Alice Cheng / Louis Goodman – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:04
In collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association, this is Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with members of the ACBA about their lives and legal careers. I’m Louis Goodman, a host of the LTL podcast, and yes, I’m a member of the Alameda County Bar Association. As a managing attorney at the Candelaria Law Firm, Alice Cheng handles dissolutions of marriage, legal separations, property divisions, and all aspects of family law. She tried eight criminal cases as a legal intern for the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office. She’s a member of the Asian American Bar Association, Women Lawyers of Alameda County and is on the executive board of the Earl Warren American Inn of Court. She’s been selected as a Super Lawyer and as a Super Lawyer rising star. She speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and perhaps most impressive she will be president of the Alameda County Bar Association for the year 2023. Alice Cheng, welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Lovey Lawyer Podcast.
Well, it’s a pleasure to have you, and we have a very good turnout, no doubt, because you are the guest. Where are you talking to us from right now?
Alice Cheng 01:37
The 15th floor of our building in our second office for Candelaria PC in Oakland, California. We are in what was known as the Oakland Bank Building, which is kind of right next to the Tribune Building. So, it’s actually what my view of out my window is of the Tribune Tower.
Louis Goodman 01:55
How long have you been there?
Alice Cheng 01:56
We actually only got the space last December, so we went in the opposite direction that most people were going in during the pandemic, which was to run far, far away from having any physical office space. We instead embraced it and got more office space.
Louis Goodman 02:10
And what kind of practice do you have?
Alice Cheng 02:11
My practice is like pretty much 99% family law.
Louis Goodman 02:14
Where are you from originally, Alice?
Alice Cheng 02:16
I was born in Hong Kong and my family immigrated here when I was six years old, and we moved to San Francisco because that’s where all of my relatives were moving to. My aunt from my mom’s side, my second aunt, had married and moved to San Francisco, and when the immigration laws shifted in the eighties, everybody put in an application to move to America and hopefully have the American dream. So, in 1990 we moved here to San Francisco, and I grew up in San Francisco proper.
Louis Goodman 02:50
Is that where you went to high school?
Alice Cheng 02:51
Louis Goodman 02:53
Which one did you go to?
Alice Cheng 02:55
I attended Lowell High School.
Louis Goodman 02:56
Well, that’s impressive.
Alice Cheng 02:58
Yeah. I’ve gotten comments of “That’s impressive.” Or “Oh, you went to Lowell!”
Louis Goodman 03:04
Well, I’m impressed by people who went to Lowell, just like I’m impressed with someone who went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City. I think that the schools like that are really amazing places and they have launched the careers of many, many very accomplished people. So, after you got out of Lowell, where’d you go to college?
Alice Cheng 03:26
I went to UC Davis sight unseen, only to realize that it’s really hot up there and I thought I had made a mistake, but it turned out to be the best decision that I could have made at that young age.
Louis Goodman 03:38
Well, you must have made the right decision because you decided to go to law school there as well. Is that correct?
Alice Cheng 03:43
That is correct.
Louis Goodman 03:44
What was it about Davis that you enjoyed so much?
Alice Cheng 03:47
You know, it’s like the complete opposite of San Francisco in many respects. You know, people don’t have cars on campus. You’re actually banned mostly from having a car as a freshman. And so, you know, you bike everywhere, you walk, you take, you know, take the bus, which is not unlike San Francisco, but the bus shuts down at, you know, maybe 9, 10 o’clock at night. It’s still pretty rural all-around Davis, even though Davis itself is a really nice little college town. I’ve met lots of really good people there, and for law school really, it turned out to be a great place to study. Not too many distractions.
Louis Goodman 04:23
You know, everyone that I’ve ever met in my entire life who went to Davis for either college or law school tells me that it was just great being in Davis. So, I think you made the right choice. When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer? When did you first say, Hey, you know, being a lawyer is kind of what I wanna do, what I wanna be when I grow up?
