Sergio Benavides / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to practicing attorneys about their lives in and out of the practice of law. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect.
He served as a Public Defender in Fresno County representing the indigenous in every sort of criminal accusation from misdemeanor drug possessions to felony sexual assault and attempted murder.
He has tried numerous cases to successful jury verdicts. He speaks fluent Spanish, and also handles immigration cases. Sergio Benavides welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Sergio Benavides: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Louis Goodman: Well, I’m really pleased that you are joining us today. Where’s your office now Sergio?
Sergio Benavides: So I have an office in Hayward right in the middle of the Southland mall.
Louis Goodman: And where are you from originally?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I [00:01:00] was born in Orange County, not too far from Disneyland, but I was raised in the East Bay, San Jose, Hayward, San Leandro.
Louis Goodman: Where’d you go to high school?
Sergio Benavides: San Leandro High School.
Louis Goodman: How was that for you?
Sergio Benavides: It was a really difficult time for me.
Louis Goodman: In what way?
Sergio Benavides: Well I am an out gay American and in the mid-eighties it was illegal for me to sleep with whoever wanted to, or date whoever I wanted to.
So it was a very difficult time for me.
Louis Goodman: And were you out in high school?
Sergio Benavides: Oh, no God, no. That didn’t come till many years later when I felt a lot more safe to come out.
Louis Goodman: When you got out of San Leandro High School, where did you go to college?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I started by going to Chabot College because I knew at that age that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career.
And I thought, well, I can start exploring my interests at a place where I wouldn’t go into heavy debt. So I explored for three years at Chabot College.
Louis Goodman: What was that experience [00:02:00] like any better than high school?
Sergio Benavides: Oh, it was a world better. I found people that had many things in common with me. I found political activism.
I joined the local newspaper and started getting into journalism. It was a wonderful thing.
Louis Goodman: So after Chabot, where did you go?
Sergio Benavides: After I started leaning towards, I went to San Francisco State. And I majored in English Literature.
Louis Goodman: Is that where you got your degree from?
Sergio Benavides: Yes. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I loved reading and that I was good at it.
And talking about books, I just had no idea that it wasn’t going to be a very marketable degree. I found out the hard way.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. I think a lot of us who ended up in Law School found out the hard way that our Social Sciences degrees weren’t as valuable perhaps as we had hoped they’d be.
Sergio Benavides: Yeah. So I got my English degree and I didn’t know what to do with it.
And someone mentioned, oh, you can teach with that. So I started substitute teaching for a few years after college and found that I enjoyed [00:03:00] it and I enjoyed being around kids. And so that led to me going to Seattle actually. And I studied for a Teacher Certification Program and I got a Master’s in education that was in Seattle, Antioch Unified Seattle.
Louis Goodman: Okay.
Sergio Benavides: The late nineties, I got my degree and the country was in the middle of a recession. I ended up moving back to the Bay area and got my first teaching job, doing a bilingual elementary school teaching.
Louis Goodman: Where did you learn to speak Spanish?
Sergio Benavides: From my parents, they’re both native Costa Ricans. They met in high school and they started a family in California with me and my brothers.
I have two brothers. We were born and raised here, but luckily they only spoke Spanish to us at home. So we were able to learn two languages fully at the same time.
Louis Goodman: Well, that’s great. I mean, that’s just a, in my view, it’s just a phenomenal skill. Cause it’s one that I certainly don’t have.
So how long did you teach for?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I taught full time [00:04:00] as an elementary school teacher for approximately five years. I taught second grade, first grade, third grade in bilingual programs. And at the end of that career, I ended up having sort of a power struggle with one of the principals at one of my schools.
And that led me to get out of teaching and into law.
Louis Goodman: So you were out of school for what, five years before you started thinking about going to Law School?
Sergio Benavides: Yeah, I taught for five years and then I said, I need to get out of this profession. I can’t have someone lording over me like this. So I landed on the idea of Law School.
Louis Goodman: What did your friends and family say when you said, Hey, I want to go to law school now?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I was 32. And everyone thought I was an old goat for going back to school again. And I had relatives telling me you’re crazy. Why are you going back to school? You’re too old. And I thought, well, I don’t care what you think.
This is what I want to do. And that was that.
