Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:07
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, the host of the LTL podcast and yes, I’m a member of the Alameda County Bar Association.
The honorable Dorothy Proudfoot currently sits as an administrative law Judge for the city and county of San Francisco’s Residential Rent, Stabilization and Arbitration Board. She previously served as a Deputy District Attorney in Marin County. She’s handled numerous felony matters, gang, sexual assault and hate crimes. She is a life member of the National Asian Pacific American Judicial Council, a member of the National Association of Women Judges, Queen’s Bench, Charles Houston, numerous other organizations, and the Earl Warren American Inns of Court. And of course she is a member of the Alameda County Bar Association. Dorothy Proudfoot, welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 01:17
Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a nice conversation with you, Lou.
Louis Goodman 01:22
Well, I am so happy to have you. You’ve participated in a number of these interviews and I’ve always enjoyed your comments. So, where are you speaking to us from right now?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 01:36
I am in my home in Alameda. This is the same location where I conduct all of my remote hearings. You’ll see, there’s a blank wall behind me. It’s not a blurred background and I’ve lived in Alameda since 1999. So, I’m here.
Louis Goodman 01:51
What sort of work are you doing these days?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 01:54
I am presiding over arbitration hearings and conducting mediation sessions. The Rent Board actually has nine administrative law judges, and we are all trained mediators as well as attorneys. Most of my cases are landlord tenant cases, brought under the Rent Ordinance in San Francisco. But we also occasionally will do sort of neighbor mediation or landlord tenant mediation that’s sort of outside the bounds of the Residential Rent Ordinance.
Louis Goodman 02:22
Where are you from originally?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 02:23
Well, do you mean that question in a loaded fashion or not? I was born in LA and raised in Orange County, came up to college at Berkeley when I was 17 years old. And my family is originally from China by way of Taiwan. My parents immigrated here in for grad school.
Louis Goodman 02:41
Where’d you go to high school?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 02:43
I went to Fountain Valley High School. It’s in Southern California, in Orange County. We lived in a very small town called Fountain Valley. Actually, I joke about it because it’s nine square miles in total area. And the middle of it is a park called Mile Square Park, which is, you know, not surprisingly one mile on each side.
Louis Goodman 03:05
Then where did you go to college after you graduated from high school?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 03:09
I came up to Berkeley. I had a Chancellor’s Scholarship, which allowed me to actually pursue my college education. I don’t think I would’ve been able to afford it otherwise.
Louis Goodman 03:17
After you graduated from college, you ultimately went to law school. Did you take some time off between college and law school or did you go directly?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 03:25
I did take time off. I graduated college in three years, you know, for a variety of reasons. I had advanced placement credits and I was for some stupid reason in a hurry to finish college, but I realized I was very young and inexperienced in the world. So I decided I needed to work for at least a year before applying to law school and trying to go, you know, trying to pursue my career in that direction. So I ended up working at a couple law firms in San Francisco as a case assistant as a, you know, sort of like even lower than a paralegal, not quite as skilled as a legal secretary, but you know, that type of support staff position, which really taught me a lot.
I recall those days as dealing with lots of paper and really getting to understand a little bit of what law firm life is like. I had wanted to be a lawyer for a very long time in a very fantastical sense. I think when I was seven years old, everybody told me I argued too much. So they all said, “You should be a lawyer.” And I thought, why not? But I didn’t think seriously about becoming a lawyer until I did mock trial in high school. But even with all of that, I didn’t really have any attorney role models growing up, so I didn’t really know what it was about. I had no idea other than what I saw on TV in let’s see, Night Court and LA Law.
That’s what I saw growing up.
Louis Goodman 04:42
How long did you work in the law firms before you went to law school?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 04:47
Just a year. At that time I can’t remember exactly when I took the LSAT, but it was at during that time. And I figured I better go back to school before I forget the habit of being a student. So I ended up taking just exactly one year. I applied to I think 15 different law schools just to see where if I could get in anywhere. And ultimately, I think Berkeley might have been the last acceptance I received with a little bit of relief because I didn’t really wanna leave the Bay Area.
