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No Regrets?

By Alexandra Brown | Apr. 2, 2008

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2008

No Regrets?

Five high-powered lawyers talk about what they would do if they had their careers to do over.

What would you do differently if you had the chance to do it all over?" Without defining the word it, that is the question we recently asked a group of high-profile lawyers up and down the state. Interestingly enough, a large percentage of them insisted that they wouldn't change anything at all. "I know this sounds a bit strange," said one judge, "but I can't think of any different career choices or decisions I would make if I could turn back the clock." In another interview, an attorney whose client was recently sentenced to prison and fined millions of dollars said he had no career regrets other than having sped through college in less than four years.
      How sincere were these responses? We'll let you be the judge. But after a lot more poking and prodding, we did find a few who were willing to acknowledge more than a minimal interest in revising the past. Here's what they said:
      Former Attorney
      Waldman, a California lawyer turned novelist, often draws on her legal background for her fiction. She is the author of Daughter's Keeper and the Mommy-Track mystery series, among other books.
      When I was a young federal public defender, I had a client who was an illegal immigrant and had participated in a methamphetamine deal. The expert appointed by the court to evaluate him found that his IQ measured in the "borderline mentally retarded" range. He had no criminal record at all, and when asked if he had one, he confessed to me with tears in his eyes that he once got a speeding ticket. He was the most naive man I have ever met.
      The informant in this case, a Cuban immigrant who came over on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, had been found to be psychotic by the physician who evaluated him upon his entry to the United States. He became an informant after being arrested on drug charges. He was an extraordinarily well-paid informant, who had testified in a large number of cases. His testimony was riddled with inconsistencies. In fact, there was so much perjury in his testimony that my cross-examination of him was going to last days.
      Under the sentencing guidelines, my client was looking at a 24-year sentence, with a 10-year mandatory minimum. I had very little experience at that point in my career. The night before trial, the prosecutor called me to go over a few pretrial matters. In the course of the conversation, he asked me, "What would you have settled this case for back in the beginning?" I told him I wouldn't have settled for anything less than two telephone counts, each of which carried a four-year term. In other words, I told the prosecutor that if he had offered an eight-year sentence, my client would have accepted it. The prosecutor replied, "If your client takes that deal and agrees to plead guilty tonight, you can have the two phone counts."
      Now, just so you understand, there are very rarely deals like that offered in drug cases. This was during the time of strict interpretation of the mandatory sentencing guidelines, before even the first-time-offender exceptions were passed. My client was an illegal Mexican immigrant in Orange County, a very conservative place. Considering all those factors, and after consulting with another attorney whom I respected, I agreed on my client's behalf. Now, whether that lawyer would have himself taken the deal in the same situation is a question I didn't think to ask him.
      I advised my client to take the deal, and he agreed. That very night, they brought the judge back to take the plea. During the plea colloquy, when I was asked the required questions, including whether I was confident that the plea was in my client's best interest, I started to cry. My client started to cry too, not because he was going to jail for eight years but because he was upset that I was upset. He liked me, and trusted me, and didn't want to see me cry. We both stood there crying.
      Looking back all these years later, I know I could have destroyed the informant's credibility. But I chickened out, I guess. My client was facing a 24-year sentence. Eight years seemed like a lot less. But if I had had just one more year of experience, I never would have done it. I would have laughed in the prosecutor's face.
      Distinguished Emeritus Professor
      UC Hastings College of the Law
      San Francisco
      In 1982 Grodin was appointed to the California Supreme Court as an associate justice, a position he held until January 1987, when he, along with Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso and Chief Justice Rose Bird, were recalled in a statewide referendum after they voted to reverse dozens of death penalty sentences. Upon leaving the court, Grodin became a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. He continues to teach there part time, as well as doing both mediation and arbitration work.
      In November 1986, Chief Justice Bird, Justice Reynoso, and I were on the ballot for confirmation to our positions on the California Supreme Court. Earlier that year, Gov. George Deukmejian threw his weight behind a movement to unseat Chief Justice Rose Bird from the court because of her decisions reversing death penalty judgments. Soon after, the governor announced that he would reserve judgment about whether Justice Reynoso and I should remain on the court until he had an opportunity to review our actions in pending death penalty cases.
      This announcement created a dilemma for me. If I voted to reverse a death penalty judgment, I would be incurring the governor's disfavor. But if I voted to affirm, it might well appear to outsiders that I was doing so simply to remain in office. For that reason, I seriously considered recusing myself from death penalty cases until after the election, to avoid the appearance of conflict.
