This month’s column showcases our GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport Editor-in-Chief, Jeffrey Allen. As many know, he has been a tireless volunteer for the ABA and the GPSolo Division. He has exemplified this standard presented in his interview and LEAD Line: Try the unusual in your pursuit of excellence. Here are excerpts from our unfiltered conversation, where we learn about the defining moment that shaped Jeff’s life, starting with the death of his father when Jeff was 11 years old.
MB: Tell me a little bit about your background and the influences that shaped your life.
JA: I was born in Chicago, and we lived in the south side, which was, at that time, a Jewish ghetto. When I was about six, we moved to California to a town called Fresno, which is an agricultural community in the central San Joaquin Valley area of California. Fresno was the agribusiness center. It was the 1950s and 60s, so you had basically the evolution of the individual rights that were coming out in the civil way. Liberty movements, race relations, and integration in the South were all occurring simultaneously.
I went to public school my entire life. My father died four days after my 11th birthday, and my mother went back to school. She had dropped out of school when she married my father. She went back to school and got her college degree and became a teacher.
When my father died, that was a traumatic experience, but my father knew he was going to die. He had had rheumatic fever, and he got it for the second time when he was in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. It was misdiagnosed, and by the time they figured out what he had, there was permanent damage done to his heart. He died in 1959. My father knew he wasn’t going to be around as my sisters and I grew up. He left instructions to be followed on his death, which included a statement that has haunted me ever since, and I believe he was smart enough that he meant it. He wrote in a sealed letter, which was kept with his will, that there was not to be a eulogy for him because “the lives of his children would be his eulogy.” That sentence is something that stuck with me because I felt like I was not only responsible for my own life, but I was responsible for the record of my father’s.
MB: Do you have the letter?
JA: I don’t have it. My mother may have it. It was not a letter to me. It was title instructions to be followed upon his death, and it was folded inside of his will.
MB: Tell me about the profound impact that has had on you.
JA: Everything that I have done in my life, I thought about in those terms. I was the oldest child of three. When I got in high school I was injured and spent a bunch of time in a cast. I couldn’t do much in the way of physical activity and took up competitive speaking. I joined the debate team and found out I was exceptionally good at it. As a result of that, I decided maybe I should be a lawyer instead of a doctor in 1970, and got a law degree in 1973.
MB: What made you know about lawyers, and what exposure did you have to lawyers?
JA: I watched Perry Mason on television. When I started out law school, I started out with what I call a “Perry Mason Complex.” But by the time I graduated law school, I had done enough work with criminal law and I never wanted to see it again.
MB: While you were in college, did you know you were going to law school?
JA: I made the decision in high school as a result of the success I had with debate that I was going to be a lawyer, and I never looked back. I always planned from that point forward on being a lawyer. The only two things I ever wanted to be were a doctor and a lawyer. And I switched in high school.
MB: What mentors did you have in law school?
JA: I would say the best instructor I ever had in my life was a professor by the name of Jesse Choper. The second-best was a high school instructor, Allan Amen. Jesse has been teaching for 40 some-odd years. Brilliant man.
JA: At Boalt, U.C. Berkeley’s law school. He was a very brilliant professor. He played a classroom using the Socratic Method the way a conductor conducts an orchestra. He learned his students; he knew what to expect from them, and he knew how to pull out the comment that he wanted by calling on the student that he knew would have it. I never saw the Socratic Method conducted better than he conducted it.
MB: Did he help you learn to pinpoint people’s skills?
JA: He helped me in terms of learning a much higher level of legal analytical skill. He also helped me in terms of the fact that, aside from being a lawyer, I also teach college, and the two people on whom I model my teaching work are Jessie Choper and my high school instructor Allan Amen. They were far and away the two best I have ever had.
MB: How do you feel about teaching?
