Louis Goodman / Hon. JoLynne Lee – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with attorneys and judges about their lives and careers in the legal profession. I’m Louis Goodman. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with the Honorable JoLynne Lee of the Alameda County Superior Court. Judge Lee worked as an Assistant District Attorney in the famed Bronx courthouse in New York. She’s prosecuted as an Assistant United States Attorney in San Francisco and handled numerous matters of civil litigation in private practice.
Serving as a neutral before her elevation to the bench, Judge Lee served as a special master and discovery referee. As the first Asian American female judge appointed in Alameda County, Judge Lee has presided over both civil and criminal matters. She has recently returned from three months as a visiting fellow at Oxford University in England.
Judge JoLynne Lee, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Judge JoLynne Lee 01:09
Glad to be here. Happy to see you.
Louis Goodman 01:12
It’s good to see you, too. Where are you speaking to us from right now?
Judge JoLynne Lee 01:15
I’m actually speaking from home, from Alameda, so I’m…
Louis Goodman 01:18
Where are you from originally?
Judge JoLynne Lee 01:21
Well, so I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but at a very young age, my family moved to New York City, Manhattan, in particular. So I grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Louis Goodman 01:31
Is that where you went to high school?
Judge JoLynne Lee 01:32
I went to high school at the High School of Music and Art, which is a specialized school in New York that was up at that time, it’s now in Lincoln Center, but at that time was up by, almost by the edge of Harlem, up by City College.
Louis Goodman 01:46
So did you play an instrument?
Judge JoLynne Lee 01:48
I didn’t, I was actually, the school was half of it were musical, you know, music students, the other half were art students, visual arts. So I was a visual arts student. Some people did both. I just did the visual arts portion of it.
Louis Goodman 01:59
When you say visual arts, could you be a little more specific?
Judge JoLynne Lee 02:02
Yeah, so, you know, painting, printing, I did the, at your senior year, what happened would be is that part of the day you would be in basically in art classes, so art history or workshops, everybody had to take basic oil painting, watercolor, printmaking and so forth. And then in the final year you would specialize and I specialized in printmaking. So I was doing printmaking at that point. And then the other half of the day, it was academic subjects. It was very interesting. It was fun.
Louis Goodman 02:32
It sounds like a incredible education.
Judge JoLynne Lee 02:35
It was, I think it was probably one of the best education I had. It was really amazing, actually.
Louis Goodman 02:40
Now, when you graduated from high school, where’d you go to college?
Judge JoLynne Lee 02:43
Well, I started out at Michigan State for just a year, and then I transferred to the City University, Brooklyn College City University of New York. So I graduated there in political science at the end of the day. I was originally interested in urban planning, which is why I went to Michigan State, which had a specialty there. And then I ended up at Brooklyn and became a political science major. And then after that, I went to Columbia University in New York for law school.
Louis Goodman 03:10
Did you take any time off between the time you graduated from college and the time he went to Columbia, or did you go straight through?
Judge JoLynne Lee 03:16
One year I took off, I was working for the Port of New York Authority. I was called a Junior Administrative Assistant, which was an interesting job. And the most interesting thing I remember about that job was that, and at that time, this is before computers were used by everybody, I remember an older woman at the office telling me that I should never volunteer to type for anybody because otherwise you would be kept in this sort of being somebody’s secretary, right? So it was like really good advice, sort of for women at the time said, you know, and of course later on, everybody types right now, everybody just types for you. If you don’t type, you’re in trouble.
Louis Goodman 03:57
You know, I was talking to a young woman who is just going into high school, and I asked her if they have typing classes and she said, no, we don’t have typing class because everybody basically knows how to type anyway.
Judge JoLynne Lee 04:11
Exactly. I mean, you know at five years old. They’re typing, right? So, you know, but so … has changed quite a bit since then, that’s for sure.
Louis Goodman 04:18
When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer? When did it occur to you that law was your profession?
Judge JoLynne Lee 04:27
Well, after college, after I finished, after I graduated, I was still interested in urban planning. And I thought that the law school would be a place to, you know, learn about zoning, for instance, real estate, et cetera. And that I would actually, I wasn’t really interested in actually practicing law so much as perhaps utilizing, you know, the law in the urban. Urban practice. So, yeah, city planning and so forth. So that’s how it started out. But once I got into law school, I ended up getting interested in litigation and really totally not involved in urban planning at all.