Louis Goodman 05:13
Well, as I understand it, you probably didn’t wanna leave Cal because of all the great things that you were doing there.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 05:19
There was a little bit of that, let’s just say. Growing up in Orange County, it was very conservative and we had a great, you know, Chinese-American community, because my dad is a pastor. And so, you know, not only being raised in Orange County, which has a decent Asian population, my social circle actually was a lot of, you know, folks from our Chinese church. Coming to Berkeley was such an eye-opening shock for me.
Louis Goodman 05:40
What did you do once your eyes were opened?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 05:43
Well, I joke with people that I majored in band. My degree is in English, but I majored in the Cal band. I had joined, you know, just, you know, not understanding very much about what it was, how much time it would take. But, you know, I had enjoyed marching band when I was in high school and I was a drum major, so I thought, oh, this is something I should do. And I ended up developing lifelong friendships from that experience, learning a lot about, you know, student management and self-governance and motivation and organization. And I actually met my husband in the Cal band.
Louis Goodman 06:13
Did you play an instrument?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 06:15
Louis Goodman 06:16
What was that?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 06:17
I played baritone horn for marching, but I had kind of dabbled in so many other instruments. I also played clarinet during concert band season, and, you know, I’ve always loved music. I grew up in a very musical household. My entire family is musicians. So that’s always been a very important part of my life.
Louis Goodman 06:36
So you ended up going to law school at Boalt, is that correct?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 06:40
Yes, I did.
Louis Goodman 06:43
And how was that experience for you? Did you think that having taken some time off and worked in law firms was helpful to you in terms of focusing once you got to law school?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 06:55
Yes, I would say yes, because I had worked long enough to realize that being a student is a privilege.
Louis Goodman 07:00
After you got out of law school, you practiced for a while in the civil world and then you went to the Marin County District Attorney’s Office. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about those transitions.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 07:14
Yeah. When I was going to Berkeley, I think the on-campus interview program was very strong and very well supplied with all varieties of law firms. And I ended up working my second year summer at Heller Ehrman, which is now unfortunately defunct, but I ended up getting an offer from them, from both their litigation and corporate departments. So I thought that would be a great place to sort of start exploring, continuing that, you know, learning process. And so even though I had done an internship at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office during my third year or second year, actually during my second year in law school, I ended up going to the firm after graduation.
They were gonna pay my bar study expenses and they made it so that my husband and I could actually buy in the Bay Area with that, you know, having that salary that was actually quite, quite good at the time. These days, it seems like such a distant memory when you hear about starting salaries of first year associates, but it was a lot for me at the time, more than I could ever have imagined.
So that’s how I ended up going to the law firm. But I did quickly discover at the law firm that while the work was, you know, really intellectually challenging and I liked a lot of the people that I worked with, I wanted to be in court. That was really a primary driving factor for me. I had kind of fallen in love with appearing in court because I was allowed to do it as a bar-certified intern at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
So I started applying for every DA’s Office in the Bay Area pretty shortly after I started at the firm. I had applied, my husband and I decided we were not gonna try to relocate, so that really limited my job search. And Marin County, they didn’t hire me right away. I actually missed out on the job by one spot. Then six months later after I had let them know I had quit my job with no prospects on the horizon I got a call. Two of their attorneys had not worked out and was I interested in coming on as an extra hire? I had quit my job at Heller in May and I got the call in August of 2001. And I started working there August of 2001.
Louis Goodman 09:13
How long did you stay in the Marin County DA’s Office?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 09:16
I was there for over 16 years. Even though the commute was not my favorite, the work was just really fulfilling for me. I really enjoyed being in court every day. I enjoyed doing the work. I liked my colleagues. Everything was, you know, really, to me at the time I thought it was the most rewarding thing I could possibly be doing.
I really have always had this sense of justice and right and wrong. From the time I was a little kid my mom has some great stories about things that I did. But, you know, it was, I thought that was it. I thought I would be a prosecutor the rest of my life.
