’m going to go see them on the weekend. And they play on Saturdays. How about if we have our meetings on Sunday? And Jim looked at me with this look that you got to know Jim to understand the look I’m talking about, like, are you kidding? Yeah. I had no idea what was coming, but you know what came? Jim said, okay, all right, you spend Saturday with your family and we’ll have our meetings on Sunday mornings. That’s what we did.
Arturo Gonzalez: That’s just an example of the flexibility that you have to look for. I think a lot of people would’ve said, oh, I’m not going to go to Jim Brasnahan and tell him to change the date of his meeting. I’ll just miss the games. And I think that’s the mistake. I think it’s very important that we spend time with our families, with our children, with our loved ones. And you got to make that personal time. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to survive, I think, because I’ve been pretty good about doing that.
Alexis Amezcua: That’s great. Speaking of staying busy, as it sounds like you are, aside from your regular practice, you always have a pro bono matter on your desk. You touched on this a bit in our conversation so far. Why is it so important for you to take on these types of matters?
Arturo Gonzalez: I couldn’t do the work I do without pro bono work. I just couldn’t, personally. I just—I mean, I appreciate all the [inaudible] bono. I’ve had good clients over the years. They’ve given us a lot of work. They’ve paid us lots of money for us to solve some challenging problems. And I’m grateful for that, but I could not do what I do without pro bono work. In fact, I went back to law school for my 25-year reunion. I hadn’t been there since I had graduated, and I went back for my 25-year reunion and there were only a handful of us, very few that were still at the same law firm. And everybody asked me the same question. Why you still at MoFo? And I gave them three reasons why I was still at MoFo.
Arturo Gonzalez: One, they pay me really well. Two, they treat me with respect, and both of those are important. Three, they’ve always let me do pro bono work. And that third really probably should have been number one because without that pro bono work, I just wouldn’t feel satisfied as a lawyer. And so I can say this truthfully, in the 35 years at MoFo, I have always had always at least one pro bono matter on my plate, at least. And you just got to balance that just the way you balance family and work, you got to balance your billable and your pro bono. And if you could balance it correctly and get good results, I’ve been lucky to get good results. And it’s very rewarding.
Alexis Amezcua: Talking a little bit more about your identity. What are some of the challenges or advantages that have come from joining the legal ranks from a diverse background? And I’m curious to hear whether you think it differs at all based on gender.
Arturo Gonzalez: I think that a conscious bias is real, meaning I do believe that partners at large law firms and maybe some clients, maybe some judges, view people differently. They think things differently, their expectations are different based on whether or not it’s a man or a woman and based on their race. If you have a white male coming the door and an African American woman is with them, and they come into together and they’re coming to a deposition, you’re going to think the white male is going to take that deposition. The female is just there to assist them. Maybe she’s not even a lawyer. That’s just what most people are going to think. If a white male makes a mistake, well, nobody’s perfect. You know, everybody’s entitled to make a mistake. But if that African American woman makes a mistake, it might reinforce what some people think, which is shoot, I didn’t think she handle this and I gave her a chance and it makes it less likely they’re going to give her another opportunity.
Arturo Gonzalez: And so I think that unconscious bias is real and it’s something we have to address in large firms. I will say this, MoFo I think is doing as good a job as any other firm. We really do try very hard to make sure that we give people opportunities, but that’s always been my concern whether or not—and the same, I think, applies to male/female, because you asked about that. I also think that people are not going to want to admit this, but I think there are a lot of people. If a man walks in the door and a woman walks in the door, they immediately think the man is the boss, right? Between the two of them, take two people that are close in age. That’s just the way people think. They might think that the male is more likely to give him quality work product than the female.
