Dale Minami / Louis Goodman – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to attorneys about their lives and careers. I’m Louis Goodman. Today we welcome Dale Minami to the podcast. Mr. Minami is recognized as one of the top personal injury lawyers in the Bay Area. He’s been named a Top 100 Super Lawyer. He has awards too numerous to mention.
He’s been involved in significant civil rights litigation and was part of the legal team that worked on overturning the internment law conviction in the famous case of Korematsu versus the United States. He has been very involved in the judicial appointments process and in my view is personally responsible for numerous judges who are on the bench in the Bay Area.
Dale Minami, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Dale Minami 01:00
Thank you. Happy to be here.
Louis Goodman 01:02
It’s a pleasure to have you. It’s so nice to be talking to you this afternoon. Where are you located right now? Where are you talking to us from?
Dale Minami 01:11
I’m talking to you from San Francisco, California, from my home.
Louis Goodman 01:17
I set it up a little bit in the introduction, but can you tell us what kind of a practice you have? How do you see your practice?
Dale Minami 01:26
Well, my practice started out as a poverty law practice, civil rights practice at the Asian Law Caucus. And after I went into private practice, I took virtually any type of case that would come in the door for which I had to learn brand new, very many, many areas of practice. Right now the most I’ve done is civil, is civil practice, and it’s personal injury.
Louis Goodman 01:51
Where are you from originally?
Dale Minami 01:53
I grew up in a little town south of Los Angeles called Gardena, California, and a little hamlet, maybe 15 thousand people as I grew up, and it was part of LA County, but it was a little bit of an unusual city because it was pretty diverse. It was mostly lower to middle income people. It included a lot of Hispanics, Latinx, Japanese Americans, and later more African Americans, including the Caucasian Americans as well.
Louis Goodman 02:24
Is that where you went to high school?
Dale Minami 02:26
I did. I went to Gardena High School.
Louis Goodman 02:28
When you graduated from Gardenia, where did you go to college?
Dale Minami 02:33
I went to the University of Southern California as an undergrad.
Louis Goodman 02:38
And when you graduated from there, you went on to law school, where’d you go to law school?
Dale Minami 02:43
So I went to as far away as I could from Southern California. That was still in the state of California. And that would be at University of California at Berkeley School of Law.
Louis Goodman 02:52
Did you go directly from college to law school or did you take some time off?
Dale Minami 03:01
No, I went directly from college to law school. I didn’t have the foresight or the maturity to understand that taking the time off might help me with better judgment, better understandings, but so I just went straight through. I was a buzz saw.
Louis Goodman 03:19
When was it and what was it that made you decide that you wanted to be a lawyer?
Dale Minami 03:27
Probably passing the bar was the thing that convinced me most of all, because I wasn’t very committed to being an attorney, although I think my father subtly influenced me to become one, I think he wanted to be one but given the times and the challenges he had, he could not either afford to get into law school. So I didn’t decide to be a lawyer early on like so many people. Mostly it was after I graduated from law school and passed the bar that I decided that, well, you know, this is an interesting profession.
My father wanted me, I think, to become a lawyer, although he convinced me to go to law school because I had a choice between social psychology, grad school or law school, and he thought that having gone through the depression, having been incarcerated during World War II with 120 thousand Americans with Japanese ancestry he thought that in the future, and having a background in law will be much more practical for getting a job for employment. And I think also for wielding some measure of power that he certainly did not have, nor did our community at that time.
Louis Goodman 04:41
What was the transition like going from Southern California to Northern California for you?
Dale Minami 04:46
Huge. There’s two different cultures. At the time I grew up in Los Angeles, and it still is to some degree, Los Angeles was dominated by the culture of Hollywood, so that there was a lot of trendy, pretty conformist behavior going on. I knew that at Berkeley it was just the opposite, almost. It was nonconformist and it was very much more accepting of idiosyncrasies, which still pretty much is. I had hoped to find much more of a quote home unquote, than in Southern California. It seemed very much more restricted culturally.
Louis Goodman 05:29
What year? What year was it that you went to Berkeley from USC?
Dale Minami 05:36
I started Berkeley in 1968 and of course, as many of us know, that was kind of the year of our generation speaking out, growing up, reaching adulthood, rebelling. And that was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, so was Robert Kennedy. It was either that Tommy Smith, John Carlos raised the black glove in Mexico City to protest against African American discrimination. It was the year that the Chicago Democratic Convention devolved into riots and actually deaths. So it was quite a several year, a remain important year for our generation because it was our coming of age and it was our statement to the world that, you know, we have our own identity, we have our own culture.
