Louis Goodman / Leah Abraham – Transcript
Link to podcast episode:
Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with attorneys about their lives and careers. I’m Louis Goodman. Today, we welcome Leah Abraham to the podcast. Currently assigned to the Public Accountability Unit of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Leah has a long and storied career in Bay Area criminal justice. She’s served as a law clerk at the Marin County Public Defender’s Office, as an attorney at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, as an Assistant District Attorney at the San Francisco DA’s Office, and, as mentioned, she is now a prosecuting District Attorney in Alameda County. She’s handled numerous felony, misdemeanor, and high-profile cases in the course of her career.
Leah Abraham, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Leah Abraham 00:53
Thank you. Hi, Louis.
Louis Goodman 00:55
Hi, Leah. It’s nice to have you. Thanks for joining us.
Leah Abraham 00:59
It’s my pleasure.
Louis Goodman 01:00
Where are you speaking to us from right now?
Leah Abraham 01:02
I’m speaking from Oakland, California, where I live.
Louis Goodman 01:07
Where’s your office located right now?
Leah Abraham 01:10
I work at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in the René C. Davidson Courthouse right across the street from Lake Merritt.
Louis Goodman 01:18
And how long have you been with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office?
Leah Abraham 01:22
Just a few months. I started in February of 2023. So just a very recent hire.
Louis Goodman 01:29
Can you describe your current assignment?
Leah Abraham 01:32
Yes. So I’m a Deputy District Attorney and I work in the Public Accountability Unit. And so we’re looking at cases involving public officials, law enforcement officers who are accused of misconduct, and we prosecute those cases. To be kind of specific, we’re looking at law enforcement and public officials that have committed crimes in the course of their work. So, for example, a police officer that commits a DUI, you know, on his off time or her off time, we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t prosecute that. That would just be a regular crime, a regular misdemeanor that a regular DA would handle. And we also are, we also review officer-involved shootings to make sure that everything looks correct and that the officer in that involved shooting acted lawfully and within their duties.
Louis Goodman 02:27
This is a fairly new unit of prosecution in Alameda County. Is that correct?
Leah Abraham 02:33
Well, I would say it is a new unit. So we have a unit called the Public Accountability Unit that was created and formed by Pamela Price after she was elected this year, or last year and started working this year. And so she’s created that unit. I don’t think it’s the first time that these types of crimes have been prosecuted, but this is the, you know, it was Madame DA’s creation of a unit that did not exist before.
Louis Goodman 03:01
Where are you from originally?
Leah Abraham 03:03
I’m born and raised in the Bay Area. I was born in San Francisco, but raised mostly in Berkeley and Oakland my whole entire life. My parents are African immigrants, refugees, they come from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa. So they came here in the 80s and I was born here and raised here.
Louis Goodman 03:21
Where’d you go to high school?
Leah Abraham 03:23
I went to Berkeley High. Yellow Jackets.
Louis Goodman 03:25
When you graduated from Berkeley high school, where’d you go to college?
Leah Abraham 03:30
I went to Laney college and I took, I think one or two classes at Berkeley city college. So like in the Peralta community college system. And then I transferred to San Francisco state and majored in political science, and I minored in international relations. And then I went to Hastings for law school, also in San Francisco.
Louis Goodman 03:50
Did you take any time off between graduating from San Francisco State and going to Hastings or did you go straight through?
Leah Abraham 03:56
So I did not take any time between San Francisco State and Hastings, but I did take time in between community college and transferring to San Francisco State. So I went to community college. I thought I was going to be a nurse and so I was taking all the nursing classes, all the pre reqs. And I just realized I felt faint at the sight of blood, and I just wasn’t really a science-minded person. So I kind of had a little early existential crisis and I stopped going to school and I started just working and I worked at a nonprofit called Peace Action West. It’s like a grassroots lobbying organization that was trying to lobby the government for a more peaceful foreign policy. So at the time, their really focus was with the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan. So I was doing that. I was a fundraiser over the phone. I did that, and then I was also a door-to-door canvasser.
So I did that for a few years. And then at that point, I felt like I needed to go back to school and finish my, at least bachelor’s degree. I was realizing that was necessary.
Louis Goodman 05:00
Do you think having taken some time off and worked in the community made you more focused when you finally decided to go back to school?