Arturo Gonzalez: That’s always challenge that we need to address and deal with and make sure that the women get adequate opportunities. I’ll say this, just to give an example of what I mean, when I say I think MoFo’s doing as good a job as any, I was chair of the department for four years, chair of the litigation department at the firm, 500 litigators today. And I was co-chair with Grant Esposito, a partner of mine in New York, from 2010 to 2014. And one of the things that he and I decided to do, we didn’t have enough women partners, in our view. And so we said we need to make sure that women are getting opportunities that they need to prove themselves. So they can show that I’ve got what it takes to be a partner. So we put a list together, just the two of us, put a list together of women associates who we thought had showed promise, and that if given opportunities, could become partner. And so we put a list together and we made—we went out of our way to make sure that they got opportunities and we promoted them and pushed them up. And guess what? 75% of the people who climbed the ladder and became partner during my four years were women. And so that’s what I mean about the firm, giving people an equal opportunity. I think you’ve got to give people an opportunity to succeed. And if they don’t, that’s okay. You give them a chance. But if you give opportunities, people will deliver.
Alexis Amezcua: How has the profession changed since you started practicing 35 years ago?
Arturo Gonzalez: Well, it’s changed a lot. One thing I remember, I commuted on BART for 35 years, the train that we have out here in the bay area, and everybody on BART, when I started practicing—almost everybody—had a newspaper. You just had all these newspapers—everybody was reading the newspaper. And then you get off the train and you throw it in the recycling bin. And that’s because we didn’t have computers. Computers were just barely starting when I started practicing. There were very few people actually had them and used them. And, as a lawyer, I would write my briefs by hand and hand them to a word processor, and they were all women, and she would type it up and give it back to me and I’d have to go in and correct, because she couldn’t read my writing, and we’d go back and forth. The biggest change has just been of course that the whole profession is computerized.
Arturo Gonzalez: And as I mentioned earlier, the method of communication is so much better, which I actually like. Some lawyers don’t like it, because it means you got to be available 24/7. Clients know they can call you, they can text you, they can send you emails and you got this thing on your hip that gets it right away. I like that because I was able to watch my kids play soccer and literally communicate with partners in Tokyo at the same time. So I enjoy the advancements in technology. Other examples are that even when I was president of the Bar Association of San Francisco in 2010, we had seven large law firms in the city and that means 150 lawyers in the city. And today we have only two and MoFo is one of them. There’s been a lot of changing in the profession in terms of law firms, law firms sizes, a lot of consolidation. Silicon Valley happened during my profession. Palo Alto used to be a fairly sleepy little town, right?
Arturo Gonzalez: And now every law firm in America wants to be in the bay area to get a piece of the action in Silicon Valley. The other two things I’ll mention very quickly, one is the jurors, incredible diversity among most juries in large cities, which is where we try our cases. When I started 35 years ago, the majority of jurors were white and maybe the vast majority in many places. Now that’s starting to change. What has changed? Now, you get a significant number of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other immigrants on your juries. So they are substantially less white. The last thing I’ll mention in terms of what’s changed is just this whole working from home thing that I never thought I would do. And now of course, I’m doing it by force. We’re having this discussion in, what is this, November of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic. And so I’ve been home since March. Unheard of, right? I mean, who would ever thought that we could actually practice law from our homes. I’ve been able to, and I’ve been able to have court hearings by Zoom and I’ve been able to attend settlement conferences by Zoom. In fact, I’ve settled a couple of cases. So this is really interesting how we’re able to do so much from home.
Alexis Amezcua: It really is a brave new world in so many ways. And you’re right. Technology is a theme, and what you mentioned, not only more access, quicker access, but also now we’re doing all of this virtually. I wouldn’t have imagined that at all when I started my career. That’s for sure. You’ve obviously had other professional opportunities during your career, and yet you’ve decided to stay at MoFo for 35 years. Why have you chosen to stay?
Arturo Gonzalez: Well, I kind of give you a hint of the answer earlier about what I told people at my reunion. The firm has paid me well and treated me with respect and they let me do pro bono work. I really think those are the main reasons. I’ve had opportunities to be a judge, do other things, other law firms have made generous offers. And I don’t know why I feel this way, but, oh maybe, I do know why I feel this way. I feel grateful. I feel grateful for what this—the opportunities that this firm has given me. I come from a very modest family. Everybody in my family, extended family, is blue collar, except me. I’ve been able to help a lot of people. I’ve been able to set up a pre-law academy at UC Davis. I’ve just been able to do a lot of good things, I think, to help a lot of people because of the opportunities MoFo’s given me. So I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve got the golden handcuffs, I guess, is what people would call it. I don’t see myself going to any other law firm. I’ve given that some thought. It just doesn’t feel right.
Alexis Amezcua: What is something that you know now about practicing law that you wish someone had told you when you were a more junior attorney?
Arturo Gonzalez: That’s easy for me. The Rolodex. Young people are going to wonder what the heck I’m talking about. The Rolodex. We used to have a Rolodex on our desk where you’d write in by hand somebody’s name and phone number, maybe their address. And if you wanted to call somebody, you go to Rolodex and look them up. Now, of course, we keep all this stuff in our contacts in our phone, but here’s the point. I frequently do one-offs. One-offs means that you have a client that normally wouldn’t hire you because your rates are too high, but they’ve got a big problem. Maybe it’s a bet-the-company kind of problem. If they lose this case, the company goes under. So they’ve got to spend the money to hire the best talent. And so they come to you and they offer you a lot of money to represent them.
Arturo Gonzalez: I handle the matter. And then when the matter’s over, I go onto my next case. I wish I had been told early on that it’s very important to maintain contact with all of these people. It’s what today we call business development. I had never heard of business development when I was coming up as a lawyer. I was always so busy, I didn’t have time to develop business, but I think that’s something that had I known how important business development is, I would’ve done a better job of following up, maintaining contact with people after the final verdict came in.
Alexis Amezcua: I can absolutely attest to the importance of business development and how one, it would be helpful to hear sooner how important that is. And two, I found that Morrison & Foerster was very good at telling us when I was coming up at every level that business development was important. I just remember being a junior associate and thinking, well, how am I going to do that? I don’t know anybody. I didn’t grow up with grandfathers as judges or cousins as the presidents of banks or whatever. I—that—how would I do that? So I wonder if you had any other business development tips you could give young lawyers.
Arturo Gonzalez: There is no question that people who come from modest backgrounds are at a disadvantage because there are some folks who go to big law firms and they have family members who run companies, or they have family members who are on boards and the boards hire the lawyers. They’ve got contacts already at certain big companies. And so they’ve got ins. We don’t have that. And so it is a challenge. What I can say to you is that the most important thing by far that you can use, that you can do to develop business, is to do the best quality work. And the second most important thing is to be responsive to your clients. I can’t tell you how many clients have complained to me about other lawyers who just weren’t responsive. You got to be responsive. Even if you’re busy at the time, you can at least respond and say, listen, I got your message.
Arturo Gonzalez: I’ll get back to you in three hours, or I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning, or something. Acknowledge the client. Much of my work over the years has come from either associates or partners who have left the firm and gone to work for clients, or the work has come from partners in my firm and other groups like a corporate partner, a business partner who might have a client that’s got a legal problem. And they refer the client to me and I get the work. So I think the other thing I’ll mention just briefly is always, always treat everybody you work with respect. If you do that, you’ll find that over the years, that becomes a good source of business. It’s just a goodwill that you develop with the people that you work with.
Alexis Amezcua: That last point seems like such an obvious one, but it’s a really important one to remember. I completely agree. A few more questions on advice while we have you. What advice would you have for someone who considering working at a large law firm?