It was also a time when the third rule strike happened, so people of color, you know, rose up at San Francisco State and staged the longest student strike in American history so that all Americans could understand better the history, the contributions of people of color. And which was not taught in schools at all, or it was of fanciful, distorted view of history that was being taught. And it was also year that the counterculture, you know, asserted itself the tune in, turn on, dropout. And so all of these different trends, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war collided, it seemed in one place at one time. And that seemed to me like Berkeley, California, although of course it happened all over the country,
Louis Goodman 07:18
Being in Berkeley at that time, how did all of that affect you?
Dale Minami 07:23
Well, you know, you couldn’t help but be influenced. And I had also very enlightened roommates too. So at the time we’ve had discussions. Berkeley was a place of intellectual ferment. A lot of issues were raised, student strikes occurred, there were boycotts of classes. We probably spend more time on the street than in class sometimes. We experienced tear gas for the first time, and it really did make you think about what was different about this city, it made you think about the issues in this country that needed to be addressed, issues that related to racial and quality, income inequality, women’s rights, so many issues that we’re still debating today. So I think Berkeley was a fertile ground for intellectual discourse, and of course it still is.
Louis Goodman 08:18
How do you think the social situation and the social discourse differs from that time to this time?
Dale Minami 08:29
You know, there are some common trends. Of course there are people who don’t want things to change and people who demand change. It’s much more, I think, polarized today. I think the racism that undergirds really this whole country, it’s like a river that occasionally overflows its banks when crisis occurs, comes to fruition in today’s world, but it’s way more polarized in the degree that positions are much harder, hardened.
And what we’ve seen is something that I would never think seen in my lifetime was the rise of white supremacy. And that is frightening to me because, you know, we thought those days of the KKK and the lynchings were over. We’re seeing a repeat of some of that history today.
Louis Goodman 09:20
When you graduated from law school in Berkeley, you went on and started essentially in public interest type work and now you are someone who has run a very successful, influential law practice for many years. I’m wondering if you could briefly take us through that career path and the development of your law firm.
Dale Minami 09:50
I’m not an attorney who became a judge later on in Alameda County, Judge Ken Kawaichi and Ken had the idea for this law commune that would serve the Asian Pacific Island community, which was here for pretty much ignored and thought of as invisible. And a group of students, including myself, gravitated toward this idea that we started meaning to form a community interest, public interest law firm that served the Asian Pacific American community.
Well, I was the first lawyer that graduated from that little group we had. And so I became the director of the Asian Law Caucus, which had a very ambitious agenda for a group that had no clients. They had no money, no power, no legal experience to speak of, but of course that means we had nothing to lose.
And because of that, we formed this organization. I became the executive director and the first attorney, and from there, part of my idea was to bring in folks to have the opportunity, experience community law, so we were supposed to be graduates and move on to other areas of law. We then formed a private firm, so going from a nonprofit community interest law firm, we went to a nonprofit private firm, which was of course unintentional. We still have the same values. We didn’t know how to charge these. We had to figure out a way to make money, but we continued to take on public interest cases.
Louis Goodman 11:27
How did you make money in those days?
Dale Minami 11:29
Garrick Lou and I started taking conflict cases and they were assigned all the clerks of the municipal court, the Oakland Piedmont Municipal Court, and we were told, you got to just go big. So we talked to the clerks and they were kind enough to send us these conflict cases and criminal defense cases and we got paid for it. So that was probably the most stable income that we received. But although we then took pretty much everything that came in from civil rights class actions to probate to conservatorships, which I’ll never do again, but, but we also did, you know, personal injury and contracts and landlord, tenant, I mean, you name it, we, we tried it because we pretty much had to.
Louis Goodman 12:16
When did you start getting very seriously involved in the personal injury work?
Dale Minami 12:21
You know, I got my first in personal injury case about a year out of after the law law caucus. And of all the cases I took, you know, and of course there was a diverse array of type cases, but I enjoyed the medical aspects of it. You know, I never wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t like the sight of blood, but I did abstract that and understand some of the injuries that my clients were suffering, which were similar to athletic injuries, you know, strains, sprains, you know, some were broken bones.
And I also like the physics part of it, the idea of how you could measure vectors, how you can establish who was at fault because they were mostly car accident cases. And also coming from the culture of the automobile in Southern California, all of these kind of came together and made it interesting to me and to help people who were, you know, suffering, was also a draw for me.