Louis Goodman 05:05
So when you graduated from law school, what did you first start doing?
Judge JoLynne Lee 05:10
I was a Deputy District Attorney. They called it in New York, Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, in Bronx County. I had worked for them the summer before. So, I just ended up with them afterwards.
Louis Goodman 05:25
I have to ask you if you’ve read one of my absolute favorite books, Bonfire of the Vanities.
Judge JoLynne Lee 05:30
Yeah, yeah. Well, I haven’t read it, but I think, as I recall, I mean, I recall reading some excerpts from it, and it’s a very, actually quite an accurate description for what I read of the, of what the Bronx District Attorney’s Office was like at the time. And I think the forward, in the forward, I think he thanks a particular assistant DA there, Ed, and I’m sure I remember his last name, but who I knew very well at, at the DA’s Office. Yeah.
Louis Goodman 05:58
So you started out in the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office. Now you are a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, California. Can you briefly take us through your career so that we can see what that path was like for you?
Judge JoLynne Lee 06:17
Yeah. So I started, as I said, I started out in the DA’s Office. At one point in, as I was in that, you know, in that career, I decided that I wanted to move out of New York City. So this had this sort of revelation where I was standing on the subway tracks. I was living in the Upper West Side at the time and I was, you know, waiting for my train to go take me to the Bronx, South Bronx. There were like four tracks, you know, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New York City or in a subway station there, but it can be very noisy.
Louis Goodman 06:47
I lived on the Upper West Side for a while.
Judge JoLynne Lee 06:50
So when there’s four tracks, you know, it could be that all four trains are, and that’s what was happening. And it was so noisy and so disturbing. I said, I have to get out of here. I need to get out of New York City. And so I started looking for a job and I sent out resumes and one of them was to the National Center for State Courts. I got a very polite letter back saying, you know, really appreciate your applying. And it was for a job, I think in Colorado. And, but we really don’t have anything for you. We’ll keep you in our file cabinet. So I said, fine. I never expected to hear from them again, but I did like six months later, offering me a job out in San Francisco. So it was, you know, they actually did look back in their files where old resumes, and got interviewed by a very good gentleman who was the head of the, the National Center for State Court, San Francisco office. I ended up going out and working for them. Yeah, I was on a very specific 18-month project to study court delay around the country. And so we went to state courts, we’re about, I’d say 25 state courts that we went to, we split up our team and went to different courts and collected data, spoke to judges and lawyers and so forth and did a report on court delay, which was actually interesting because later on, as I understand it, it was used really pretty much to advocate for direct calendars because we compared it to say, to federal courts and understood that, you know, the direct calendars really made cases go faster. It was, you know, you get less delay. So that’s really where it started. And that’s how I got to California.
Louis Goodman 08:29
Well, speaking of federal courts, you served as an Assistant United States Attorney for a period of time and what was that like and how did that compare with being an Assistant District Attorney in state court?
Judge JoLynne Lee 08:43
Yeah, well, it’s quite different, but also California and New York are very different in terms of their state court systems. So, for instance, in New York City, in order to charge a felony, you must indict and you must go before the grand jury. So a grand jury, you can’t get a felony indictment until there’s a grand jury hearing, which is very different here. We have preliminary hearings, right? We didn’t have anything like that.
So, it was, it’s really quite different. And the experience is quite different, of course, you know, and being in federal court. And I was at pretty much most of the time in San Jose, which at that time was a very small courthouse run out of, you know, they didn’t have their big courthouse yet up there at that time. They were building it. And I was before Judge Ingram a lot, I don’t know if you knew him, but he was a wonderful judge to be before, so I spent a lot of time in front of him and it was a great experience. I enjoyed it.
Louis Goodman 09:35
You also have had some experience as a civil attorney.
Judge JoLynne Lee 09:37
Yeah. So, I left criminal work, most particularly litigation because I had a young daughter, I had a baby and I decided that I couldn’t do, I really needed more control over my calendar.
I couldn’t, you know, you know, when you’re in trial, it’s 24/7, right? So at that point I decided to go into civil practice and I ended up with a. A very nice, a good insurance defense firm actually down in San Jose at that time. So, that was a, you know, I made my last trial before Judge Ingram, before I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office I think it was like the day before I gave birth. So that was an interesting experience and, I decided I just couldn’t continue to do that. And interestingly enough, I ended up staying out for like a year. And when I did, I wasn’t planning on doing that. I mean, I didn’t have any like time off that you could take at that time after having a baby. You just either stayed or you didn’t stay with the office.