Leah Abraham 05:10
Absolutely. I was a very, at that point, once I transferred San Francisco state, you know, my aim was to get straight A’s. I was very diligent, and I was excited to be able to spend most of my time actually learning. Right? Not just working. So, I was excited to be in school. I was excited to do well. And I also felt like having that past experience of kind of working, paying my bills and living with roommates, of course, but it just made me realize that it is quite the privilege to be able to go to school and get higher education and learn. And so I took it very seriously. And I didn’t know exactly on the outset if I was going to be a lawyer, but I definitely knew I wanted to do something either in a nonprofit world or, and then I started quickly considering becoming a lawyer.
Louis Goodman 05:59
So when was it that you first decided, Hey, I really want to be a lawyer. And what was it that motivated that decision?
Leah Abraham 06:09
Yeah. So I was the type of precocious child that everybody said I should be a lawyer. Growing up, everybody said, argumentative, someone would say, I was kind of very obsessed with fairness and I like to just argue. I come from a family of people that, you know, would just stay up all night talking about politics and different things like that. And to my parents and my family’s credit, they kind of let me just engage as though I was like a little adult. So I was told that. But I did have to, I have to have to say, I didn’t know any lawyers, right? This is all my, this is my family. They’re all first generation immigrating here. So I didn’t really know many lawyers. I didn’t know any lawyers, really. I think I had one childhood friend, her father was a lawyer, but I didn’t really know much about his work. And so there was a way that I did feel like it was kind of, I didn’t feel in my gut that I could be one, right? I loved lawyer shows growing up. I watched The Practice much too young, but I loved it. And so I just had this image that there was a kind of way you had to look, a way you had to talk. And I just, you know, I don’t know. I didn’t take it seriously, even though that was the feedback that I often got from people about … spaced off, just how I was in the world.
So when I transferred to San Francisco State, it was something that I kind of was considering and then in my first semester at San Francisco State, my sister got hit by a car. She got hit by a car while she was crossing the street, and she very, very nearly died. She, I mean, from all, for all intents and purposes, we were told she was going to die.
I think that was the first moment that I realized like life is very, very precious and can feel, or it can be very short. So I think at that point, at least I have like kind of the emotional thought that I really wanted to pursue my dreams. And I didn’t want to, like, I wanted to stretch myself. I didn’t want to just do the same thing. So I think that was the first kind of emotional moment where I was like, I’m going to do it. Not, I won’t, I won’t not do it out of fear. And then the kind of intellectual point that I realized I wanted to be a lawyer was, I enrolled in like an internship with the school and it was a internship with San Francisco Superior Court.
So I got the intern. I got this class and I was part of the internship program. And so I got placed with Terry Jackson, who was at the time, I know she thinks she’s now at a higher court, but she was in San Francisco Superior Court doing criminal cases. So she was presiding over those. And so I was seeing, you know, go up against, I mean, San Francisco go up against San Francisco Public Defenders and hash kind of battle it out in criminal cases before juries. And I saw at least, I think, four trials in that semester and that’s when I was like, this is like, I’m passionate about this. I’m interested in it. And at that point, I felt like I could do it. I think I had more of that confidence as I saw it in real life. I was like, yeah, these people are smart. They’re well spoken, but it’s certainly attainable for me to do it. And it also just stoked my passion for it. So that was when I decided definitely I was going to go to law school. And so I took the LSATs and then applied and I went straight from San Francisco State at that point to Hastings.
Louis Goodman 09:32
What did your friends and family say when you said, Hey, I’m going to go to law school. I really want to be a lawyer.
Leah Abraham 09:39
My friends were really encouraging. I think they thought, you know, Oh, that seems like that would be a good fit for Leah. And then my family was really supportive. I had one aunt that, the one aunt that had always told me to be a lawyer since I had been like five and she goes, I told you, you know, you were supposed to be, go to law school.
So my family was very proud of me and very supportive of me. My mom certainly as well is encouraging me about and agreed with my decision to do it. And so very, very supportive.
Louis Goodman 10:10
What was the difference between being at Hastings and being at San Francisco State?
Leah Abraham 10:16
Ah, that’s a great question. It was, that one was a huge difference. That, I think, was the first time I had a real culture shock in school. At community college and even at university, I felt like I still was around at least a good chunk of people that had similar backgrounds to me, right? So in community college, I certainly was around, people of color, black people, people who were the children of immigrants, right?