JA: I love teaching. I’ve taught all my life. If the world was a different place, I might have been a teacher as a career as opposed to a lawyer. I come from a long line of teachers. My grandfather was a teacher; my mother was a teacher; my mother’s sister was a teacher; my wife is a teacher; my wife’s sister is a teacher; and I’ve taught my entire adult life. I like the idea of taking information that I have and sharing it with a new generation of people who are going to go out and educate another generation. I’ve taught at the university level for a number of years, but I also taught soccer as a coach, and I taught classes for soccer coaches. I would teach a class of soccer coaches that may have been 30 or 40 soccer coaches, and they would each go out and have a team, so I am now influencing 300 soccer players in a year—from one class.
MB: When was your first teaching job?
JA: In high school I was a math tutor.
MB: And then in college?
JA: In college, as a senior, I had a job as a reader, a grader basically, in a political science class, and the guy who was teaching the class had his master’s degree. He was a Ph.D. candidate in political science. A guy by the name of Sam Kernel, I believe. Sam’s focus was Congress and the presidency. He and I were having coffee one day and talking about the class, and I said to him, “Sam I don’t want to upset you, but I’ve heard a rumor that there is a third branch of government.” He looked at me and said, “Yeah?” I said, “Yeah, it’s called the judiciary. I was looking over the curriculum and I don’t see it mentioned anywhere.” He scratched his head and said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what. Pick a week.” And I asked, “For what?” He said, “Because you’re going to teach about the judiciary.” So as a senior at Berkeley, I taught my very first class in PSL1—which held 450 students—and I taught for one week out of the quarter about the judiciary. It worked, so I got to do it the second and third quarter, also.
MB: Tell me about your interest in the law when you got out. What kind of law did you practice, did you go with a firm, did you go on your own?
JA: As I said, I started law school with a Perry Mason Complex. I wanted to go do criminal defense work. My very first semester of law school, I had a criminal law professor by the name of Phillip Johnson, for whom I actually did some research work. Basically, Phil had done work as a district attorney before he became a law school professor. He spent some time trying to convince me that I could do more good as a right-thinking D.A. than I could as a defense attorney because I would have the discretion to resolve things in a way that made sense. As it turned out, because of a lot of other things that I did in college and law school, I burned out on criminal law before I ever got out of law school. When I got out of law school, I had changed my perspective and I simply wanted to be a litigator. I wanted to be a trial lawyer.
MB: How would your dad feel?
JA: What I do is a reflection not only on me but also on my father.
MB: Did you instill that in your children?
JA: No, because I didn’t die. If he had just simply said that to me and lived to be a ripe old age, it would not have had the impact that it did. He had to die to punctuate that for me. His death put an exclamation point on it, underscored it, and put it in boldface print in large type.
MB: Do you think it made you a better person in some ways, or did it rein you in, or expand you?
JA: All of that. I always tried to do my best because I felt that I should, but it wasn’t just for me. It was for me, and it was also because of my father.
MB: Kind of a life purpose?
JA: That’s probably a fair way to put it. That was probably my first what you would call “defining moment.”
MB: Have there been any times that stick out in your mind where you thought, “Yep, did good on this one.”
JA: I won’t say there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about it, but there probably hasn’t been a week in my life that I haven’t thought about it.
MB: Did it sort of become a moral compass in a way?
JA: Not just a moral compass, it was a work ethic compass, too. Maybe I’m giving him more credit than he was due, I don’t know. My assumption has always been that he did it intentionally; that he had the foresight to figure out he was not going to be there, and this might be a way that he could be there and influence me. It was at least worth a try. So, he took the shot, and he hit a bull’s-eye. Everywhere. It did not make any difference what it was. Whatever it was I was doing, it was how my father would be defined. He chose to define his life by what my sisters and I did.
MB: You always maintained that high standard, right?
JA: That crystallized it for me. I always tried to maintain a higher standard than standard practice.
MB: What would you tell young lawyers who are starting out in practice?
JA: Try the unusual in your pursuit of excellence.
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