Alice Cheng 04:47
So, I grew up in a very working class family, you know, family of immigrants. My parents did not speak fluent English whatsoever, and they actually, my mom still doesn’t, certainly did not have any lawyers in our family or in our immediate community. And so it wasn’t until middle school, I believe, that I had encountered an attorney. And it was, I went to Martin Luther King Middle School in San Francisco and at that point there was a career day and there was an attorney there for Morrison & Forester that was present and just talking about what they did from day to day. And I thought that sounded pretty cool. And I did have some of my teachers that felt that my strengths were in kind of the language arts era, right? English, writing, reading, and that I was very eloquent and argumentative probably as a kid. So, they thought that being a lawyer was a good idea. So, someone early on had planted that seed, some of my teachers.
In high school, I was still thinking that that was what I was going to do, but I really liked watching police procedurals and legal procedurals on TV. And so I actually thought that I really wanted to be a prosecutor. And then there was actually one event that had happened in my, I think eighth grade at Martin Luther King. My brother was at a local high school right nearby, and we were walking home and when we were walking he, me and one of his friends were stopped by a group of people who then proceeded to rob us and also attack my brother. So, you know, that experience really kind of colored my worldview in some ways. And, you know, nothing came out of it. It was a bunch of kids fighting on a street in front of a donut shop. But it really did color my view, and after that I thought that it would be really cool to become a prosecutor.
Louis Goodman 06:44
Well, you did go work in the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office for a while, and you tried some cases there, so I mean, what did you think of being a prosecutor?
Alice Cheng 06:54
Yeah, so I actually went into college just thinking that’s just what I’m gonna do. Not that I wanted to be a lawyer, but specifically I wanted to go to law school to become a prosecutor. And so both in college and in law school I had that experience of working at DA’s Offices. I actually worked at Yolo County as a college student in their Check Fraud Unit, and then come law school, after my, starting my 2L year, I started interning at the DA’s Office in Sacramento.
I really enjoyed the experience of doing, you know, 1538 motions and preliminary hearings and detention hearings and things of that sort in Juvenile Court. And it wasn’t until I actually passed the bar and was a practicing attorney that I got to do any jury trials. So, those eight trials are actually jury trials. There’s a number of bench trials that I don’t even know anymore how many, but the eight misdemeanor jury trials, that is an experience that I will never forget. I learned so much, not just about the practice of law, but also about who I am as an attorney and what my strengths and weaknesses are from that process.
Louis Goodman 08:03
Tell us a little bit about how you went from the District Attorney’s Office and then ultimately ended up in a very heavy family law practice.
Alice Cheng 08:13
I graduated from law school in 2010. And so, from anybody who may remember, that was during one of the economic downturns. The last one, I suppose. And I thought I was really lucky because so many of my classmates were not working at all, but I had a clerkship lined up at the DA’s Office or a post-bar law clerk position lined up there. That initially was unpaid, but eventually I got paid and I thought I was so lucky. And I was really, really enjoying my time there.
But unfortunately, a majority of my classmates, including me, we all got laid off from the DA’s Office. Back then in the culture in Sacramento County they alternated between laying off people at the DA’s Office and laying off people at the PDs Office. So of course, you know, in a seniority-based system, it was often the youngest attorneys that would get laid off. So unfortunately I was laid off and at that point I had to decide if I wanted to stay in the Sacramento Area and try to apply for jobs up there or should I move back. So, I did move back to the Bay Area because all of my family is here.
My then boyfriend, now husband was down in the Bay Area. So, I decided at the very least I could move back down here and, you know, try to decide what I was going to do with my career.
I just thought that I should practice in an area, if not practicing criminal law, an area where I would be working with people and where I would get courtroom experience, because I really did enjoy that aspect of practice. And so, I kind of fell into family law on accident.
It was on my short list of types of jobs I was applying to, but I had a classmate of mine who said, “Hey, you know, I’ve got, I know of this position that’s going to be opening up soon. You should apply.” And so, I applied for that job and that was back in 2012 and the rest is kind of history.
Louis Goodman 10:07
So, you’ve been doing pretty much family law for the last 10 years, is that fair to say?
Alice Cheng 10:11
Louis Goodman 10:11
Yeah. Okay. What do you really like about practicing law?
Alice Cheng 10:15
Working with people, definitely. And in some ways our clients and their stories and what happens to them. It’s often more incredible than anything you could see on TV or in a movie, and so in some ways, no two days are the same.