At university, I did feel that, you know, I saw some privilege, but I definitely felt like there, I had, I was around people that looked like me or had my same background. When I went to law school, I think I was really shocked by how many people came from extreme privilege, and I mean that in, like, a lot of different ways, you know, just kind of the privilege of having both your parents be attorneys or honestly, your grandparent being an attorney or a judge, right?
You’re learning that some people had their parents buy them a condo while they were going to law school. I’m happy they were able to do that for them, but for myself, that was quite a shocker, right? And so, for me, I think that was the first time that I had any sense of imposter syndrome, any sense that oh, no, maybe I’m kind of in over my head and am I smart enough to be here? Can I compete with these people? Many of them had gone to really like gone to Ivy league schools and had gone to like top rank schools. And, you know, God bless San Francisco State, but it’s not, you know, a highly ranked school, even though I got a great education. That was the first time I think I ever really experienced imposter syndrome.
I think before that, I always felt like that I was a smart person and that I could always, like I could pretty much do anything if I put my mind to it.
Louis Goodman 12:10
When you graduated from law school, you went into the criminal justice world, and you’ve pretty much been there ever since. I’m wondering if you could give us just kind of a brief walkthrough of your experience and career In the Bay Area, criminal justice world.
Leah Abraham 12:30
Yeah. So I guess it kind of starts with law school and that in law school, I made the decision that I was going to become a Public Defender. And so because of that decision, I interned at the Alameda County, I interned at the San Francisco Public Defender’s my first summer. I interned at the Alameda County Public Defender’s my second summer. I also interned at the Marin County Public Defender’s in my third year of law school. So I was pretty much kind of setting up my resume so that I could be a candidate to be a Public Defender somewhere in California. My goal was, of course, to work in Alameda County because that’s where I’m from. So that was where I applied, and I was very lucky to get a post-bar clerkship at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office.
I then took the bar. I passed the bar on the first time, thankfully. And we did the post-bar for a while until I got a permanent position as a Public Defender in Alameda County. And I did that for, I think around, if you add, if you include the post bar time that I had, I think around 7 years I was there, maybe 6 and a half years. And I really loved being a Public Defender. I think it’s a really wonderful job. It’s a really fun job. There’s definitely parts about it that are very hard and I wouldn’t minimize that, but it’s a very, it’s an incredibly, what’s the word? It’s an incredibly satisfying job. You do feel, you definitely go home and feel like you’ve got something done or you, you definitely did something that reflected your values and you at least tried to help someone if not were able to help someone. So I really enjoyed being a Public Defender and I enjoyed being a litigator. I really enjoyed trying cases in front of juries.
I would say, you know, there were parts that were very hard, just kind of, you know, the Public Defender in the Criminal justice system doesn’t always have a lot of leverage. And so, you know, you can kind of feel like you’re going up an uphill battle with people and it can get a bit frustrating, but overall I had a good experience.
I think what changed for my career trajectory, I thought initially I might be a PD for my whole career was that Chesa Boudin was elected in San Francisco. And so that gave me a sense that maybe I could be a DA. You know, when I went to law school there certainly was no term, like, the term progressive prosecutor did not exist when I was in law school.
It didn’t become a term that was in common use until at least a few years after I graduated. And so there was this sense that it felt like a very new thing, and it felt transformative. It felt like you could be part of making some change in the criminal justice system in a way that I didn’t expect that I couldn’t initially. I didn’t think necessarily being a DA was an avenue for that when I first started off in my legal career. So I felt like it was a very exciting opportunity to co-work for Chesa and, you know, I really struggled over the decision to do it, but I ended up leaving and I was, I’m very happy that I did in the sense that it was a great experience working for him and being a DA in San Francisco and kind of cutting my teeth on working on the other side of the aisle.
Louis Goodman 15:45
Now, you’re over here in the District Attorney’s Office in Alameda County. You know, one of the reasons that I really am excited about talking to you is because you’ve had this experience both as an Alameda County Assistant Public Defender and an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney and some other defense experience, some other prosecutorial experience.
I just think that it’s a really interesting career path.
Leah Abraham 16:12
Yeah, I certainly didn’t think I was gonna be in that career path when I went to law school and I think that’s definitely something I’ve learned in this kind of season of my life is just like, it’s all well and good to plan and it’s all well and good to have a vision for what you want out of your life.
I’m a big planner. I love writing lists and making lists and checking them off and making plans. But sometimes some of the most kind of wonderful developments in my life have been just by kind of having opportunities arise that maybe that I didn’t expect and then kind of going with that and taking a risk.