Louis Goodman 09:50
So what prompted you to seek an administrative law job?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 09:54
Well, it was because I had actually, it actually goes back to law school. I met now retired Justice Ming Chin. When I was in law school, he had just been appointed to the California Supreme Court and he came to Berkeley for a symposium that Asian Law Journal was putting on. And I was one of the editors, very junior editor.
And I met him and having him as a role model really made me understand and believe that I could be a judge. You know, we talk about this a lot, that you need representation when you, you can’t, how can you imagine that you could do that unless you see somebody first in that role? And that was really important to me because my entire legal career, I never felt like that was off limits for me.
So after a few years of the DA’s Office, I started getting more interested in, you know, what it is that the judges were doing, because I’d make the arguments, you know, I’d do my best making my arguments and wonder why the judge wouldn’t rule for me. And it was actually a couple mentors that I had and some senior folks who said, “Look, if you wanna think about being a judge, you can start preparing for that right now.”
So I think I had wanted to be a judge since probably my seventh year out, only five years into the DA’s Office, but I thought, Hey, maybe this is something that I can do. And I actually applied for appointments in 2015 when it was Governor Brown, I got through the JNE process, the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission process that they go through, very rigorous, but that was as far as it went. And then a friend of mine told me, “Look, I know you’re interested in being a judge. I know of an administrative law judge opportunity with the city and county of San Francisco. Would you be willing to do something completely out of your area of expertise?” And I said, “Sure, let’s see what happens.” And he actually very much encouraged me to do it, told me when the application opened and really pushed for me. He was a mentor and a sponsor in that process. Really grateful to him for that. And less than a year later, I got a call that there had been both a retirement and then a promotion which led to an opening, which they offered to me.
Louis Goodman 11:58
Congratulations. What do you like about working in the legal system? I mean, you’ve been around for a while in a number of different capacities. You’re also, obviously someone who’s very bright, could do pretty much anything that you want and yet you’ve decided to stay within the legal system. What is it about the legal system that you enjoy?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 12:22
You know, at the risk of sounding a little cliche, I think it’s the ability to help solve problems. You know, individual people’s problems, but also larger societal systemic problems. I’ve always been attracted in this idea that I could do something that makes a difference that will help someone else.
Louis Goodman 12:42
How does sitting as a judge stack up with your expectations about it?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 12:47
I love being a judge. Um, I will tell anybody out there that being an administrative law judge is one of like the, it’s the secret, the, which is I guess, less well known now because I’ve been evangelizing about it. It’s the best job in government service. There is just something very freeing about the idea that your job, your entire job is to be fair and to do the right thing.
Louis Goodman 13:14
You’ve seen the Justice System from a number of different angles as a civil practitioner, as a Deputy District Attorney, as an Administrative Law Judge, do you think the legal system is fair?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 13:27
Overall I think it is. I am a believer in our system, so I do believe that the system can be just, and is just in most situations.
Louis Goodman 13:36
What can lawyers do to be better prepared in order to make a presentation in court?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 13:44
Now that I’ve been a judge for about four and a half years, I’m really much more appreciative of the idea of having a cogent argument that is succinct and that comes first. Just tell me your best point right off the bat and don’t belabor it. Don’t give me all this background first. If I need more information, I’m not hesitant to ask for it, but I think attorneys really do need to focus on what they’re trying to achieve. They’re trying to persuade the court to rule for them. You have to give me your best argument right off the bat. You can’t distract me with other things otherwise we’ll never get to your best argument.
One more thing I would say is be very careful about interrupting the judge, particularly in Zoom world. Sometimes your idea is very important. It is a persuasive argument, but if the judge is asking a question, it’s because the judge is thinking that they need certain information to make a decision to either rule for you or against you, but to make the decision. And if you forget why it is the judge is still talking, then you may lose an opportunity to be persuasive. So that is something that I’ve observed, you know, just be real careful about interrupting the judge to finish your point, because maybe that’s not the best way to advocate for your client.
Louis Goodman 14:59
Let’s say you and your husband came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What if anything would do differently in your life?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 15:08
I’m not sure I would do very much differently. I tend to be somewhat conservative about spending money. That is, that’s what makes me happy, is to not feel that I’m being wasteful.
