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Behind the Trial: Judge William Alsup

Photo by Jason Doiy

For nearly 50 years, San Francisco District Judge William Alsup has earned his reputation as one of the best and most innovative judges in the nation – the first 28 years in private practice and stints with the Department of Justice following a clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. He was confirmed to the federal bench in 1999.

Judge Alsup says he was most influenced by what he learned during his formative years in Mississippi, when jurors were forbidden from taking notes. Illiteracy was sufficiently so widespread that many jurors would have been unable to write their thoughts or questions. That rootedness has made him a tremendous advocate for the jurors, hundreds of whom have passed through his courtroom on such cases as Uber v. Waymo and Oracle v. Google, among many, many others.

In episode 6 of Behind the Trial, produced by the trial firm of McKool Smith and Benchmark Litigation, Judge Alsup discusses some of his courtroom techniques – including interim summations and a big display sign for each case on which key dates are highlighted. He also talks about the two fundamentals on which every case is tried. The first, in civil cases, is “according to the law and the instructions, and every good lawyer is going to have a good argument on the law and the facts that support the elements and so forth.”

The second level is fairness.  “From the time that you’re three-years old, two-years old, you grow up and your mom and your dad say what’s fair or not. It’s one of the first concepts we learn is what’s fair. If your brother or sister takes away your Snickers bar, the first thing you’ll say is that’s not fair.”

The judge also shares his thoughts about what makes a great trial lawyer, starting with preparation.  He says when it comes to cross-examination, he’s seen some of the best in the business. “They organize the sequence [of their questions] so it tells a story that ineluctably leads to, at the end of it, even though you never used the word fraud, that at the end of that meeting it’s clear they committed fraud. It’s a joy to watch a good lawyer do a good cross examination.”

Listen to an intimate conversation with a down-home judge who is considered one of the best there is.