And so it was a risk for me to leave kind of a career that I felt very comfortable with and that I felt like I knew the trajectory of to pursue being a DA in San Francisco. But I’m really glad that I took that risk and kind of had faith that it would all just shake out.
Louis Goodman 17:07
You obviously are a very bright person. You’re very accomplished. You could do pretty much, you know, anything that you really wanted to do if you put your mind to it. And I’m wondering, well, I mean, I’m just kind of wondering what is it about the law that has kept you in the practice of law?
Leah Abraham 17:28
I think the law is really interesting, just period, right? So even if it’s not criminal law, I thought, you know, law school was just interesting. I think contracts are interesting. Maybe I wouldn’t want to do that in my day-to-day profession, but I found kind of the law very intellectually a very kind of satisfying thing to study. And I thought, so in that sense, that’s kind of, and I didn’t necessarily expect that from law school. I kind of thought, Oh, it’s a means to an end, right, to become a lawyer, but I didn’t necessarily know if I would enjoy law school per se, I really did. So there’s that part of it. I think that I’m always going to enjoy learning and obviously the job I’m in right now and the profession I’ve had so far in my career that I’ve had so far, I have had to continue to learn.
I think the major things that keep me doing this and kind of committed to this is, I think like the goal in life is to know what your skill sets are like, what are, what is special about you?
What do you bring to the table? What are your talents and then find something that, you know, hopefully calling a profession, a career that really takes advantage of those skill sets that you have that are special to you. And so I think I felt like this job that I’ve had, this career in the legal field as a Public Defender and a Prosecutor really goes to my strengths. I’m a good public speaker. I’m comfortable. You know, some people are. Are probably perfectly good speakers, but I just don’t want to do it. They don’t, they’re not comfortable talking to different kinds of people. I think my kind of background, the way that I grew up really allows me to be able to connect and talk to a lot of different kinds of people, whether that be members of a jury, other counsel that I have to work with or, or go against, judges.
I think that my background really makes me a people person. And I think that’s something that this job allows me to use those skill sets, and I really like trials. You know, I feel like I found a job that brings out that, like, really utilizes my best qualities.
Louis Goodman 19:38
Would you recommend the law to a young person who is thinking about a career choice?
Leah Abraham 19:43
Yes, and I love this question because I feel like sometimes lawyers will tell people who, young people who want to become lawyers not to become lawyers. I find that really annoying for some reason. It’s like, okay, you get to go to law school, you pass the bar, you have this 20-year career and you want to tell people kind of like, kind of rain on someone’s parade that it’s going to be terrible.
I mean, obviously I see the point, which is like, you don’t like your job, right? You don’t like your profession. And so I guess it makes sense that you’re trying to discourage someone else in some ways. But I guess the problem that I have with that is that there are so many interesting and wonderful parts of being a lawyer. And if there are ways in which you don’t like the profession for yourself, I don’t necessarily know. I think you can warn someone about, you know, be careful about this issue or make sure you have work-life balance. But just to say that not to do it, I think is a bit, it really irritates me when I see it happen.
And I think part of why I’m irritated is because we need, we need good people doing this work. I mean, I know that sounds cliche or naive, more Pollyannish, but it’s true. You know, we need good, honest, honorable people in this profession. And if you meet a person that’s, you know, kind and hardworking and earnest and wants to help people, why would in the world would you discourage them from this profession?
Louis Goodman 21:12
How is actually practicing law met or differed from your expectations about that?
Leah Abraham 21:19
I think I got surprised by how meaningful it ended up being for me and how much satisfaction I derived from it is maybe the most surprising part. And then maybe I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be as well. More than the kind of like working hard, that was not, I expected it to be require me to work hard, but I didn’t necessarily understand the emotional weight of it all. And so in that sense, I’m also, I was also unprepared for that and surprised by that.
Louis Goodman 21:49
I have a two-part question. What do you think is the best advice you’ve ever received?
And what advice would you give to a young attorney just starting out?
Leah Abraham 21:59
I had a supervisor when I was a post-bar clerk, his name was Juan Hernandez. He was a long time Public Defender, and one thing he just said to me was, “The mistake is not making the mistake. The mistake is not fixing the mistake.” And so it’s really, really important to say, I can make the mistake. It’s going to happen sometimes, but I have to fix it. And I guess more my advice to people just maybe early on in their career as they’re kind of learning and becoming a lawyer and getting more experience in this profession is kind of always just kind of trying to stay humble in your attempt to keep learning.
Louis Goodman 22:36
Do you think the legal system is fair?
Leah Abraham 22:39
No, I don’t think that it’s fair. I don’t think the studies would back up the idea that the system is fair. I don’t think anything objective would say that the justice system treats all different types of people who are similarly situated exactly the same. I would like life to be more fair.
We are implicitly promised that the criminal justice system is fair, and that’s not true, but we can do something to make it more fair, and I’d rather participate in that.
Louis Goodman 23:11
What mistakes do you think lawyers make?
Leah Abraham 23:14
I think sometimes attorneys can underestimate their opponents, kind of assume that, Oh, I saw this point, but they won’t see it themselves. Or I think sometimes lawyers can assume that a point is clear and maybe not keeping an open mind. I think those are things that I maybe notice more than anything. And they also forget that it’s also all the little things and, and kind of how you make an impression on people. And so… you know, when you walk into court, how do you talk to people? Do you greet everyone? Do you introduce yourself to people? Or is it the first time you talk to the courtroom clerk when you have something to ask them to do for you? You know, things like that. I think sometimes people underestimate the importance of those kind of soft skills and really being an effective advocate for whatever side you’re on.
Louis Goodman 24:08
Is there someone living or dead who you’d like to meet?
Leah Abraham 24:13
I want to meet Tom Hanks. I am a huge fan of his movies and him as an actor and so I was thinking of like Barack Obama, do I want to meet him? Like, sure I do, right? Like I want to meet Michelle Obama. I want to meet Oprah, but deep down who I’d really like to meet is Tom Hanks. So I think if I had to pick, I mean, it’s probably a close call and it’s also a very silly answer, but that’s my answer.
Louis Goodman 24:38
I think Tom Hanks is an extraordinarily talented individual.
Leah Abraham 24:43
Yeah, hopefully the audience won’t hold this answer against me.
Louis Goodman 24:48
Well, they can hold it against both of us.
Leah Abraham 24:50
That’s okay, good.
Louis Goodman 24:53
How do you define success?
Leah Abraham 24:55
I define success as giving my very best effort and being proud of the results. That doesn’t always mean I’m always going to win, or I’m always going to succeed in my argument. I don’t necessarily need accolades. I don’t necessarily need recognition per se, but I really do you want to make sure that I am, I’m working to the best of my abilities and that I’m proud of the work I do.
Louis Goodman 25:26
Let’s say you came into some real money, 3 or 4 billion dollars. What if anything would you do differently in your life?
Leah Abraham 25:36
If I came into 3 or 4 billion dollars, definitely would have a bigger house. You know, I think I, you know, it’d be my life, but maybe just a little more elevated. I’m not sure I’d still practice law, but I definitely would volunteer and still kind of work in this field. You know, maybe I’d be a mock trial coach for high school kids or things like that, you know, kind of a mentor to maybe people in college that are thinking about going to law school. But I also just am interested in creating or helping to create a more diverse, you know, legal profession and encouraging people, maybe who traditionally don’t see a space for themselves in this profession. So I’d still do that as well. If I want, you know, if I got 3 or 4 billion dollars, but you know, billion is such a high number. I can’t even really imagine what that is, but that’s what I think I would do.
Louis Goodman 26:26
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?
Leah Abraham 26:33
I would end racism in the world. If I had the magic wand, I’d end that.
Louis Goodman 26:38
Let’s say you had a Super Bowl ad, 60 seconds on the Super Bowl. You could put out any message you wanted to a very large audience. What would that message be?
Leah Abraham 26:52
Let’s be intellectually fair. Let’s use our critical thinking skills and be intellectually fair.
Don’t just believe anything people tell you. I think that’s kind of just what I would say.
Louis Goodman 27:06
Leah, is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t touched on, that we haven’t discussed, anything at all you’d like to bring up?
Leah Abraham 27:14
Believe in yourself and believe that you can make positive change in this world and don’t let anybody stop you.
Louis Goodman 27:22
Leah Abraham. Thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Leah Abraham 27:30
Thank you very much. The pleasure’s been all mine.
Louis Goodman 27:34
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.
Leah Abraham 28:13
I find that to be a hard question. I don’t know why. I’m trying to think, you know what, I’m going to, I’m going to answer this question truthfully, because it’s not going to be, it’s not going to be deep. I’m telling you this right now.