Louis Goodman: No it’s been my experience. I took a year off between college and law school, but it was my experience in law school [00:05:00] that the most successful law students were those who had had several years of experience in the work world before going to law school. I think those people were so much more focused and clear about why they wanted to be there.
I mean, did you, do you feel that way for yourself?
Sergio Benavides: Oh yeah. I was extremely determined to succeed in law school. I said, there’s no going backwards. There’s only going forward. This is how I saw it.
Louis Goodman: Where did you go to law school?
Sergio Benavides: I went to University of San Francisco School of Law.
Louis Goodman: How did you happen to decide to go there?
Sergio Benavides: I applied to five schools in the Bay area.
I didn’t want to leave the Bay Area and it was one of two that accepted me. And I don’t know, I just had heard good things about USF and, you know, I liked the idea of the Jesuit tradition being a really strong intellectual and liberal. You know
Louis Goodman: Let me ask you this. How was the law school experience?
Sergio Benavides: The law school experience was the most challenging thing I’ve ever gone through in my [00:06:00] life, but after the first semester I really got my bearings and I figured it out and I started doing really, really well. And then I loved it after that.
Louis Goodman: What did you find so difficult and challenging at first?
Sergio Benavides: Well, the most difficult and challenging thing was trying to figure out how to tackle this monster called Law School and how to think and study and write and talk about the law like a lawyer. I’m the first lawyer in my family. And so I didn’t have anyone to turn to, to give me some tips or guidance or anything. So I had to kind of figure it out on my own. That was really hard.
Louis Goodman: Yeah I understand that. And my dad was a lawyer and I can’t say that really helped me very much in terms of, you know, kind of looking at the whole thing to begin with.
And it is kind of intimidating and difficult to figure out at first.
Sergio Benavides: I’m first to admit, you know, I skated through college. I skated through high school. I skated relatively through graduate school. I mean, I never really applied [00:07:00] myself until I got to law school.
Louis Goodman: How did that feel?
Sergio Benevides: It was a shock.
It was a slap to the face. I thought I could just act like I’d always done and just do a half ass job and do well. And that doesn’t happen. You have to actually really, they work hard.
Louis Goodman: Is there somebody, when you were in law school, who you met, who kind of said, okay, Sergio, this is what you got to do. This is how you work this thing.
Sergio Benavides: Well, I did, fortunately I did enter law school into this special program that was geared towards trying to help, you know, not the typical law student, either socially or economically diverse students or people that didn’t always have the best grades. And I was in that program that was supposed to guide us and help us.
But that first semester I largely ignored a lot of that advice. And I had to just learn the hard way and take my lumps.
Louis Goodman: So did you ever start listening to what he said?
Sergio Benevides: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I got it. Eventually I realized, you know, you can’t succeed in law school and go out drinking every single week with all your buddies [00:08:00] for bar night and you can’t go out dancing every night and you can’t waste hours on the internet, reading gossip and news just can’t be done.
Louis Goodman: Well then good advice.
Sergio Benavides: I got myself into a different mindset. And I told myself, this is something I’m serious about. This isn’t a joke. I’m not going to fail. That’s not an option. And once I kind of redirected my thinking, it was all a breeze after that, I just worked hard and, you know, geared down, buckle down.
Louis Goodman: After you got out of law school, what was your first legal job?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I guess I’ve always been kind of hardheaded. And I said, well, I don’t want to work for anyone else. I want to work for me. So I opened a law practice right out of law school in downtown San Francisco, real clear Bacco. It didn’t really go.
I didn’t have mentoring. I didn’t have experience. I just had, read some books. I had gone to some workshops and I’d taken some classes and I had a kind of like an idea of what it would work like, but the reality, yeah. You know, it was tough. I didn’t have that many clients and I didn’t know [00:09:00] marketing. So then I said, okay, this isn’t working.
I shut that down. And I had to go back and re-initiate my substitute teaching license and do that to pay off student loans while I tried to figure out what my next step was. And luckily I went and did some informational interviews with some more established attorneys. And one very kind gentleman gave me some of his time and said, look, what you need to do is go get a government job.
Let the government invest in teaching you how to be a lawyer, how to argue and write motions, how to do trials. They will invest the resources in you, you get your experience, then you quit, then you open your law practice. So I took that advice and I ran with it.
Louis Goodman: What government did you take advantage of?
Sergio Benavides: So the Fresno County government,
Louis Goodman: How did you get that job?