But I don’t know why I think I was reading something that came from Columbia University. And at the time it was a dean who was a female dean and she, they gave a little bit of her background and one of the things she said was, one of the things that I realized happened is she had been like off of, she had been out of the business of law for several years for various reasons and then came back and did very well. So I realized, well, if she could be out that long period of time, I could take off for a year and won’t be an issue, you know? So I took off the year and then I came back. When I came back, that’s when I started in the civil practice.
Louis Goodman 11:12
What prompted you to start thinking about a judicial career?
Judge JoLynne Lee 11:17
So, I didn’t actually ever consider becoming a judge, but I had a very good friend when I was a neutral, I had a very good friend who, still a good friend, who was on the JNE Commission. And at the time, she said, you know, she said, I really think you might consider putting in an application. I think, you know, you would be a good fit right now and it’d be a good time for you to do it if you’re interested. So I said, well, why not? So I did. That’s really actually, that was it. And I didn’t have any particular, you know, it was kind of, you know, yeah, this would be an interesting thing to do. It actually turned out to be actually the process itself was a great process. So I never regretted the process. And I said, even if I don’t get this position, the process was so supportive that I really was happy to have done it, irrespective, because I had to reach out to folks I hadn’t spoken to probably in a decade or so, or more, because you have to identify all the people you work with in the past and judges and lawyers and so forth. And so I did that and I got so tremendous sort of positive support from people that it was a really, actually a really excellent experience for me. So that’s how it happened. I was just, somebody suggested and I said, why not?
Louis Goodman 12:35
What is it about practicing law, being a judge, being involved in the law that you really like?
Judge JoLynne Lee 12:43
You know what, I really like being a judge. I think it’s like the best job in the world. And I think it’s because it’s a challenge every day. And you never know what to expect. So particularly if you’re, I mean, it doesn’t matter even if you’re doing asbestos cases all day, or if you’re doing like you are in the civil direct, could be doing anything, anything from an auto taste, rear ender to medical malpractice, right? Or some other esoteric areas of specialized areas of law. So you learn a lot, and it’s a real incredible challenge. So I really enjoy it. I think that’s the best part of it.
Louis Goodman 13:20
If a young person were coming out of college thinking about a career, would you recommend the law?
Judge JoLynne Lee 13:26
Oh, yes, I think so. I don’t think it’s for everybody, but if somebody was at least asking, that means they have some interest. It’s not, I take it it’s not like TV. I mean, I would say, you know, I mean, I don’t actually have a TV, so I have no idea in many ways what they have on TV these days, but it’s certainly not like the old TV screens.
There’s certain people, you know, who, who for, and I’ve met them, but quite a few in the law who as a child they know that they want to become a lawyer and not only that, they want to be a courtroom lawyer. They want to be a litigator. And there’s a few people like that. But I think a lot of people go into law school, at least they did when I was going to law school because they really didn’t know what else to do. They didn’t know what, it kept their options open, which is true. And you can do a lot of things with the law besides being a lawyer. So if I would say that it’s great training. Even if you decided… And I have many good friends who didn’t actually practice law, but used their… But the law degree was very helpful in their careers.
Louis Goodman 14:30
How has being involved in the legal system, practicing law, or for that matter, being a judge, how has that either met or differed from your expectations about it?
Judge JoLynne Lee 14:40
I don’t think I really appreciated how much work there is behind the scenes, and how much judges, how hard they have to work. It’s a very hard job, particularly nowadays. So I don’t think I appreciated that when I applied for the the job. But for those of you who like the idea of being a, kind of being a neutral, you know, and like hearing both sides and not necessarily advocating for one side or the other, it’s a very rewarding experience.
Louis Goodman 15:16
What did you think of sitting in criminal departments?
Judge JoLynne Lee 15:19
Oh, I enjoyed criminal departments. I think most of us do. I mean, that is a place where every day you have no idea what’s going to happen, right? And you can’t make it up.