Family law can be difficult in that it’s so highly emotional, highly charged, but every once in a while, you know when people aren’t bickering over lamps or you know, kind of minuscule things, you really do get the chance to feel like you helped somebody in a big way, in a big transition in their life.
Louis Goodman 10:51
If a young person was just graduating from college and thinking about a career move, would you recommend going into law?
Alice Cheng 10:58
I think that with how expensive law school has gotten, ridiculously so, that they really ought to be sure that practicing law is actually what they would want to do and that it’s actually necessary getting that degree to do what they want to do.
And if they’re going in eyes wide open, then that’s great. But I’ve had a number of classmates from my class in 2010 that just never ended up practicing at all. You know and part of it is probably they were kind of victims of the times of the economic conditions. It just seems like a whole lot of time and money to spend if you’re not a hundred percent sure that you need that law degree.
Louis Goodman 11:35
how about the business of practicing law? You know, you’re in a world where business is important, where you work not for a government, not for a big corporation, but you work in a law firm that deals with people and people who have to pay for legal services and people who have to get billed for legal services.
So, I’m wondering if you just talk a little bit about the business of running a law practice?
Alice Cheng 12:04
Sure. So, I am really getting my feet wet on the business side of things. You know, I’m the managing attorney, but our principal, Vanessa Candelaria, was really the one who was kind of holding up all of the business side of things. So, I’m really learning a lot from her. You know, we’re a small business at the end of the day, probably larger than a lot of family law firms are. We have six family law attorneys, one estate planning side attorney, 15 employees total. And so, the overhead is pretty significant. You know, one thing that I have learned is that when we’re doing our consultations with clients, and along the way as well, I try really to tell clients, you know, I’m trying to save you money in the moves that we’re making and the strategy that we have in your case, but there’s really no way for me to estimate how much the cost is going to be at the end of the day just because there are so many different types of, you know, there’s so many different types of things that I can’t control, right?
I can’t control what the court’s going to do. I can’t control what opposing party or counsel’s going to do. I can control what I’m gonna do and guide my client towards a good resolution, but at the end of the day, it’s an hourly type of arrangement, and so it can get very costly very quickly.
Louis Goodman 13:21
Does your firm use any particular type of law firm software?
Alice Cheng 13:28
We use MyCase for our communications as well as for our buildings.
Louis Goodman 13:32
Is that something that you’ve always used or is it something that came in after you got there?
Alice Cheng 13:38
MyCase was already in the Candelaria firm in 2019 when I joined. Prior to that, at the firms that I worked at, everybody used at the good old sage time slips, which you know, has some good functions, but didn’t necessarily have more of a full-scale type package.
Louis Goodman 13:56
Just to put in a little plug for the podcast, I’m gonna be talking to the guy, Mr. Spiegel, who developed MyCase, probably next week’s podcast. So anyway, I’m always interested in, you know, what people are doing and using in terms of software practice management. Is there anything that you know now that you really wished you knew before you started practicing?
Alice Cheng 14:19
I think that as young attorneys, there’s a lot of pressure to, you know, if you’re doing consultations, take on whatever case comes across the desk because you want clients, you wanna show your employer that you’re contributing and that, you know, you’re doing some rain making, right? Because that is a very real part of the business.
But at the same time, I think life is too short if you have red flags. You know, if there’s red flags that are coming up, right? Like for example, you see that a client has had multiple attorneys in the past, especially if an attorney has to actually file a request to be relieved as counsel. That’s a huge red flag. And just anytime that you have red flags that concern you about whether or not you’re going to have a good attorney-client relationship with that client, it may cost you less at the end of the day to pass up that business, and just say, “I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s a good fit.”
In personality, I’m a people pleaser. I want to, you know, I want to help people. And so I want to say yes to everybody, right? Saying no is actually something I’m actively working on, but often saying no may have been the better answer to start.
Louis Goodman 15:26
Well, thanks for saying yes to being on this podcast.
Alice Cheng 15:30
No, that was an easy yes.