Louis Goodman 13:21
You’ve been practicing law for a long time. What is it that you really like about practicing law? I mean, obviously you could have retired years ago. You could have done something else career-wise, but you’ve been practicing a long time and you’ve stayed practicing, and you’re still practicing. W what is it about the law that keeps you here?
Dale Minami 13:43
The law is really challenging and at it’s most basic, it’s you have to solve a problem, and most of the times, or all the time you have to solve a problem in collaboration or in conflict, it turns out to be with an opposing counsel. So the idea of how do you solve the problem? And also help a person who has, are confronting problems, legal problems. So it’s like a little puzzle and if you could put the puzzle together and do some good for somebody and make a living at the same time, you’re enjoying the process of putting a puzzle together. I think probably those are the things that made me still interested in law.
Louis Goodman 14:30
If a young person were just coming outta college and thinking about laws, a career choice, would you recommend it?
Dale Minami 14:37
Yes, I would. I would think. I would think that, like my father said, as he always told me, he seems to get smarter the older I get. But the idea of what with law to me is, again, you don’t have to be some hard charging litigator. You could do all kinds of different occupations. It does give you a foundation.
And I think learning from some of my immigrant friends who are lawyers who, who are, or who have immigrant parents, they all, a lot of them had gone into law because it was pretty much self-protection. They would get taken advantage of, they couldn’t speak English. They needed to have an occupation that was able to translate or channel some of the power of the law into power in their own personal life. And when you add that to power for serving others, you know, it becomes very fulfilling.
Louis Goodman 15:36
How is actually practicing law either met or differed from your expectations about it?
Dale Minami 15:42
You know, I didn’t have very many expectations. What was fascinating is when I started learning how to practice law and deal with everyday problems with real people. Those aren’t taught in law school.
Louis Goodman 15:54
What about the business of practicing law? How’s that gone for you and what are your observations about practicing law as a business?
Dale Minami 16:07
When we were at the Asian Law Caucus, we received private grants, and so charging fees was not so much of an issue. Although we were able to charge fees in a very unusual tax exemption, we received.
The business of law is a whole different animal. You don’t learn that in law school, and that perhaps is the biggest challenge of going into practice and practicing law, especially if you’re doing it on your own because you eat what you kill, basically. So the business was really a different animals to us, we didn’t like to charge fees, but you know, we were forced to in order to survive.
And so understanding how to charge fees, being able to ask people for money, which was not in our wheelhouse, I guess, was perhaps the biggest challenge. And so running an organization from understanding the costs involved, including personnel cost, rent, all these other small costs that could, you know, nibble you to death, was certainly the biggest challenge.
The second one, in what was, you know, part of it was flip upside of that coin was getting clients and you had to get clients, or you didn’t get paid and if you didn’t get paid, you didn’t eat. So we had to do marketing, which was not something we were really fond of doing. And so we had to be a little bit hardened dollars. We had to understand that this is how you succeed by getting clients to pay fees.
Louis Goodman 17:40
I have always been impressed by your reputation for shepherding judges through the appointments process, and I’m wondering how you got involved in that and what your interest is in that, and tell us a little bit about what you recommend to people who wanna be a judge?
Dale Minami 18:07
When I first started practicing law, there were virtually no Asian Pacific Americans or people of color on the bench, and I was the recipient of pretty much unwanted, unwarranted, racist types of behavior by judges. Judges asked me to interpret for a Chinese client, even though I was Japanese, and snidely would remark, why can’t you do it? I said, your Honor, I am Japanese, my client is Chinese, and we come from two different countries. We speak different languages. And he knew that. And he goes, oh, okay, well I’ll appoint a translator then, which is what my motion was about. I heard judges talk about using the N word in chambers. They called people chinks. And so these things were appalling to me.
And with the lack of diversity, you know, we embarked on a campaign to diversify the bench. And Judge Ken Kawaichi became our Guinea pig. He was the only Asian, first Asian American judge appointed in Alameda County. We had two judges in San Francisco,
Judge Harry Low became a famous justice and other accomplishments, and a judge named Sam Wong, I believe. And so we didn’t have much representation and I felt that the culture of the bench needed to be changed and by then we had a new governor, Governor Jerry Brown, and Jerry Brown had a new appointment, secretary, Tony Klein, Anthony Klein, who became Court of Deal Justice, and Tony Klein helped us with the Asian Law Caucus when we started. So we appealed to him and said, you know, Tony, he wasn’t Justice Kline then, Tony, you know, we need to have some representation here, so should be his own values and the governor’s values they pointed Ken Kawaichi and eventually Lillian Sing to the San Francisco Superior Municipal Court. And that led me on a path to try to diversify as much as I could the bench and that meant really recruiting, really qualified people who would be good judges and were willing to go on the bench, which was difficult to do because it was difficult because so many, especially Asian Pacific Americans and people of color have this imposter syndrome. They think that, you know, well, I’m not good enough to be a judge when if you look at the records of the judges that were on the bench, then they were certainly as good as anyone else.