Sergio Benavides: I applied to every government job I could think of after that interview with that gentleman and Fresno was the first major city that made an offer. And so I said, okay, I can do that.
Louis Goodman: And what did you do in Fresno?
[00:10:00] Sergio Benavides: So they really liked the fact that I was bilingual, cause there’s a big need for that in the Central Valley.
So I went there and immediately they threw me into a misdemeanor courtroom.
Louis Goodman: And this was where the public defender’s office?
Sergio Benavides: Yeah, it was like, I don’t know, like being thrown into the ocean and being told to swim, like they expect you to just figure it out and not be afraid and get rid of the butterflies and just speak confidently in front of the judge.
But there was a lot of support and a lot of training and I was really appreciative.
Louis Goodman: What kinds of cases did you handle as a Public Defender?
Sergio Benavides: Well, every single misdemeanor under the sun, you know, Fresno has a very high population of indigent people, people that are just really desperately poor. And so we saw a lot of shoplifting, soliciting prostitutes, hundreds of DUIs, hundreds of domestic violence cases.
That was the bulk of it. And then, you know, driving on a suspended license cases, which I hated, but [00:11:00] there were so many of them.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. So how long did you spend at the Public Defender’s Office?
Sergio Benavides: I was there for a total of six years. By the time I left, I was desperate to get out.
Louis Goodman: Why?
Sergio Benavides: Because the great recession hit in late 2008 and the whole office was transformed by 60 access of budget cuts and really excessive, I would say inhuman case loads. Yeah, it became really, it became just an awful place to work. I was to do well, but the first thing I did is I talked to some of my mentors and they said, get yourself a legal specialization, which I did as a criminal specialist.
And that forced the County to give me, I think it was a 3% or 5% pay increase because they were refusing to pay anybody any more money. And actually I had a promotion taken away from me because of budget cuts. So that was the first thing I did is I got a specialization. And once I got that, I. [00:12:00] well, even before I got it, I made a promise myself that I was going to get out of Fresno and move back to the Bay Area and start my career where I wanted to be.
So in 2013, I just started, you know, putting in all that effort to find a job or do something out here in the Bay Area. And so, yeah.
Louis Goodman: So you left the Public Defender in Fresno and you came back to the Bay Area?
Sergio Benavides: I came back to the Bay Area
Louis Goodman: And did what?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I got a job as another Public Defender in Solano County, and I ended up working for them for a total of three months before they gave me the boot.
And when that happened, you know, that was a shock, but I took it as a sign from the heavens. Okay. Sergio, this is your time. You need to go and open your own office again. So I did.
Louis Goodman: And is that when you opened the office in Hayward?
Sergio Benavides: Yeah, that’s when I opened the office in Hayward and that’s when I said, you know, I’ve been doing so many years of criminal defense work and I enjoy it, but every single time I represented [00:13:00] some farm worker on a DUI. They would always ask in Spanish, Hey, what’s going on with my paperwork? Meaning what’s going on? How’s this going to affect my immigration situation? And I would always tell him, I’d always tell the client, I don’t know, go see an immigration lawyer.
So when I opened the office, I said, okay, I have to do immigration. The clients are always asking for it. And that was a really smart move on my behalf because as much as I love criminal defense work, It’s now an 80 or 90% immigration office at this point, really it’s taken over the practice.
Louis Goodman: You know, just out of curiosity, I’m a Hayward Lawyer had been here for a long time.
What prompted you to decide to open an office in Hayward as opposed to anywhere else?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I lived part of my childhood in Hayward, so I knew it and I knew that there was a big Latino community here. So that was something that I kind of felt would be a good spot to open. And as you know, I like the population and the culture in Hayward, but also I have to admit my parents live a few blocks away from [00:14:00] the office and I wanted to be close to them to check in on them.
They’re really old.
Louis Goodman: So how long have you been a practicing out of your office in Hayward now?
Sergio Benavides: So I am at the six and a half year mark. So closing in on almost seven years.
Louis Goodman: What do you really like about practicing law?
Sergio Benevides: That’s a tough question. I think practicing law is ultimately it’s helping people.
I mean, most of my professional career, I’ve been a public servant. Whether it was a public school teacher or a public defender, and this is new to me being a private defender, but ultimately I just love helping people. You know, people come to you with their most desperate situations and they want help and, you’re able to do it with the power of the law.