Arturo Gonzalez: My advice is if you have the opportunity to work at a large law firm, do it, especially if you’re someone who comes from modest means. There are a lot of benefits of working at a large law firm. They’ll pay for your moving expenses. They’ll pay for you to study for the bar. And I mean literally pay for you while you study. They’ll pay for your bar review course. They pay the bar fee. There’s just a lot of financial benefits that come with being at a large law firm, not to mention if you’re a summer associate like law students will learn if they don’t already know, the amount of money the law firms pay for summer associates to come and be there in the summers is astronomical, and it can help pay for your law school. So there are a lot of reasons why I think you should come.
Arturo Gonzalez: But the other thing you can do is pro bono work. If you go to a large law firm that will let you do pro bono work, of course you got to do the billing work. Of course, that’s how you pay the bills. But if you go to the right firm and you do pro bono work, you can give back to your community. If that’s something that’s important to you, you can do that. And then lastly, I tell people that if you decide law firm life is not for you, and you’d rather work for the ACLU or NAACP or something else, that’s fine. From a large law firm, you can move laterally almost anywhere, but if you turn that job down, it’s possible that may be your only opportunity to go there.
Alexis Amezcua: And finally, what advice do you have for young lawyers in general?
Arturo Gonzalez: So, a couple of things. Number one, when I was a young lawyer, I took advantage of CLE courses, continuing legal education. If you’re lucky enough to work at a large law firm, most of them will pay for a license that will allow you and the other lawyers to attend classes either in the evenings or in Saturday mornings. And I’m talking about just one, two, or three hour lecture that will teach you something in a certain area. And I went to a lot of those and I learned a lot from attending those courses. The other thing I want to say is the most valuable thing that you have as a young lawyer is your integrity, and nothing is more important. Never compromise your integrity for any case or for any clients. If you’re reviewing documents and you come up with a bad document, guess what? You don’t put in the shredder, you produce it, and you deal with it. Always, always remember that your integrity is the most important thing.
Arturo Gonzalez: One other little tip I can give people, I guess, is in terms of who has succeeded and who hasn’t at the big firms. I find that frequently, the people who have challenges, it’s something that could have been handled better right up front. If you go into a partner’s office, before you leave, make sure you know exactly what the assignment is, exactly what work product they want, and exactly how much time they want you to spend on it. And if not exactly, at least a ballpark, right? Because sometimes they’ll just want you to spend a few hours in the library, give them a quick answer. And sometimes the answer might be well, you know, I spent a few hours and I couldn’t find anything. But what I’ve seen is associates don’t realize how much we charge for their time. I think most associates at large law firms these days, when they start off right out of law school, you know what their billing rates are? They’re over $500 an hour.
Arturo Gonzalez: Think about that. $500 an hour. So if you spend a week writing a memo, it may be a wonderful memo, but the client’s not going to want to pay $25,000 or whatever it’s going to cost for that memo. And then you get labeled as being inefficient because you took too much time. So just make sure you know exactly what you’re being asked to do. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity. If there’s any uncertainty, ask whether they just want you to find the case on point, do they want an email? Do they want a memo? What do they want? And just ballpark how much time you think I should spend on this, and that way you avoid issues that may come up. But again, I want to end where I kind of started this answer, which is your integrity is what matters. I mean, you worked really hard to get to where you are. Be honest all the time with your colleagues, with judges, with clients. Always be honest and that’ll put you on the right path.
Alexis Amezcua: My law school professor at Stanford, Miguel Mendez, used to say to us, no client, no person, no case, is worth your bar card. And I remembered that many times throughout my career. So that’s really important. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us, Arturo. I always learn so much about the profession when I speak with you and candidly still find takeaways for myself. This is the end of our MoFo Perspectives episode on reflections of a Latino lawyer, Arturo Gonzalez on 35 years at a large law firm. Once again, I am your host, Alexis Amezcua speaking with Arturo Gonzalez. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker: Please make sure to subscribe to the MoFo Perspectives podcast so you don’t miss an episode. If you have any questions about what you heard today, or would like more information on this topic, please visit mofo.com/podcasts. Again, that’s MoFo, M-O-F-O.com/podcasts.