And so the problem was to recruit people and at the same time sensitize the powers that be, that they needed to diversify this bench and they needed to get with the program of the changing demographics of our state and country. So we did form an Asian American Bar Association, and I realized from o, you know, from long ago that organizations can wield a lot more power and leverage. And as a result, part of that mission of the Bar Association was to colorize the bench, put it in technicolor, not just black and white. And so that’s been a long-term goal of mine. We’ve seen much success in that area. So, the progress we’ve made in bringing judges of color to this bench or the benches in California at least, has been very satisfying and fulfilling.
Louis Goodman 21:37
What advice would you give to a young attorney just starting out in practice?
Dale Minami 21:42
I think you have to work hard. You really have to dedicate yourself and decide whether this is your passion or not.
Louis Goodman 21:51
Do you think the legal system is fair?
Dale Minami 21:54
A lawyer’s answer would be, it depends. It depends on what color you are. It depends on what venue you’re in. I believe the system is not perfect, but no system is. I think it’s probably the best. It could be. It could be better. So it’s, it’s a work in progress, but I do feel that it’s, uh, it’s a, a good system overall.
Louis Goodman 22:17
What’s your family life been like and how has that fit into your practice of law, your practice of law fit into your family life?
Dale Minami 22:27
Yeah. You know, I, I have a little bit of a non stereotypical, non-traditional family life in the sense that I was 63 when I had my first child and 66 when I had my second. So I have two girls, one age 13, one 11. My wife is 30 years younger than I am. And fortunately, she’s the mature one in the family, and I’m the immature one, so we kind of met in the middle, but she, by the way, works for the California Supreme Court, so she is a terrific debater, which is how we ended up with kids because I, she covered to every argument I could ever have.
And so in a sense, I was able to slow down at the time when we had children, and that was a blessing because then I got to spend more time with my kids and my family. I got to act, act like a father that I really was. And so I think that’s part of the balance. You have to balance out your personal life. And fortunately, I had a firm that was very much not just accommodating, they were encouraging folks to have full personal lives as well.
Louis Goodman 23:40
Have you had any interesting travel experience?
Dale Minami 23:43
Traveling to Japan was a revelation because my wife’s family is from there. She was born here. But, I got to see a part of Japan that I was unaware of, and especially since my wife’s and both my kids speak Japanese fluently, were able to navigate a Japan that was, perhaps a little more deep and buried than I would’ve been if I were speaking my, you know, elementary school Japanese to people there.
Louis Goodman 24:16
Speaking of your Japanese ancestry, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the Korematsu case and your participation in it. It obviously is a very famous case. I think most people, certainly in Northern California these days have some familiarity with it. Many of people who have visited his grave site in the Oakland Cemetery and I’m just wondering if you could just, just talk about that a little bit for the podcast.
Dale Minami 24:47
Yeah. I’ll give the Reader’s Digest version cuz it’s a very complicated case. Fred Korematsu opposed the military orders that banished 120 thousand Americans of Japanese ancestry to prisons throughout the country. They were not given any due process rights. They were American citizens, two thirds of them, and yet they were denied a right to a trial, right to attorney, right to notice of hearings.
A number of different constitutional rights were just abrogated under the pretext of being disloyal and being a danger to this country, so the case, the Fred Korematsu case, In which he violated the terms of those orders to leave them the area San Leandro specifically and or Oakland, and he violated those orders, was caught convicted, violating the law. His case eventually went up Supreme Court and in 1944 the court ruled the favor of the government even though there was no evidence. And the evidence in fact, that they had in their possession, the government was contrary to what they’re arguing in the Supreme Court.
Studies were shown that studies were existent, that Japanese Americans were not disloyal as a group, that there was no military necessity, that the claimed acts of espionage by the government were actually false. And these reports and documents that were supposed to be given to the defense, supposed to be revealed in the Supreme Court were suppressed. Some of them were altered to change the meaning. Some were destroyed, actually – documents that exonerated Japanese Americans. Supreme Court, of course, didn’t know this, so they issued a ruling, which is in anathema today. And it’s complete different deference to the president or the executive during times of crisis. And that in a sense, was an abdication of the rule, the Supreme Court obligations to hear the evidence, analyze the evidence. There was no evidence, and which was also the problem that the government faced years later when we challenged the Supreme Court decision or the convictions based on new evidence that was discovered, it showed that the government actively defrauded or misled the Supreme Court and those new documents were even admissions from the Department of Justice’s own attorneys saying that these are intentional false. It would be highly unfair to this minority group if these lies go uncorrected.
