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Lawyer Limelight: Jeffrey Bleich

Photo by Edward Caldwell.

Jeffrey Bleich understands the value of how things work together – whether it’s relationships, parts of government or constituencies. While the Munger Tolles & Olson partner credits a post-college stint as a Coro Fellow for his insight, it might have something to do with his parents.

His dad, Charlie, was a dentist in Connecticut, and his mom, Linda, his receptionist. When Charlie recently celebrated his 80th birthday, he told Jeff how lucky he had been to create so many smiles and, as a teacher later on, to teach others how to create a smile.

Bleich’s parents taught him well. With an unstoppable work ethic and belief in helping others, he was tapped as Special Counsel to President Barack Obama in his first term, essentially serving as his troubleshooter. He was then appointed Ambassador to Australia, where he helped create a stronger role for the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region by fortifying the U.S.-Australia alliance. While in Canberra, Bleich laid the framework for the world’s largest trade act, the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Today, the UC Berkeley School of Law (’89) graduate spends a substantial amount of time counseling Silicon Valley’s tech elite on cybersecurity and international trade issues. And, naturally, he spends a fair amount of time thinking about politics – when he’s not grabbing doughnuts with his daughter or helping a pro bono client whose case touches his heart.

Lawdragon: You have a long history of excelling in private practice while also doing very significant public interest work. Last year, you successfully represented the family of Hong Yen Chang, an 1886 graduate of Columbia Law School, who was denied admission to the State Bar of California for 125 years. Can you tell me about that case?

Jeffrey Bleich: Hong Yen Chang was an extraordinary man, who immigrated to the U.S. from Southern China when he was 13-years old as part of an educational mission. He graduated from Yale and then became a lawyer, becoming the first Chinese immigrant lawyer in the U.S. and admitted to the bar in New York. The State Bar of California, however, denied him admission.

More than a century later, his family asked the State Bar to admit him posthumously and they denied the request. They offered instead to provide an honorary membership in the bar. His family thought that was not appropriate, but the State Bar was concerned they did not have adequate procedures to admit him posthumously.

As a former State Bar president, I had an interest in having the state bar do the right thing, and thought it was likely there were procedures that would permit the state bar to do so. Also, as an Ambassador for other countries, I was sensitive to the importance of assuring other nations that our commitment to equal access and treatment are not just words; they are a hallmark of the American system. Our justice system is admired precisely because we strive to provide equal protection to everyone regardless of whether they were citizens; andwe are actually willing to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short in order to do better. Finally, this was an ideal case for me because it involved original jurisdiction in the state supreme court, where I had argued several cases.

LD: It sounds like this was a case where you thought there was a real injustice you could do something about.

JB: This was an open wound in the Chinese community that we could help heal and demonstrate our dedication to justice. So between the state bar, the international dimension and the supreme court, I couldn’t say no.

It was a complicated case and the most complicated thing was raising it at the California Supreme Court as original jurisdiction. We first had to establish a procedural basis for it, as there was no existing process for granting posthumous admission to the state bar. The worst thing to happen would be to file the petition and have the Supreme Court deny it, potentially inflaming old injuries. That was our concern. We wanted to see around all the corners in advance, to avoid any procedural roadblocks.

LD: Were you surprised at the opinion? The court wrote in remarkably broad language about the grievous wrong done to Chang by his discriminatory exclusion – and to “countless others” whose dream of being a lawyer was deferred because of discrimination.

JB: None of us expected such an impressive and comprehensive decision. It was beautifully written, went through all the facts, acknowledged the fault of the court and, I think, provided a real measure of justice to the family of Hong Yen Chang and to members of the Chinese community. It made those of us who care about the justice system proud.

Talking to his family after was very gratifying. We had a special ceremony to present the bar admission certificate to his family. Members of the state bar trustees and the California Supreme Court came together for a beautiful ceremony. His family members gave remarks that this was always his dream.

Hong Yen Chang was very successful in other ways, but always wanted to practice law in California. It was a powerful testament to why he loved California and wanted to be a member of this bar that this is a state that would revisit its mistakes and try to do the just thing. In my remarks I quoted Felix Frankfurter, who observed, “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.”

LD: You’ve said before – when you were a fifth-year associate and representing Warren Buffett and Bill Clinton as well as homeless people in San Francisco – that the Matrix challenge on behalf of the homeless was your most important case. Can you talk a little about your world view?

JB: There are a lot of professions where you can influence policy, where you can make money and have influence, where you can have a certain amount of fame. And in most of those jobs, you never have to raise your right hand and swear allegiance to the constitution, to laws, to commit to support and defend and advance the laws of your country.

It’s a very different job. To me being a lawyer has always been as much a calling as a career. When you become a lawyer, you have a responsibility to society. You are given the capacity to handle some of its most difficult, sensitive issues and to effectively influence the laws under which we all live. Whenever I take on any matter, public or private, I think not only how do I make the best case for my client, but also how does this affect the community? How does this affect society? How do we have a result that will let all of the parties move forward afterward.