Louis Goodman 15:32
Two-part question: what do you think’s the best advice you’ve ever received and what advice would you give to a young attorney just starting out in a family law practice?
Alice Cheng 15:44
The best advice that I received is to just get really active in your local bar. Whether that’s through an organization like the Inns of Court, uh, or you know, the local bar association, like the Alameda County Bar or an affinity bar, you know, like the Asian American Bar, Charles Houston, we’ve got so many in this area, right?
The networking is by far the way that I have been able to organically grow my business, right? And I think that in the long run, those connections that you’re making with others that are in the community, that are not just part of the family law bar are how you’re going to often receive referrals.
Louis Goodman 16:25
So, that is kind of the best advice that you’ve gotten and the advice that you would give?
Alice Cheng 16:30
Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, the networking has definitely contributed a lot to where I am today, right? It was because of networking that I joined the Alameda County Bar. I mean, I think I would’ve always probably joined the bar when I was moving over from a job in Martinez to Oakland, but it was actually a colleague that I had met at the Inn of Court.
We started at the same time at the Inns, Vince Tong who said, “Hey, I’m part of the Barristers Section in Alameda County Bar. I think you’d really enjoy it there. You should come check it out with me sometime.” So, I did, and you know, I ended up spending probably five years being on that section board.
Louis Goodman 17:12
What’s your family life been like and how has practicing law and your family life fit in with each other?
Alice Cheng 17:19
You know, that’s a really interesting question. I’m married, like I mentioned earlier, my husband and I actually met at Davis, so in some ways if I hadn’t gone there, I probably would’ve never met him. And so, we’ve been together since 2007 and we stuck with it and ended up getting married in 2016.
We don’t have any kids. I am the aunt of two lovely little nieces that live in Concord, and I actually have quite a large extended family. My dad’s no longer with us. We lost him in January 2021. So, in some ways the pandemic was a real silver lining for us because I got to spend so much time with him during that last year that I probably would’ve not otherwise been able to.
My mom still lives in San Francisco and my very large extended family on my mom’s side, you know, my mom has nine siblings, seven of them are in San Francisco or close enough to San Francisco. I really do think that in many ways I have made the decision to place my career first. I’m not actually a hundred percent sure whether I want kids, so I’m kind of letting the universe take the course on that. So, I suppose it’s still possible, but I’ve definitely decided in some ways that my career was going to be more important. At least for now.
Louis Goodman 18:36
Let’s say you came into some real money, 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Alice Cheng 18:44
So, the real money is no longer even one that starts with an M, huh? It has to be the one that starts with a B?
Louis Goodman 18:49
Has to start with a B, yeah.
Alice Cheng 18:50
Wow. Okay. I don’t think I would stop working in the most strictest of terms. I might not be practicing family law, but I would want to still, you know, maybe run a non-profit or sit on some boards and still do something meaningful, but maybe I would be doing it on a much more part-time basis. Who knows?
Louis Goodman 19:12
Let’s say you had a magic wand, there was one thing in the world, the legal world or otherwise, that you could change, what would that be?
Alice Cheng 19:19
Oh, probably enough funding for the courts, at this point. You know, it’s so hard to practice these days when there’s just a lot of either inconsistencies in how things are done from county to county, just because of budgetary reasons.
Louis Goodman 19:35
Since you observe court so much, do you have any judicial aspirations?
Alice Cheng 19:41
You know, I’ve had a few mentors that have planted some seeds in my mind. I don’t feel like that’s something that I’m ready to do anytime soon. I’m still really enjoying practice and helping to build out our practice, but one day. I know I’ve seen in Alameda, for example, that some of the bench officers are not getting there until their late sixties. I think this is to say that the possibility is certainly out there.
Louis Goodman 20:10
I would like at this time to call on some of the people who are on the call with us and see if someone has a question for you.
So let me start with Shannon Wolfram. Shannon, do you have a question or a comment for Alice Cheng?
Shannon Wolfram 20:31
Yes. Hi Alice. It’s so good to see you. I would like to know what are some of your plans for being president for next year for the Alameda County Bar Association?
Alice Cheng 20:41
Hey Shannon. Great question. I saw Judge Smiley a couple weeks ago. You know, we were talking about how it’s going to be his second year as presiding Judge of Alameda County Courts and that I would be the president of Alameda County Bar, and he did ask me like, do you have a theme or a vision of something that you want to do? And I told him then that I was thinking about whether a theme or a vision would be something good to have. And you know, some of the ideas that have come across my mind is, you know, how can we connect closer to the community? You know, one of the big things that I’ve done a lot of work on over the last few years is with the Alameda County Bar Association’s Racial Justice Task Force, which is done in conjunction with Charles Houston Bar, and I don’t really wanna stop that. I think it would be great to continue that process. So, I’d like to continue that.
You know, unfortunately it seems like a lot of violence towards Asians and Asian Americans in the Bay Area continues, and so it would be nice to see if there was something more that we can do to connect with some of the local nonprofits in the area, and I would love to see if we can take that further over the next year.
I would also just like to see us continue to have a tighter bond with the bench. And I think we all have similar goals that we should be wanting to improve the practice of law and, you know, strengthen the bench’s ability to be able to do more good work for the community. So maybe we can get together with those groups and try to create more of a bond.
Louis Goodman 22:22
Dorothy Proudfoot, as an alum of this podcast, I’d like to give you the next question.
Dorothy Proudfoot 22:30
Well, thanks so much, Lou. Hi Alice. Good to see you. Kind of in the same vein, I wanted to ask about ACBA plans under your rule. Do you anticipate having more in person training programs, educational programs, and social programs? And the reason I ask is because it was actually mentioned to me in a conversation I had recently that it’s been kind of hard to build bonds with folks. We’ve had so many new bench officers in these last two and a half years who, you know, we haven’t been able to see them regularly at events and things like that, which I think we otherwise would’ve expected. And certainly, networking with folks is just, you know, you can only do so much on Zoom. What are your thoughts and plans? You know, juries willing, what are your thoughts and plans for your year?
Alice Cheng 23:18
So, one of the things I definitely want to encourage the barrister section, and I’ll give them all the support that I can to bring back is the barristers and judges social that we used to do every year that we haven’t done since 2019. Well, in person anyway. I think we did do a virtual one in 2020 and I don’t know that we did one this past year. The bench here in Alameda has always been so supportive, especially of the younger attorneys. And so hopefully that is something we do in 2023.
Louis Goodman 23:47
Zoe Brown, are you there?
Zoe Brown 23:49
Hi, so I work with Alice. I have a substantive question and then a fun question for you, Alice. So, one, I was just thinking what drew me to the firm was the fact that you were a managing attorney and then that’s rare, I think in the private firm space. So, if you could talk a little bit about how you envision, you know, and operate your role as a managing attorney, that would be interesting. And then what is an unusual fact that most people probably don’t know about you?
Alice Cheng 24:17
Ooh, that’s a good question. You know, the funny thing about the managing attorney thing is that it’s just something that, it’s not something that I made up, but it’s just something that happened kind of on a whim.
I had this case where I was dealing with someone who had been out of law school, I think at that point, like six years out or something like that, and I saw that in her signature box she said that she was the managing attorney. I’m like, shoot, why am I not the managing attorney? So I went to our principal, Vanessa Candelaria, and I said, “Hey Vanessa, can I be the managing attorney?” She said, “Sure, whatever you want.” So that’s kind of how that came to be, right? And so, I think the most important aspect of my job that I hopefully will take the most, you know, I thought, I think I take the most seriously, time allowing, is the mentorship aspect.
I’ll harken back to my days at Davis where I did things that I think are kind of funny. At Davis, I actually worked at the transportation and parking services. I got that job because a friend who was also already working there when I was a freshman said, Hey, you should just work here too. And that’s actually how I met my husband when he later joined the same office. And at that office I did anything from customer service to helping people jumpstart their cars if their battery died, helping to pick their lock if they accidentally locked their keys in their car to issuing parking citations. So, I was everybody’s best friend slash enemy.
Louis Goodman 25:47
Molly Laughlin, do you have a question or a comment for Alice?