You cannot make up what happens in court, some of the stories that you hear, you know, or the events. So, it’s really interesting and the lawyers are all very good. The lawyers you see in criminal court are used to being in court. They’re very good litigators for the most part, in comparison to civil lawyers who never get to court, who don’t have that sort of comfort level, that don’t know the evidence that well. So, I enjoyed criminal court.
Louis Goodman 15:53
This is kind of a two-part question. What can lawyers do to be better prepared in general for going to court? And then what sort of things do you look for in an attorney that comes in front of you?
Judge JoLynne Lee 16:09
I think, and this is probably true for both criminal and civil, more so I think on the civil side, is really knowing your case and the facts. So you know, you may be a young associate and just kind of given the file and thrown into there, but you really have to be able to at least convince the judge that you actually really know the file, you really know what the case is about and can answer questions. So I think that’s, for us as judges, we are looking for that. You know, if somebody really it’s clear that they just have no clue what’s going on in this case, don’t really know the client and so forth, it’s a problem for us. And so I think that’s the difference. And I don’t know what that means in terms of real life for a lot of lawyers, ’cause as I said, I was an insurance defense attorney.
There are many times when your senior partner at the time with your young associate isn’t really available for you, you know, they’re in trial and so forth. And so, yeah, you don’t have a real understanding of where they are, because I think most of the trial attorneys, the ones who actually end up trying cases and they get the file fairly early on, have a pretty good idea of what their strategy is gonna be. You know, they have a pretty good idea where they wanna go with the case, but if it’s that conveyed to the younger, you know, associates, then it’s a problem when the young associates is given discovery to do and take a deposition or do whatever it might be, it can be an issue or have to appear in court at a case management conference and well, what’s going on in this case? Where are we going with it? You know, where’s the issues? So I would say that’s it.
I just lately been thinking that I’m not seeing enough of younger attorneys being appropriately supervised and given direction from the person who’s actually going to be at trial, the person who really knows. And they, I, and I think they’re really, I mean, I know they were really good trial lawyers pretty quickly size up a case, you know, at the very beginning they have, but they have an idea where they’re going with it.
Louis Goodman 18:09
Another 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?
Judge JoLynne Lee 18:20
I think one of the best advices that was given to me was to, if you’re in court, is to make friends with the court clerk. It is really, really important. Know who your court clerk is and become friends with that court clerk because you’ll be amazed how much gets, goes back, gets back to the judge about attorney’s behaviors or conduct or what they, you know, how they’re, or, you know, whether the clerk likes them or doesn’t, makes a huge difference. I would say that was the best advice I think I was given.
Louis Goodman 18:54
And is that the advice that you would give to a young attorney as well?
Judge JoLynne Lee 18:56
Yeah, I think so. I think anybody coming to court, new attorney coming into court is gonna be a litigator, I’d say yeah, that’s what you wanna do. You wanna make friends with the court staff, you know, the clerk, the court reporter, so forth, because they can do a lot for you. Or not, and you’ll never know, one way or the other, you know.
Louis Goodman 19:12
Do you think the legal system is fair?
Judge JoLynne Lee 19:15
Yes, I actually think it is, for the most part. I also think that as much as jury trials are criticized, certainly overseas a lot, they don’t do many of them. I actually think most jurors get it right. I mean, every now and then it’s wrong, but for the most part, I think the jurors get it right. And it’s amazing, because they have to make decisions very quickly and in an area that’s totally foreign to them, you know, and deal with laws that they’re now being instructed on that they’d never heard before, that they have to learn to digest and understand, and they do it pretty well, I think, considering. So there’s a lot of criticism, but you know, for the most part, I think that the jurors come out right.
Louis Goodman 19:55
I’d like to shift gears here a little bit. What is your family life like and how has practicing law affected that, fit into it? Practice of law fit into your family life?
Judge JoLynne Lee 20:08
My children are all adults and I have like four grandchildren. So for me, it’s fine. I mean, the thing about it, about being a judge, I think is that for, you know, whether you’re a male or female, it is very time consuming. It is really kind of 24/7, depending on your assignment, it can be really 24/7. And so you really have to carve out that time, you know, that’s true being a lawyer. You know, as a litigator, a lot of it is 24/7, right, particularly when you’re in trial. And so you just have to really be conscious of carving out that time for your family and for your children and your kids and grandchildren or whoever it might be.
Louis Goodman 20:48
When you are off the bench, what sort of things do you like to do recreationally? What do you like to do with some of that vacation time that you have?
