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Q&A: For new trial counsel exec, a transition to public law

After more 25 years in “big law,” Gregory Dresser joined the State Bar as assistant chief trial counsel earlier this year. He recently spoke with the California Bar Journal about his new job and his transition to the public sector.

You spent 25 years-plus at Morrison & Foerster. What prompted the change? Why did you want to come to the State Bar?

Gregory Dresser
Gregory Dresser - Photo by S. Todd Rogers

I was there for 26 years. I had for a while been thinking about doing something different. Like many people, I think that sometimes one’s spouse has the best idea about things. After talking for a while about wanting to do something different, one of the things my spouse said to me was, "If you want to do something different, you should try to do something different.” There’s lots of things about the bar and specifically the work of the Office of Chief Trial Counsel that I was interested in. I’m definitely interested in an office where we do trial work. The public protection part of what we do is interesting and important and I think if most attorneys were candid, they would agree.

So you wanted to do more public service?

I was definitely looking around for a place where I could continue my career of service. I actually think coming from a big firm background and especially a complex litigation background at a big firm made me well-suited for lots of different things, this being one of them.

What have you liked most so far?

The work is very interesting. I like the colleagues. The colleagues are very dedicated. Many of them have been at the bar and have been involved with the Chief Trial Counsel for a very long time. They’re very, very knowledgeable in attorney discipline and also the procedures that apply in State Bar Court. The leadership of the office is very strong, and everyone has been very willing to help train me, help me understand office procedures, help me learn about important precedent, how things work in State Bar Court and how things work in the office. All those things have been great.

So your colleagues have helped get you acclimated to the job?

Yeah. I definitely tried to hit the ground running and learn as much as I can as fast as I can but also use my background experience and knowledge as a practicing lawyer to contribute in any way that I can.

Any parallels, differences between your former work and your work now?

One of the things that I always thought about being a litigation and trial lawyer in private practice was, it was always important that you be able to understand and adapt to new practice areas. That was certainly helpful in the transition here. Also, in terms of the background of the substantive areas, when you see attorney discipline cases there’s kind of a broad range, and so it’s good to have a pretty broad background to be able to understand the underlying matter in cases.

Can you tell me about some of the interesting cases you’ve been involved in?  A lot of people have been watching the Carson case [a Modesto defense attorney accused of murder].

Just generally, it is interesting to see where you have the most cases. I’ve definitely seen some very complex cases here, some involving prosecutorial misconduct, some involving either real estate scams or financial fraud. Certainly assumptions of practice are interesting, and the matter with Frank Carson where we applied to assume his practice after we learned he was incarcerated, that was very interesting. As it turned out, we understood that bail was denied in his case. So unless other arrangements were made for the representation of his clients, it was going to be a matter where it would have been appropriate for the bar to assume his practice. It looks like [many] of the clients now have co-counsel, where they’ve consented to continued representation by Mr. Carson, given his incarceration while he awaits trial. Other clients have decided to find other counsel. But it is looking like all of the client matters are going to get handled in some way that’s appropriate.

It must feel good if the bar does have to assume a practice to go in and help those people.

To be clear, what we do is assume practices, and then we communicate with all the clients so that they know what happened so they can make the appropriate arrangements for whatever representation they need.

Do you miss anything about working for a large firm and doing commercial litigation?

Oh sure. I was at Morrison Forester for a long time. I miss a lot of my colleagues, many of whom are good friends of mine. The practice there is very interesting and there were lots of things that I really liked about that. The firm has great mentors, very good leadership and there were lots and lots of familiar places there. So I definitely miss all of that. I thought it would be positive for me and positive for my career to come to the bar and to do something I knew was important and different.

Have there been any surprises, things people might not know working in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel?

It’s not so much surprises. I think that some people don’t have an entirely clear picture of how the discipline system works and how State Bar Court works. The trials are handled in the State Bar Court Hearing Department and then the appeal from there goes to the State Bar Court Review Department and if there’s any further review or action on cases after that it goes to the California Supreme Court. A lot of people see published cases from the California Supreme Court, but in terms of even how cases progress through the State Bar Court, I think that’s a thing that a lot of people don’t know about. People who worked on attorney discipline, I imagined they were very careful and thoughtful about it. And that turns out to be true.