Other documents said, we are engaging in highly unethical behavior. And yet those documents, letters from the attorneys were suppressed. So we were able to reopen, case and the cases of Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui, two other men who challenged the military orders and in all three cases, of course, overturned the convictions. Two of them based on misconduct by the Department of Justice. And as a result, Fred had his conviction vacated. And he then became a spokesperson for civil rights. It also became a lesson in ethics. It became a lesson in government overreach. It became a lesson in transparency that is required of court, and it was also a lesson on the failure of the judicial system, which failure I believe continues today.
Louis Goodman 28:35
What mistakes do you think lawyers make?
Dale Minami 28:38
One I’ve seen is really lack of preparation. I think other types of mistakes are engendering conflict, acting in a hostile way, uncivilized behavior. Those are things that irk me the most. I mean, you know, I’ve lost cases to people who are very gracious and very smart and you know, I think there’s, in fact, when I counsel folks want to be judges, you know, one of the things I tell them is you need to have a record of civilized gracious behavior. It doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be soft and you gotta give in, but you have to be willing to act in a very, courteous way despite how you’re being treated. It’s really important. So I think those are mistakes. Trying to see, see things as everything as a battle of war, to the death when it’s just a case.
Louis Goodman 29:39
How do you define success?
Dale Minami 29:41
You know, I think that’s pretty much a personal thing. I remember my brother asked his son, you know, what do you wanna be when you grow up? He said, happy. And I thought that’s a pretty good definition of success. But I also think success means that you need to help people out as well. Horace Mann, famous educator, said this at the graduating class of Antioch College, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Louis Goodman 30:11
Let’s say you came into some real money, let’s say three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you change in the way you live your life?
Dale Minami 30:22
If I came into that much money I really do think I would try to give it away. And we did that in our firm. We did come into some money. It was about a few zeros short of a billion, many zeros short, but we came into some money and the five partners, including me decided that we’re gonna set up a foundation. So we committed hundreds of thousands to this foundation, and probably by a Porsche too.
Louis Goodman 30:51
Let’s say you had a magic wand and there was one thing in the world that you could change the legal world or otherwise, what? What would that be?
Dale Minami 30:58
I think it would be to end poverty. I think it would be to guarantee human rights for everybody. So, a right to an education, right to healthcare. A right to housing. A right to employment, because I think poverty is pretty much the worst scourge, racism and poverty.
Louis Goodman 31:17
If someone wanted to get in touch with you, they wanted to hire your firm, or an attorney wanted to talk to you. What’s the best way to contact you and your firm?
Dale Minami 31:31
You need type in Minami Tamaki. You’ll see us on the search engines then you’ll find both our addresses, phone numbers, type in Minami Tamaki LLP, and then you could find anything you want as which information we could offer.
Louis Goodman 31:49
So if we Google Dale Minami, I assume your firm would come up?
Dale Minami 31:54
Yes. First the Wikipedia comes in, then attorneys, Minami Tamaki, LLP.
Louis Goodman 32:00
Dale, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t discussed that you’d like to touch on, that you’d like to mention you’d like to bring up? Anything at all?
Dale Minami 32:10
One thing I’ve learned during these 50 plus years of practicing law and doing so many different kinds of things. I always had projects on the side and I realized that life does not unfold in a linear fashion. That there are a lot of twists and turns, not just in your life, but also in cases that you’ve had, trials that I’ve had where I thought, oh God, this is for sure I’m gonna lose. It would turn to something golden, the next cross-examination question or whatever. So that the adaptability, the ability to adapt, the ability to accept change, the ability to figure out where you are in that, you know, flow of the river of life is critical because adaptation is the way to, I think, not only keep your sensibilities or senses it helps make you happy, but you could go with the punches.
Louis Goodman 33:04
Dale Minami, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Dale Minami 33:12
Pleasure, me too. Thank you.
Louis Goodman 33:14
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.
Thanks to my guests, and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Louis Goodman 33:55
Yeah, I’m not sure what happened there.
Dale Minami 33:57
I actually knocked you out because I was goofing around on Google, trying to find our website.
Louis Goodman 34:03