Judge JoLynne Lee 20:57
For a while I was very involved in doing jewelry work, and then I haven’t done that in a while, and then I started doing some artwork. So, I do have these, sort of, obligations. I have four grandchildren, so I started writing books for them. And I do, like, these Christmas letters, Santa letters for them every year, you know, which are illustrated as well as written. So that does take some time. So I sort of spend my time doing that kind of, you know, back to, like, the high school days, right? You know, doing artwork.
Louis Goodman 21:28
You’ve also been very involved with community service through Rotary, and you’ve also been on the restoration advisory board of the Alameda Naval Air Station. I’m wondering if you’d just talk a little bit about that work.
Judge JoLynne Lee 21:44
Yeah, so, before I was a judge, I was in more heavily involved in Rotary and I was with the YWCA, I was on their board of directors, and I worked for, I was a chair of, a co-chair of the Alameda Restoration Advisory Board, which was a Navy, well, it’s a legislative command that required that when various naval shipyards were decommissioned and going, you know, being put back into civilian use, there’s this tremendous amount of environmental cleanup.
Alameda Naval Air Station, which was the former Naval Air Station, was a super defense site, probably still is to some extent. So they required the community to get involved in the cleanup. And I was doing that, and that was extremely interesting. And the Navy, I must say, was, at the time, really excellent partners in that regard.
Louis Goodman 22:38
Let’s say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars.
Judge JoLynne Lee 22:46
I wouldn’t know what to do with it, to be honest with you.
Louis Goodman 22:49
Well, what, what would you do differently in your life, do you think?
Judge JoLynne Lee 22:54
Yeah, so I probably would buy a place in England, second place, but other than that, I would think I would say, you know, you want to put away money for your grandchild and so forth, but if you have billions of dollars, there’s a lot of money left, right? So then you want to think about what you can do for the, in that regard, what you could really do for the community. So I would probably think along those lines, like, is there a scholarship that I want to, you know, support is, or, you know, create something of that nature. Yeah. That’s what I think.
Louis Goodman 23:27
Let’s say you had a magic wand, there was one thing in the world, legal world, or otherwise that you could change. What would that be?
Judge JoLynne Lee 23:37
Oh, a magic wand. You mean just, like physical things or just anything?
Louis Goodman 23:42
Well, really anything.
Judge JoLynne Lee 23:44
I’ll tell you what I’m really disturbed about, two things. One is I really think that the climate change is the biggest issue that we have, period. And it will impact economics, it will impact social situation, it will impact governance and so forth. And I think that’s big. I don’t know what can do one could do about that, but if I were to have a magic wand, it would be to, you know, resolve that. The other major thing is, which I think is in part because of the economics, everything I think is, ends up being some kind of economic issue, is I am really concerned about the disparity in the gap between the haves and have nots worldwide, but particularly, I mean, what we’re familiar with, with the U.S. you know, I’m not as familiar with outside, but I think it’s true, not just in the U.S. I think it’s true worldwide. And that is something I, you know, I just, I just think that we could work on. And I don’t, you know, there’s a lot of, I mean, I, for instance, I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody to graduate college. I think there’s alternatives that we could be looking into that would give people reasonable income. And every school should be a good school. I mean, it doesn’t matter where you’re, if you, even if you’re living in a poverty stricken area. You should have a good school. There’s no reason not to have a good school just because, you know, it happens to be a low income area. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t understand that. I just don’t understand that. And that would be my magic wand.
Louis Goodman 25:11
Is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t discussed?
Judge JoLynne Lee 25:17
No. I think you, I love the questions by the way. So, you know, I think you covered a pretty broad area. Now there’s nothing that I can think of that I would, you know, want to talk about that yet that we haven’t really discussed at this point. Appreciate it.
Louis Goodman 25:30
Judge JoLynne Lee, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. As always, it’s a pleasure to talk to you.
Judge JoLynne Lee 25:41
Well, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I appreciate your inviting me onto the podcast. So thank you very much.
Louis Goodman 25:49
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.
Judge JoLynne Lee 26:28
That’s a really good question. I, and I have to think about that. Yeah. You know, I can’t, I actually, I don’t think I could answer. I just don’t, I don’t know what I would say. I have to think a lot about that one. That’s really a great question, by the way.