Private Practice, Pro Community
Alumni in private practice are dedicated to community service.
BY SUSAN VOGEL
David Tsai ’06 volunteered many hours as a law student and continues to do so while working at a big IP firm. Photo courtesy of David Tsai.
Alumni, says Deborah Moss-West, contribute to social justice in a wide variety of ways. “People sometimes don’t recognize that it’s not an all-or-nothing situation, that there are many ways they can contribute,” she says. It can be five hours a week or five hours a year—you put them all together and it’s a huge contribution.”
David Tsai ’06 was in the Silicon Valley technology industry before he began his studies at Santa Clara Law. After earning an undergraduate degree in biochemical sciences at Harvard, he conducted undergraduate honors and graduate research at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University, respectively, on stem cell and viral gene therapy tools for the treatment of neurological diseases and cancer. He enrolled at Santa Clara Law with the hope that eventually he would practice law in the area of social justice.
At Santa Clara Law, Tsai volunteered at the KGACLC, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley (AIDS Legal Services), and at East Palo Alto Community Legal Services. Upon graduation, he joined Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP, the San Francisco-based IP law firm, where he practices trade secret misappropriation and patent litigation in the areas of pharmaceuticals, software/Internet, medical devices, biotechnologies, and semiconductors. Tsai was named a “rising star” in intellectual property litigation by Super Lawyers in 2009.
Tsai fulfills his commitment to the community and improving access to justice through service on his firm’s Diversity Committee, representation of pro bono clients at settlement conferences through the Northern District Court Assisted Settlement Conference Program, and assistance on civil rights and immigration pro bono matters with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Asian Law Caucus. He also recently helped lead Townsend's efforts to file an amicus brief on behalf of clergy and their congregations in support of the petitioners to the California Supreme Court against Proposition 8.
“Even with the demands of being an intellectual property litigator,” says Tsai, “I make the time to do pro bono work. As lawyers, I think we have a commitment to provide equal access to legal assistance, particularly for indigent individuals. My pro bono work has been primarily focused on helping indigent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in civil rights and immigration cases. To help a transgender HIV+ Mexican woman stay in this country in order to avoid persecution and to receive the proper medical care is simply the right thing to do.”
When Matthew Rafat ’02 went solo, he set up his practice so he could do pro bono and low fee work. Rafat was born in Iran. The 1979 revolution occurred when his family was living in Scotland, where his father was attending graduate school. They were unable to go back to Iran and landed in Texas and then the Bay Area.
“Iranian culture emphasizes education, so it is considered problematic if your offspring do not become doctors, scientists, or engineers. More recently, becoming a lawyer has been added to the list of culturally acceptable professions,” says Rafat.
Rafat chose Santa Clara Law because of “the Jesuits’ excellent reputation when it comes to education,” and his presumption that “Santa Clara University's emphasis on ethics and social justice would impact the law school.”
Rafat’s early years of practice gave him a good degree of humility and lessons that have, years later, enabled him to balance a solo legal practice with a good amount of pro-bono and “low-bono” work. He graduated just after the dot-com bubble burst and his first two law jobs ended when the firms’ work dwindled. “Although I was living with my parents,” he says, “tuition was still expensive, so I had a significant amount of student loans. Other than gas and car-related expenses, I probably spent less than seven dollars a day during those two years.”
When Rafat opened his own firm in 2004, specializing in plaintiffs’ employment matters and small business representation, he did so with a business model that to this day gives him job satisfaction and flexibility. “I knew two things acutely well: one, don’t take bad cases, because you will regret waking up in the morning and will hate your job; and two, keep the overhead low so you can choose good cases. I have always despised debt, because from an early age, I understood that debt limited my options.”
Rafat’s low overhead allows him to take pro bono cases and “low-bono” cases, cases in which clients pay something “so as to have some ‘skin’ in the game” he says, but not more than they can afford to pay. This business model has allowed him to volunteer for the KGACLC and the Santa Clara County Pro Bono Project.
At Santa Clara Law, where he was president of La Raza Student Association (he is now president of La Raza Lawyers of Santa Cruz County) Edison Jensen learned about “political empowerment through the legal process.” He began to assist in political campaigns to increase Latinos’ political strength in the Pajaro Valley.
Through his service on the board of Planned Parenthood, Jensen began to learn of the disproportionate health problems facing the area’s poor Latinos. This placed him on the social justice path he has taken for the past 20 years—rallying to bring health care to the county’s poor.
In 1998 Jensen was asked to join the board of Salud Para La Gente, a small clinic with the mission of serving underserved patients in Pajaro Valley and Santa Cruz County. As a federally qualified health center, it is required to have a majority of its board members be patients of the clinic. The first day he visited to meet with the board, “All I heard was screaming and fighting.” Fifty-one percent of its board members are farmworkers. He decided to be on the board and a few months later became its chair.
During the 13 years he has chaired the board, Salud’s first clinic has grown into a primary health care network with 12 locations in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, including seven school-based clinics in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the adult day health center called Elderday in Santa Cruz, and services including dental, vision, and mental health care. It is now the biggest clinic in the county providing more than 113,000 patient encounters a year on a budget of 17 million.
When a non-profit hospital in Watsonville was to be sold to a for-profit corporation, Jensen mobilized a community-based group to force the profits of the sale to be put back into the community. They were successful. The Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust was born. Jensen became founding chairman of the board of a $20 million trust that will serve the Latino community.
Jensen says, “None of this would have been possible without Professor Phil Jimenez and Dean Jerry Uelmen taking a chance on me. Now, I feel as though I can really serve others and make a difference in their lives.”
Jensen entered Santa Clara Law through the CLEO program, which helps “low-income, minority, and otherwise disadvantaged students become competitive law school applicants,” and he received scholarships from SCU. “Because of the commitment that SCU made to me,” says Jensen, “I was able to substantively commit to my community and make a difference.”
Jensen says he now “practices law so I can help others in these ventures. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is—what are you doing for others?’ and the hallmark of a Santa Clara Law education is making a difference in people’s lives.”