Lawyer Limelight: John M. Feder

Seasoned personal injury attorney John M. Feder views his work not as a job, but as a calling – his clients not just as clients, but as family. He goes to great lengths to understand the people and matters he represents; in one case, he visited a crosswalk accident scene multiple times and, he admits, “My wife wasn't too happy when she heard that I had almost got hit a couple of times.”

Feder has worked for injured victims and their families for more than 40 years at Rouda Feder Tietjen & McGuinn. Since then, Feder has helped clients recover more than $500M across a wide range of personal injury and wrongful death cases. His passion has also extended to helping forge a more progressive and vibrant profession. Highly active in the legal community, Feder is a former president of both the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association and the Consumer Attorneys of California.

Lawdragon: What do you find advantageous about working with a small firm? It seems like a great environment.

John Feder: It is. We have five great lawyers. I love having the collegiality and camaraderie of this group of five talented lawyers that inspire each other.

LD: That's exciting. What a milestone this past year, 40 years.

JF: It’s gone by amazingly quickly. I've had a lot of great cases, great clients and great results that have all been so rewarding.

LD: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

JF: I love being a personal injury lawyer, in large part because of the close engagement with our clients. It feels good to help them navigate this terrible time in their lives and end up with a result that feels like they were heard, they were recognized and that we had their back all along. I always love the hug from the client at the end of the case.

LD: That's got to be such an amazing moment.

JF: I think that's been part of the key to our success: We spend a lot of time with our clients. We really understand what their life was like before the trauma and what it's like now.

We don't take a ton of cases. We only take ones that we think are going to be meaningful, and then we make a difference.

LD: How do you choose? Is there any common thread?

JF: I think the common thread is that the damages tend to be extensive, and the liability may be a challenge. We get cases referred from lawyers and judges all over the country and many of them involve complex issues. When there are significant damages, you can afford to spend a lot of money on a case to develop theories.

We have a tremendous sense of responsibility because our clients are counting on us to help them through this. That's a perfect motivating factor to work late into the night when we need to.

Ralph Nader's "Unsafe At Any Speed," was inspirational for me and made a huge difference in promoting safety.

LD: Do you have a story about a client or case that's particularly impacted you?

JF: Right now, I'm thinking of Alice, who was a 19-year-old English college student who got a job working in America. At the end of the summer, she wanted to take a trip out to Los Angeles. On the way back from visiting Universal Studios one day, she was walking through a crosswalk right by the Hollywood Bowl. The crosswalk was right below a freeway exit, so cars were racing through; it was a terrible location. She was struck by a car and suffered a catastrophic brain injury.

We did a great deal of research and studied up on the traffic engineering required in properly designing pedestrian crosswalks. We hired the best team of experts available across the county. After careful review, we brought suit against the City of Los Angeles and the State of California for the placement of the crosswalk and the way the crosswalk was maintained. Simply put, the crosswalk never should have been placed at that location as it was just below a freeway exit.

The state and the city said 144 million cars went through there and there were no similar accidents. However, we dug deep, and we found two citizens who had complained about how dangerous that crosswalk was. One, in fact, put together her own stop sign and lit it up every time she walked to the Hollywood Bowl because she'd noticed how dangerous that crosswalk was. We brought them into court, and they were probably the key to our case.

We settled with the State after voir dire and proceeded to trial against the City of Los Angeles. After a six-week trial, the verdict came in for more than $18M. The City had controlled the intersection. The City of Los Angeles tried to appeal the decision multiple times, but to no avail. That result allowed a woman with a catastrophic brain injury to be able to afford the care necessary to maximize her potential.

LD: It must have felt so good for both you and the client to have that verdict reaffirmed. What would you say the key to your success was in that case?

JF: I think the key to our firm’s success overall has been our hands-on involvement. We spend a lot of time with the clients at their homes. We take many visits to the accident scenes. We really work to understand the legal issues.

LD: I love that deeply personal relationship you have with your clients. How do you recommend the other firms build that dynamic, and why would you say it's so important?

JF: I think the key is having a passion for what you're doing. You can’t look at this as a job; you have to look at it as a calling. I think the more contact you have with the client and the more you know them personally, the more you understand the case.