      As it happens, there was an opinion circulating within the court at the time to affirm a death penalty, and I was the author of that opinion. I thought, "OK, if I come out with this opinion affirming the death penalty, it's going to look like I was bowing to the governor's pressure. And how is that going to make the defendant feel? And his lawyer?" But if I recused myself from all pending death penalty cases, that would have been quite disruptive to the work of the court, and it would be said that I was afraid or unwilling to perform my judicial duties.
      I decided not to recuse, and I came out with that opinion, with predictable consequences. The group that was opposing us promptly said, "See, he is doing that to gain votes." If I had it to do over again, I think I still would have done what I did. But I have often thought about what would have happened if I had made the other decision.
      San Francisco
      Thorn began practicing law in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, and in the decades since she has represented, among many others, Boz Scaggs, various Fortune 500 CEOs, Danielle Steele, and Lia Belli (attorney Melvin Belli's fifth wife) in divorce proceedings.
      If I had it to do over again, I probably would have put off going to law school. That way, I would have had an easier time of it. At Hastings, there were only three women in my class-and one lasted only three months. The first year, nobody talked to me. However, when I ended up first in my class, everybody wanted to study with me.
      Maybe I would have gotten a masters or a PhD in math or economics and gone to work for a company. That would have been interesting. But maybe not as interesting as what I ended up doing by hanging in there.
      I remember that the year I passed the bar, along with three or four other women, the San Francisco Examiner came and took pictures of us. It didn't hit me at the time, but it was a news event. I also remember that when I showed up in court with brief case in hand, judges would say, "Ma'am, where's your lawyer?"
      I expected to succeed. So I guess it was quite a shock that after all that work, people wouldn't recognize me as an attorney. Now, however, they do call me by name when I go to court.
      Yagman & Yagman & Reichmann
      Venice Beach
      Yagman, a prominent civil rights attorney and former CLAY Award winner, was convicted last year of tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud, and money laundering. He has been sentenced to three years in federal prison.
      On August 12, 1973, at 1:30 a.m., Roger Jones got into Arlene Slansky's storefront apartment at 70 Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Roger was the younger brother of Slansky's sometime boyfriend, who had a key to Slansky's apartment.
      This is taken from the August 21, 1973, transcript of the preliminary hearing in People of the State of New York v. Roger Jones, N347157. It was my first time cross-examining a witness, and it was a rape case.
      YAGMAN: What happened next? You were struggling in the middle of your apartment?
      SLANKSY: I told him I will do anything he wanted as long as he got out of my place.
      YAGMAN: Did the defendant ask you to
      do anything?
      SLANSKY: Yes.
      YAGMAN: What did he ask you to do?
      SLANSKY: He wanted to go to bed with me. That's what.
      YAGMAN: Do you recall what he said to you, his exact words?
      SLANSKY: Approximately-
      YAGMAN: "I want to go to bed with you?"
      SLANSKY: Yes, approximately that.
      YAGMAN: What did you say to him when he said that to you?
      SLANSKY: I don't think it is a matter of what you said. When you are captive in your own place and you can't get out, you do anything to get that person out of your place.
      YAGMAN: What did you say to him when he said that, if anything?
      SLANSKY: I agreed, just to get him out of
      my place.
      YAGMAN: What happened after you agreed?
      SLANSKY: Okay. So he wanted to do it on
      my floor.
      YAGMAN: He wanted to have sexual intercourse with you on your floor?
      SLANSKY: Right. Then he said, "Okay, up into your bed." So I have a loft bed. So, we went up there.
      YAGMAN: What happened then?
      SLANSKY: So I had intercourse with him against my will.
      YAGMAN: Objection, Your Honor.
      THE COURT: Strike out "against my will."
      YAGMAN: Did the defendant's penis penetrate your vagina?
      OPPOSING COUNSEL: Objection.
      THE COURT: We will not go into the details on this preliminary hearing. Next question. Don't put any more questions like that.
      Rape is about power, domination, and the peculiar way in which men can hurt women. It is perhaps the most horrible violation of one's humanity.
      I've kept the transcript in my desk since the summer of '73 to remind me never again to defend someone whom I believed to be guilty of rape.
      Arguedas, Cassman & Headley
      When the famous get in trouble, they often knock on Arguedas's door. A nationally known criminal-defense lawyer for high-profile clients-from O. J. Simpson to Barry Bonds-Arguedas is known for her aggressive cross-examinations of witnesses.
      I wish I had taken time off before I started my career. I would have done some serious traveling and living in another country. When I was college age, some people took a year off and hitchhiked across Asia or Europe. But not me. With everything else, you can kind of redo it: If you think you made an error, you can try to fix it along the way. But spending a year abroad is impossible to do now unless you are willing to take that amount of time off work, which I don't want to do.

Alexandra Brown

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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