Louis Goodman: Well, let’s say a young person was coming out of college and they were thinking about a career. Would you recommend the law?
Sergio Benavides: I do, but I always try to give people the advice and the information [00:15:00] that I never got when I was, you know, a budding young law student. So I tried to full of picture. Well, you know, I warned them that it’s not like the movies it’s not as easy or glamorous as you might think. it’s hard work.
Louis Goodman: That’s for sure.
Sergio Benavides: And I also want people to, as much as I can to try to stay away from student debt because I was saddled with it for decades.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. That’s brutal these days. Isn’t it.
Sergio Benavides: Yeah, I didn’t get out of that debt until a couple of years ago.
Louis Goodman: Well, you know, Eric Swalwell, our congressmen, who I interviewed for this program a few weeks ago.
I mean, that’s what prompted him to run for Congress was the fact of his student debt. I mean, it really is a terrible thing.
Sergio Benavides: Yeah. And the cost of, you know, higher education, it just keeps skyrocketing way past, you know, the increases in inflation. So there’s that.
Louis Goodman: How has practicing law either met or differed from your [00:16:00] expectation of practicing law when you went into it?
Sergio Benavides: Well, when I went into it, I had no idea really what it would actually look like. I think may be the best advice I’d give young people is before you go to law school and make that commitment go work as an intern, go work. Volunteer, if you need to, but see what the day to day work is like before you commit your whole future to it.
You know, I had no idea how much of my life would be devoted to marketing, for example.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Well, what about that? Let’s move into that though. Kind of the business of practicing law. How has that gone for you and how has that either met or different from some expectations?
Sergio Benavides: Well, it’s always the most challenging part of the practices to get people to continue to call or come through the door.
It’s always a challenge. It’s really hard. It’s probably in some ways my least favorite part of the job, but it’s required and I get it and I accept it.
Louis Goodman: What sort of marketing tools have you used?
[00:17:00] Sergio Beaevides: Oh, I have everything under the sun, except for maybe holding out a placard on the street and spinning it.
Like one of those guys in front of the tattoo,
Louis Goodman: What seems to work for you?
Sergio Benavides: What works the best is doing good work for someone and having that person refer their friends and family later on. That’s the best.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. There’s nothing like referred business. That’s certainly a good thing.
Sergio Benavides: I’ve continued to grow and build based on word of mouth. I have a good client base that trusts, likes and respects me and they refer me, their friends and their family. I’ve got a couple of cases where I’d represent two or three generations of the same family. So that’s, you know, that’s a real testament to trust.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, it is. I also, you know, took a look at your website and it’s really good. It’s impressive. Did you do that yourself or did you have some help with that?
Sergio Benavides: I did. I wanted to update it and have a professional look at it, but I [00:18:00] haven’t done it yet. I did do it myself.
Louis Goodman: It really looks good.
Sergio Benavides: Thanks.
I’ve also done yellow pages, which is laughable. I’ve done online through Google ads, I’ve done Yelp. I’ve done a lot of different things and I’ve done marketing groups where you join these professional networking groups like BNI, or Provisors where you go once a week or once a month. And you have breakfast with others and talk about your business and try and trade leads.
All of it works to a certain extent, but really it always comes down to just doing a good job for others. And then they’ll pass the word along.
Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change about the way the legal system works?
Sergio Benavides: I don’t know. I think. I’m always disappointed by judges. I have to say.
Louis Goodman: In what way?
Sergio Benavides: I think that, I don’t know.
I don’t think that they answer enough to the community. I think that there should be more, I think there should be some other kind of mechanism for accountability is [00:19:00] for judges misbehavior or their misuse of law. I think there’s too much power in their hands sometimes. Really. And I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m just thinking out loud.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the system is fair?
Sergio Benavides: I don’t think it’s fair. I mean, it’s not fair that, you know, someone like O J Simpson can throw millions of dollars at his defense and get out of a murder conviction. Whereas someone else doesn’t have the money and can’t afford, you know, just as good a representation. I mean that isn’t fair.
And you do see oftentimes people of color being treated disproportionately different than, you know, Caucasians in the law. And so I do see that as a big problem is the, the racial problems in our system of law. That’s why the whole country has been taken over by protests and the black lives matter movements kind of exploded.