There are some, should we say societal issues, which seemed like they could benefit from a huge infusion of cash as long as the intention behind it was right. I think I would give money to nonprofits that dealt with education, specifically junior high level, because I remember how terrible my junior high experience was. And I think that that’s a really important inflection point for folks to decide what they’re gonna do with their lives. And so I would, I would pour resources in that direction.
Louis Goodman 15:49
Let’s say you had a magic wand and there was one thing that you could change in the legal world or the world in general. What would you wanna change?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 15:58
When people have important decisions to make I wish like a magical button would pop up that says, “Do you really mean to do this?” Like, are you sure you really wanna do that? Give it, just think about it a little bit. And I feel like maybe that, that might help, that might help human relations in the world. It might sort of be a good example for folks to think before they say something hurtful to other people, before they escalate, before they make decisions that they can’t take back.
Louis Goodman 16:25
Since we do have a number of people on the call, I think that now would be a good time to open it up and see if some of the other people can join us and contribute to this conversation. Christine Noma, can you unmute and join us?
Christine Noma 16:39
Hey, good afternoon, all. Good to see you, Judge Proudfoot. I actually had maybe two questions. One was how you deal with pro per parties. I think you probably have a whole boatload of those and maybe a percentage of how many come represented versus unrepresented and how you deal with that situation. And then the second question is, this is more policy related, so one of the things I had a question about is whether or not the city and county of San Francisco has ever given any consideration to having a commercial or, you know, a landlord tenant the court. And I think your court is just residential, right?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 17:18
Yeah. Yeah. Our entire agency is built around the ordinance that deals with residential rent control. Let me answer your first, the questions in order, and it’s good to see you, Chris. We do have a very high proportion of self-represented or unrepresented individuals who come before the Rent Board. We are designed to be a more informal process than court, we’re designed to be affordable and we’re designed to give you a quicker disposition. Our jurisdiction is limited, of course, but you know, that’s the trade off. We are actually designed so that you should be able to access our services without having to hire an attorney. I would estimate that of my case is probably 90% of my cases do not have an attorney on either side. There are some, you know, I guess I’ll call them quasi-legal experts in rent ordinance is who can be, and in rent ordinance matters who can be non-attorney representatives that we allow to appear.
But yeah, it is a challenge because you can’t expect an unrepresented person to know all the legal interim, but at the same time, you still have to keep, you know, keep steering the ship toward the ability to make a fair decision. And so I do find, I spend, I take care in my hearings that when I have, when I have unrepresented parties, either on one side or both sides to give them adequate opportunity to be heard. I think that that is, I have found that to be the most important thing when having any type of legal proceeding with someone who’s not a lawyer. Because it doesn’t even matter what the decision ultimately is, it may go against them. That’s just whatever the facts have determined. The facts and the law determine that not the person’s level of sophistication or advocacy, it’s the facts and the law. So I try to do my best to make sure that they feel like they’re heard otherwise, you know, what was the whole point of them sort of going out on a limb and coming before the rent board if they feel like they’re just gonna get railroaded by some unfamiliar angry system.
So making sure they’re heard and then directing them back to the issue at hand is sort of like the two part strategy and yes, it takes time. Second question. I can tell you. I know pretty much nothing about that. I don’t know. I certainly don’t speak for the San Francisco Rent Board, maybe a disclaimer at the beginning would’ve been appropriate. I don’t speak for the city and county of San Francisco or for the Rent Board. All of my opinions are my own, but yeah, I don’t know whether there’s any thought about commercial rent ordinances. I can see that there’s a lot of pitfalls to that, but the residential rent ordinance has been around for, you know, 40 some years now.
Louis Goodman 19:43
Thank you. Somebody is on, who’s identified only as Cyn.
Cyn Hernandez 19:49
It’s Cyn Hernandez.
Louis Goodman 19:52
Hi Cyn, thanks so much for joining us.
Cyn Hernandez 19:54
It’s just an amazing situation that you put on with the different judges and it’s really an eye opener about, you know, what the court’s about. Do you, do you ever foresee doing any in-chambers talks with attorneys about the cases like happened probably in, I think in Marin County, at least a while back they would meet and discuss the cases?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 20:21
Yeah. I think it’s always important to look at whether disputes can be resolved short of trial. I am a big proponent that there are some cases that just need to be tried, and that is the best way to dispose of them in, you know, with as fair a result as you can get, okay? But of course it’s important to find ways to send cases down a different path. And so that’s been a really important part I think of my career development, is learning how to be a mediator and practicing mediating cases because for some folks mediation is actually a much better resolution than litigation.
Louis Goodman 20:56
Thank you. Richard Flier, I know that you have some contributions that you would like to make to this conversation, please.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 21:04
I think Judge Flier indicated that he doesn’t have a mic on his computer, so he just typed in four questions in the chat.
Louis Goodman 21:10
Oh, okay. Very well. Well, I will then with your permission, your honor, read the questions. Judge Flier says, “Did you enjoy the election process when you ran for Superior Court?”
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 21:23
Wow. I thought these were not supposed to be hard questions, right? No, but, yeah, you know, I gotta be honest, I did enjoy the election process. For those of you who don’t know, I ran for a seat on the San Francisco Superior Court in 2020. If you all recall, that was the early primary year, March 3rd, 2020. And it was right before the pandemic shut everything down.
So I was out there trying to meet as many people as I could, trying to communicate with voters, trying to let people see who I was. And it’s a little different in a judicial election because you can’t actually run on a platform or positions because that’s against the judicial canons of ethics.
The short answer is yes, I did.
Louis Goodman 22:06
“Do you miss being an advocate rather than being a judge?”
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 22:10
I very much appreciate not being an advocate anymore. There was a transition period for me after I had been a Deputy District Attorney to becoming a judge. But there are still ways as a judge to advocate, not in the legal sense of advocacy representing somebody else, but advocating for improvements in the judicial system. I still find plenty of opportunity to do that, particularly with my work with the National Association of Women Judges, California, Asian Pacific Judges Association. And, you know, I think that there are still opportunities to advocate, but in a different way and in a different framework. So yes, I miss it and no, I don’t.
Louis Goodman 22:48
Judge Flier wants to know, “What is the next employment step for Judge Proudfoot?”
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 22:54
You really wanted me to say that in a public forum. I can tell you this, I would be perfectly happy to, you know, finish out my career as an administrative law judge at the Rent Board. It’s a great place to work, great people, good benefits, you know, and I enjoy doing the work. I will confess to you and to everyone on this call and to everyone in the podcast. I have put in my application with the Governor’s Office. And if that happens, it happens, you know, you have no control over that.
Louis Goodman 23:21
The Judge has a final question for you. “Have you been involved in judicial education programs as a presenter?”
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 23:30
Not technically through CJA or through California Judges Association programs, but I have been involved in educational programs from other diversity bar associations and diversity judicial associations. Most recently we’ve been working on, I guess, demystifying what administrative law judges are. There’s so many regulatory aspects of our lives. And, you know, knowing what it is that administrative law judges do, what background they need to have, what education, what skills, what decision making techniques they can use to make the process more fair, I think is a really important part of judicial education.
Louis Goodman 24:09
Judge Proudfoot, is there anything that you wanted to say that we haven’t touched on something that you’d like to put out there?
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 24:18
I appreciate this opportunity that the Alameda County Bar Association and you personally, Lou have provided us to, you know, share a little bit about ourselves and to share a little bit of our thoughts about our justice system and the legal profession, and a little bit about, you know, why I think it’s important for people to understand that lawyering is an honorable profession. There are some folks who don’t do it right, but the ones who do are really an important force for good in the world.
Louis Goodman 24:45
Judge Dorothy Proudfoot, thank you so much for joining us today at the Alameda County Bar Association and the Lovely Thy Lawyer podcast, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 24:58
Thank you so much, Lou.
Louis Goodman 25:00
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.
Hon. Dorothy Proudfoot 26:03
But yeah, law school was good in so many ways and not great in other ways.