I just think this is part of what you sign up for as a lawyer. If all you wanted to do is make rich companies richer, there are better careers for that. Part of being a lawyer is helping people see the world from other perspectives. Part of the art of persuasion is to open minds and help people see differently than they have before. People can generally tell whether you’re someone who considers the world more broadly or not, from the way you talk to them, how you move through the world, how you listen to people or relate to them. If you’re going to be persuasive as a lawyer, help other people see the world more broadly, you have to start with yourself.

LD: What experience led you to start seeing the world that way?

JB: Coro was my entrée to thinking more broadly. It was an accident. When I graduated from Amherst, I applied for grad school at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and I wanted to do something for the year in between. I wandered into the placement office, and Coro was one of the few things available; the only other interview options that late in the semester were the Peace Corps and the CIA. I made it through the interview process, which is very opaque. It’s a whole day of projects that you do in groups, you speak individually and there are a whole group of judges evaluating you as you do these things. I got an offer to join as a fellow in St. Louis.

And what you do is work in a rotation – for six weeks with a labor union; six weeks with a corporation; then in government; with a nonprofit; and then on a political campaign. It gives you a sense of all the different careers, how they relate to each other. I started to appreciate that no society can really operate without all of these pieces. It helped me see how we can all work together if we don’t line up with just one group and demonize the others.

The only down-side it that it left me with a really undisciplined set of passions. It’s where my interest in juvenile justice started. One project was with a nonprofit looking at the violence rate among juveniles, especially within gangs. I started focusing on dangerous juvenile offenders and worked on a book with a professor at the Kennedy School. Years later, President Clinton came across those chapters and invited me to head up the Youth Violence Commission.

It showed me if you pursue what you are passionate about you never know what will come of it.

LD: We’re talking just days after yet another deadly school shooting. What are your thoughts about the ongoing violence in schools and generally?

JB: We have three major sets of issues that have gone largely unresolved. One is unaddressed issues in juvenile mental health. This is not just about incidents with guns. It’s about a whole set of pathologies that affect young people today: self harm, harm to others, drug addiction, drug abuse, depression, suicide and a whole host of bad things happening with young people and that carry on into adulthood. We invest far more in incarcerating people who are going through difficult emotional challenges, and sometimes they’re temporary or situational or age-related. Sometimes there are deep organic issues. If we had addressed those we would have healthier, happier, more productive people. We just haven’t made the right investment in people’s mental health.

I see it as a major issue for our society. We lock up ten times as many people with diagnosed mental health issues as we provide treatment for. In terms of addressing lots of issues – foster youth, homelessness, a lot of these issues come back to unaddressed mental and emotional health challenges in the family unit.

Our gun laws also mystify all of our allies around the world and most of the general public. The public overwhelmingly supports background checks for everyone. Why wouldn’t you want to check a person’s background to make sure the purchaser is not a criminal, doesn’t suffer serious mental health issues and is not subject to a temporary restraining order for domestic abuse?

The gun show loophole blows a hole in the middle of that. You simply have to go to a gun show and you can buy a gun. There’s no logical explanation for that. There’s no logical explanation for our allowing the ban on assault weapons to lapse. Look at other countries that adopt these simple standards and they dramatically lower lethal violence rates. There will be violence in communities, but the amount of lethal violence in the U.S. is off the charts and it’s because of guns.

LD: I know you’re also concerned about the role of technology in violence.

JB: Our technology is allowing our kids to be much more engaged in the world, much more aware of the broader world, much more connected than we were. But there are elements of that connectivity that are having unaddressed effects. When I was a kid, if there was a bully, they didn’t follow you home. If they tried to call you, you only had one phone line and your sibling was probably on it.

You had a safe space. You leave school, go home, punch your pillow or whatever. Our kids today don’t have that space anymore. They carry their bully with them in their pocket home from school. They’re still being bullied as they fall asleep in bed. We have not wrapped our minds around this. And there are real-world effects when you look at the epidemics of depression, self-harm, drug addiction and abuse – heroin is even making a comeback. Kids are struggling in different ways we haven’t caught up with.

LD: Today is also a special day to talk because there is an agreement being reported on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which I know you did a lot of work on while you were Ambassador to Australia. Can you walk us through what it means?

JB: My belief was it was likely to succeed though others said it would never happen, it would never get fast-track authority, there would never be agreement on all its terms. And all those things have been proved wrong as of today.

It creates tremendous opportunity to establish the rule of law in the most important economic region in the world, the Asia Pacific region. That’s the new center of gravity for our economy. Any law firms or lawyers that want to see their work grow will have to engage in that region, that’s where their clients are going, and new businesses and customers are coming from there as well.

Our real concern is what are the rules going to be in the Asia Pacific. This is a high standards agreement. It sets a floor where we can actually work with these other countries. It allows data to flow freely across borders, lowers barriers and tariffs to exports, and creates a trustworthy system for dispute resolution. For all those reasons it’s a very exciting time. I’m looking forward to it as both a lawyer and an arbitrator and I’d love to get involved in both negotiating and being able to arbitrate.