LD: Tell me about your switch from defense to plaintiffs’ litigation. How did that happen?

JF: That was easy for me. I did my college work at Cal Berkeley, graduating in 1975. While a student at Cal, I worked for Consumer Action in San Francisco, and I was very interested in fighting the big corporations taking advantage of the little guy. During law school at Hastings College of Law, I was a law clerk for Judge Donald B. Constine. The trial work I observed inspired me to become a trial lawyer.

I worked for Consumer Action when I was a student and I wanted to be a plaintiff lawyer. I admired Ralph Nader and I wanted to fight for justice – his book, "Unsafe At Any Speed," was inspirational for me and made a huge difference in promoting safety.

When I interviewed for a job at a defense firm, I said I wanted to be a plaintiffs’ lawyer, but I wanted to get as much trial experience as possible. They gave me a jury trial five days after I had passed the bar. I had no idea what I was doing but won the case for the defense.

Go after everything with a passion, including your time away from work.

LD: Do you feel working as a defense lawyer helped you in the work you do now?

JF: As a young defense lawyer, I realized how critically important it is to be prepared. In the plaintiffs’ bar, there were a fair number of lawyers who were not as well versed in their client's history and medical records as they should have been.

I worked there for two and a half years, and then I had a case where our firm’s founder, Ron Rouda, was my opponent. He thought I did a great job in a deposition and offered me a job on the spot – and here we are 40 years later. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't a personal injury lawyer.

LD: You mentioned that he was one of your mentors. What did he teach you in those early days that you still carry with you?

JF: Ron always believes in treating your adversary with respect. You have to be a fierce advocate for your clients, but you treat the other lawyer as a professional. Don’t look at them as the enemy. Our firm’s creativity and tenacious pursuit of justice has changed our clients lives for the better. My law partners Timothy Tietjen, Cynthia McGuinn, and June Bashant have worked together seamlessly on many of our biggest cases. We all have slightly different styles that complement each other well. Our clients get the benefit of a team of lawyers fighting passionately on their behalf.

LD: How would you say the legal field has changed since you first became a lawyer?

JF: I'm proud of the diversity in the profession now. There were very few female trial lawyers in 1978, when I first started practicing. Now there's a tremendous group of female trial lawyers that do wonderful work. I also think there is a far higher percentage of people of color practicing law.

I think there's also much more awareness of sexism that exists in the profession. I served as the president of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association in 2007 and the Consumer Attorneys of California in 2014. In those roles, I tried to empower young female lawyers, so they knew they had mentors behind them.

LD: Tell me more about that work. How did you empower women specifically?

JF: On the boards of both the Consumer Attorneys of California and San Francisco Trial Lawyers, we made a conscious effort to get more female members on the executive committees – which is only fair. They had to work 10 times harder to establish themselves as worthy advocates and that’s not right.

I've been blessed to have fantastic female partners like Cynthia and June. Cynthia was recently the president of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

LD: They sound like great role models.

So, back in the courtroom, what would you say your style is as a trial lawyer?

JF: I’d characterize my style as real. No pretension. I try to be in court like I am with my friends. I also think preparation is key.

But, as part of being real, I think I can also be emotional in the courtroom. I’m not afraid to do that, because I understand the gravity of the cases I’m trying. Every case is vitally important to my clients and to our law firm. Our goal is to empower the jury to make a real difference in rendering a just verdict that fully recognizes the enormous harm our client has suffered.

So, overall, I’d sum my style up as logical, organized, approachable and emotional.

LD: Working on so many catastrophic cases over the years must be mentally draining. How do you take care of yourself when working on those cases?

JF: It is heavy. There’s no question.

One of the things about our cases is you realize that bad things can happen at any time. I’ve had cases about everything. I love to water ski, so I give instructions to all my guests about safety on the boat. I had a client pushed right in front of a tram, so when we were in Europe with my family, I made all my family stay far away from the tracks while they waited for the trains to come. I do have a certain cautiousness.

Our work is important and sobering, and you just have to treasure your time away from work. I love listening to music. I love good, old fashioned rock and roll. I love humor, good stories and the company of friends and family. Go after everything with a passion, including your time away from work.