Molly Laughlin 25:52
You know, I do. I am one of Alice’s biggest fans, I’ve known her a long time and she’s just amazing. So as many of you may know, Alice is a major foodie. She is the go-to person, I think, to ask for recommendations about where to go to eat. Favorite restaurants, new spots, inventive cuisine, things like that. So, my question, Alice, I feel like I ask students frequently, what are some of the favorite dishes or meals that you’ve had that come to mind?
Alice Cheng 26:26
When we went to Hong Kong in 2013, we went to a small fishing village where they cooked whatever they caught. And we had these mantis prawns that were so fresh and delicious. I mean, it was probably the most I had ever paid for lunch, but it was really well worth it. So, I think if I were to go back to Hong Kong, that would definitely be one place I would want to revisit. On the fancier side, I would say that my husband, then boyfriend, had promised that if I passed the bar, he would take me to the French Laundry. And I did not collect on that actually until, I mean, it passed the bar in 2010 and I didn’t collect on it until like, I don’t know, 2017, I think. So I waited quite a long time, but that was a wonderful meal that we had with all the wine pairings and everything.
Louis Goodman 27:15
Sara Driesen, are you there?
Sara Driesen 27:17
What is your peak and pit of being a family law attorney?
Alice Cheng 27:22
I don’t know if I’ve hit the peak yet. I’m not really sure. I am still trying a lot of different things. The most recent, over the last few years is, you know, really kind of solidifying myself as an attorney that people go to for minor’s counsel work. And so, you know when, when unfortunately one or both parents are having such a hard time with their relationships and with their children, that the court feels it’s necessary to appoint an attorney to represent the child’s best interest. Sometimes they’ll ask an attorney like me to step in. I don’t know if that’s the peak or the pit. You know, it’s a little bit of both, because, you know going into the job, you’re gonna really end up pissing off one of them, maybe even both parents. But, you know, I like to think of it as being there for the kids and making sure that they have a voice in the system.
Louis Goodman 28:10
Melissa Moore, are you on the call?
Melissa Moore 28:13
I didn’t have a particular question, but I can say that Ms. Cheng has been very friendly and inviting and informative in the few times I’ve had a chance to talk with her, and she spent quite a bit of her Friday evening addressing a complicated family issue, to me it was complicated anyway, and I was just really grateful for that. So, I was really excited to hear that she was going to be sharing more of herself and her background today. So, thank you for being here.
Louis Goodman 28:42
Unfortunately, we are getting very close to the end of this podcast. I have just a couple more questions for you, Alice. How can someone get in touch with you if they want to do that, what’s the best way to do that, Alice?
Alice Cheng 29:00
Probably email [email protected]
Louis Goodman 29:04
And can people reach you by going to candelarialawoffices.com on the internet?
Alice Cheng 29:12
Yes, that is definitely another way as well.
Louis Goodman 29:14
Alice, is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you would like to discuss or make a comment about?
Alice Cheng 29:22
I think one of the other things is that, you know, the Inn of Court is also very close to my heart. Lou, before we started recording, you and I were talking about being in the Inn and I had commented that I couldn’t believe it was almost 10 years since I had joined the Inn. You know, time really flies when you’re having fun. For anyone who is looking for a way to get to know either the local bench in Alameda County or other attorneys that are outside of your practice area or, and just maybe let loose and have some fun while getting some continuing education credits and learning about some very cutting-edge topics, I cannot more strongly recommend joining the Inn of Court.
Louis Goodman 30:03
Alice Cheng, thank you so much for joining us today at the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer Podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Alice Cheng 30:13
Thank you so much everybody. I really enjoyed this.
Louis Goodman 30:17
That’s it for today’s edition of Love Thy Lawyer in collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association. Please visit the lovethylawyer.com website where you can find links to all of our episodes. Also, please visit the Alameda County Bar Association Website at ACBAnet.org, where you can find more information about our support of the legal profession, promoting excellence in the legal profession and facilitating equal access to justice.
Special thanks to ACBA president Pamela Ross and Criminal Justice Chair Annie Beles, staff members Cailin Dahlin, Sayeed Randall, Valerie Brown Lescroart and Hadassah Hayashi.
Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Alice Cheng 31:25
I don’t know that I wanna be doing that in my late sixties.