LD: What was your involvement in the new agreement?

JB: When I first came in as Ambassador, there was another agreement, the DOHA Round, for all countries. But in reality it had bogged down in differences between countries in different stages of development. We had the idea to pursue another agreement that had been advocated by others. Not the U.S., but a few other countries thought about stitching together a different region, the Trans Pacific. Australia was already part of that so I worked with our U.S. Trade Representative and we all agreed that between the U.S., Australia and a handful of other countries, we can get this done.

We didn’t know if it would be ultimately be as big a deal as it became. We started with smaller developing economies like Chile and Peru and as we started to put the pieces together, other bigger countries got interested. We added Canada, Mexico and Japan and ended up with a deal involving 40% of the the world’s GDP in one agreement. It ended up being the biggest trade agreement ever done in the world.

Now, any investor in a dispute who claims the laws of the state violate the terms of the TPP and deprives them of the value of their investment has recourse. If you go into a country with an email system, like gmail, and the state puts in all kinds of filtering requirements that allow them to block and filter – you can now say that violates free data flows and it affects my business because people can’t use my email system. You can now sue the state and have your claim handled by a panel of neutral arbitrators.

LD: I know you’re still involved in politics, supporting Hillary Clinton and on a statewide level, as well. What are the most important changes you’d like to make?

JB: There are two major areas I’m focused on to make the state and country more secure.

With cybersecurity, people are much more afraid of their bank accounts being cleaned out while they’re asleep than that they’re going to be robbed at the ATM anymore. In terms of people’s sense of security we really need to bring government ahead of the private sector. And I don’t know that we’ve made that fundamental shift in how we use our law-enforcement resources.

And as I mentioned before, I think we need to change how we look at mental health. If I had the capacity to make changes in this state’s law enforcement priorities, that’s where I’d focus my efforts. I am still engaged in policy and politics, with some stuff in Washington, D.C., advising the Governor and the President and it’s all of a piece. If you care about using law as a tool of justice and social harmony then it matters just as much who’s writing the laws, who’s interpreting the laws as it is who is advocating and defending the laws.

LD: I know you’re doing a lot of counseling on cybersecurity these days. Your office is in the heart of San Francisco’s South of Market area, with Salesforce’s huge new headquarters going up across the street. Are you surprised at the cyber-preparedness level of tech companies?

JB: It’s the old joke: There are two kinds of companies – those that have been breached and those that don’t know they’ve been breached. Companies need to figure out where they are today, but be prepared in event of a breach.

Tech companies are so busy building and creating they can’t keep up. There are some companies with very good security but they have a lot of subcontractors and vendors, even law firms, that are pretty porous. There is some very critical data that can be accessed through other means. There’s also new technology coming out that allows you to identify the most sensitive data and put it in the most secure environment.

Tech companies are also the biggest targets for hackers. One of the first breach cases ever was in the mid to late ‘90s that I handled for Microsoft. There had been a case brought in Sacramento, and someone got malware on their system and wanted to sue Microsoft about it. We were able to get the matter dismissed based on a few theories including the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That raised for me the alarm this is only the first of these cases. At the time people barely had passwords. It seems now like such a naïve period. People thought of computers as basically being in the law library with a very fast card catalogue and messaging system. It was handy but not sensitive. Those first malware cases were actually a canary in a coalmine.

When I was in the White House and then in Australia, I really became focused on cybersecurity in a big way. In part because I had clearances to see information I never saw before. Cyber truly is the wild, wild West right now.

LD: Any other cases you’re work on right now?

JB: I’m handling another pro bono case, F.P. v. Monier, that’s pending in the California Supreme Court waiting for a hearing date. It’s not high profile or high impact. The plaintiff’s plight spoke to me. I’ve done lots of work in domestic violence, and this woman was abused by a relative as a child. She’s in her 30s now. She went through a lot of pain and therapy and eventually got up the nerve to confront her abuser and bring a lawsuit for what he did.

She won in a bench trial, and the defendant asked for a written opinion, which the judge passed away without writing. There’s a line of old cases in California that suggested failure to issue a written decision when requested is a per se reversible error. If the Court followed those cases, she’d have to go through the whole ordeal again, face her abuser again, recount the abuse again. Fortunately, the Supreme Court granted review and she asked if I’d represent her.

It’s just nice sitting down with her, she’s been through a lot. She has a new baby, is married and she just needed a hand. She was grateful I’m doing it, but I’m grateful for all the training I got so I can have the opportunity to help her. That’s the good stuff. I was talking to my kids this weekend about the weird mix of my life. One day I’m meeting with Presidential candidates and the next day I’m trying to get the neighbor’s dog to the vet because we found him limping.

It’s really all of a piece. You can’t change the world every day but you can change someone’s world every day.

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