I mean, that’s just a symptom of something that has been going on for decades.
Louis Goodman: It seems to me, [00:20:00] and I just sort of wonder what your thought or comment about this is that in the last, let’s say 10, 15 years, we’ve had a significant number of Judges appointed or who have run. And we now have a significant number of judges that make the bench look a lot more diverse. In terms of, in terms of gender identity, in terms of racial identity and that kind of thing. But sometimes it seems to me that despite the diversity of background that oftentimes I don’t see a lot of diversity of thinking, do you?
Sergio Benavides: Yeah. And I would agree with that. And I think the diversity of the bench, shouldn’t just be the way people look or their gender or their identity, but it should also be a diversity of training and experience. Like we don’t have enough judges out there who don’t come from Ivy League schools or who [00:21:00] don’t come from big firms. It would be great to have more judges who’ve actually, I don’t know, worked as maids or worked as car washers or something that, you know, where they can relate to the same people that they’re going to be sentencing day in and day out.
So the diversity of experience I think would help too.
Louis Goodman: When you’re not practicing law, what sorts of things do you enjoy doing? And who do you enjoy doing it with?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I enjoy nature. I know hiking and I go with some of my friends and occasionally I’ll go with my spouse. My husband, I love traveling.
Of course, that is kind of shut down right now because of the pandemic. But travel is wonderful. I love being around other cultures and other languages and experiencing different kinds of foods and everything else. That’s different from what we grew up with here.
Louis Goodman: Where, where do you like to travel? Where specifically, have you gone that you think has been a really good place to go?
Sergio Benavides: Well, I never get tired of going to Mexico, even though, you know, [00:22:00] all my clients tell me that it’s a horrible crime ridden and corrupt place, but I think it’s just such a culturally rich landscape. I never get tired of it. I’ve been to various States of Mexico and every little region is so different. It’s like a different country.
Louis Goodman: If you couldn’t be a lawyer, what do you think that you might choose to do? I know you’ve done some teaching.
Sergio Benavides: Well, if I had to choose, I would probably rather be a writer, but I don’t have the, I don’t think I have the discipline to be a good writer and then being able to just get up every morning and sit down at that desk and do the writing.
Sergio Beaevides: Yeah. I know it takes discipline and, I think I’m too undisciplined to do it. I have good ideas. I used to write for fun a lot more when I was younger, but I don’t know. I used to really enjoy writing poetry, specially.
Louis Goodman: If you came into some real money, like billions of dollars, what, if anything, would you do differently in your life.
Sergio Benavides: I’ve thought about that. And I think one of the things I would love to do, I run into this sometimes in my work [00:23:00] because of the client base, you know, these are immigrants who come from sometimes poor villages and they’re too poor even to attend school. I think one of the things I would do is I’d love to set up schools and teach people to read that don’t know how to read.
Louis Goodman: One of the real areas of expertise that you have is Immigration Law. And that’s a really big thing going on in the country right now. I’m wondering if you could share some of your thoughts about what’s happening in the immigration world?
Sergio Benavides: Well, it’s definitely become more difficult, more challenging since, you know, the current resident of the white house took over it’s in the news all the time. And it feels almost like, you know, you’re trying to walk across land that’s made of quicksand. So it’s really hard to stay on top of all the changes and what the law is and what are the latest proclamations from the White House.
But I feel deep down in [00:24:00] my heart that there’s always going to be a need for immigration lawyers. And there will always be a need for people to find a way to legalize their status and to unite their families and to seek a safe Harbor in this country, no matter what they’re fleeing from and other parts of the world. I think that’s always going to be a part of what our countries is and what it’s about.
And I hope people don’t give up on the United States. It’s being a place where you can pursue happiness in all its shapes and forms.
Louis Goodman: Sergio Benavidez. Thank you so much for joining us today on Love Thy Lawyer. I appreciate all of your comments and your insights, and I’ve learned something about the immigration world.
So thank you so much for being here and it’s really. We’ll talk to you.
Sergio Benavides: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Louis Goodman: That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. Thanks to my guests for sharing their experience and wisdom. Thanks to Joel Katz, Brian Matheson and Tracey Harvey. Please [00:25:00] subscribe to Love Thy Lawyer wherever you listen and check out the website for episodes, transcripts and photos.
I’m Louis Goodman.
Sergio Benavides / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript