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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Q&A: Robert Retana

Editor’s note: Robert Retana joined the State Bar’s Office of General Counsel in February and was promoted to deputy general counsel in August. Psyche Pascual of the Bar Journal talked with Retana about his background and motivation for becoming second in command of the agency’s legal department. This is an edited version of the interview.

Robert Retana

What attracted you to the State Bar?

Robert Retana: I was interested in doing some sort of work that included service to the public, and I liked the State Bar’s mission, which is protection of the public, ensuring that legal services provided to them are not just adequate but actually good legal representation. It combines a lot of areas that I’m interested in. Working with board members, the executive staff and the various committees and different parts of the bar that we provide advice to. It’s a very interesting mix of work that you get to do here at the Office of the General Counsel.

Is there a particular part of your job that you like best?

I like interacting with our clients and helping them resolve issues that come up. Trying to learn the various parts of the bar, all the various functions of the bar, what they do and then trying to help them.

The bar’s under scrutiny. How does that affect your work?

It’s a really interesting time. As a lawyer you always want to have a client that has interesting issues to work on. Now is an interesting time to be at the bar with everything that’s going on. And hopefully as deputy general counsel one of the things that I can try to do is help work through some of the issues that have occurred in the past and try to help the staff improve those areas where we need improvement, but also highlight the good things that the bar does and help get that message across that we also do lot of things here that are beneficial and help members of the community.

You had long stints in government jobs, including the DA’s office, where you were an assistant district attorney.

The area that I had worked on, at least towards the end of my time at the DA’s office, was domestic violence. So I’ve done many domestic violence cases, including an attempted murder domestic violence case. I really liked working with the victims and helping them to understand what their rights are, and how the system can protect them. It’s very challenging because obviously it’s a very emotional type of case, and the victims are often very reluctant to testify. I found it really rewarding and really interesting to try to help people in a very real way using the court system, which most people find very intimidating, to help them hopefully exit from an abusive relationship.

When a victim was reluctant to testify or file a charge, what would you do to coax them?

Try to explain to them how the system works and why it’s important to speak up for themselves, to find their voice in the process and also to try help them understand there’s basically a cycle of violence. It’s likely to continue unless they’re able to leave that relationship. We also had very good advocates at the DA’s office who would work with the victims and help them work with these issues, which are very complicated.

Are there any particular cases that stand out in your mind?

During an attempted murder domestic violence case, it was particularly significant to me to try to achieve justice for the woman in that case because she was pregnant when it occurred and wound up having a baby from the man who wound up going to prison for that. So I understood that the consequences were very great no matter what the result was, and it motivated me to do the best job I could for her.

You also did a lot of work in private practice. I was interested in your work at Pearson, Simon. Can you share some of your more interesting cases there?

At Pearson Simon, they emphasized antitrust class actions representing plaintiffs. So I was part of the TFTLCD antitrust case against the manufacturers of the LCDs that go inside big-screen televisions, and it wound up going to trial in front of judge [Susan] Illston. I was part of that trial team. That was obviously exciting because you don’t get to go to trial that often when you’re a civil litigator. It’s a very good firm. They have great lawyers. I worked a lot with Bruce Simon, who’s a partner there and one of the top antitrust lawyers in the country. It gave me the ability to work with really top-notch lawyers on interesting and complex issues.

What was the outcome of that particular case?

There were a lot of settlements with individual defendants and then we went to trial against one of the defendants and got a verdict in our favor.

Did you enjoy doing class action suits? It seems like that would fold into your public service work.

Yes. Class actions are a really important vehicle to obtain justice for consumers because many times the damages for an individual consumer are not large enough for them to pursue an individual action. So it’s only by joining them together in a class action that you can really get justice for a large number of people. It’s a very useful vehicle because as a class member you really don’t have to do that much – opt in or opt out – and you can still wind up having really great lawyers representing you throughout the proceedings and hopefully recovering money that’s owed to you as a class member.

You also worked for the Administrative Office of the Courts [now called the Judicial Council]. Is that somewhat similar to what you’re doing today? You were representing the agency against claims and lawsuits.

It’s more of a mix for me here. When I was at the AOC I handled litigation. I didn’t do any transactional work. I really didn’t do any advice work. It was all just handling claims and litigation. It helps me understand how litigation works against a public entity. But [the State Bar] is definitely more of a mix. I look at contracts, documents that need to be presented to the board and make sure they look okay. But it’s helpful because the AOC is part of the judicial branch so it helps me understand how that system works.

Are there any challenges or goals you’ve been tasked with at the State Bar?

I have an antitrust background. Antitrust issues have been part of the forefront of discussions that have occurred with the governance task force, for example, so I’ve been able to use my background in antitrust laws to analyze some of those issues for the board and for the governance task force and here internally at the bar. But other than that I’m learning all the various things that go along with the position, all the things that [retired Deputy General Counsel Larry Yee] did. We’ve hired a few people. Just trying to work with [General Counsel] Vanessa [Holton] to make sure we have a very strong office here.

I noticed that you’ve been very active in La Raza legal organizations. How important is your culture and heritage, and how has that affected you as an attorney?

I grew up in Boyle Heights and came from a large family. Number seven out of eight children. I try to always remember where I came from and identify very much with my culture. I try to keep that connection going. I’ve been on the board of Centro Legal. I feel it’s important that people have access to legal representation even if they can’t afford it or can’t afford very much. It’s important to have those programs and those resources. And I’m very interested in art and Latino art in particular. I really have enjoyed being a member of the board of Galería de la Raza. It’s also a good balance because as a lawyer it’s nice to have an opportunity to be part of something where people are more creative. The issues that they’re having, the events that they have, are just very different than the things that I do all day long. So it’s a nice change and nice balance for me to work on those things. And I think art is such an important way to express culture. It expresses so many things. Culture. Politics. Whatever’s going on at the moment. Art is a way to express those things in a way that’s very different than the written word. So I really like it.

Was there anything about growing up in LA or growing up in Southern California in general that drove you to become an attorney?

Growing up in Boyle Heights, at the time, I felt like Latinos and minorities in general were isolated to specific neighborhoods and really weren’t as incorporated into the mainstream, whether it’s politics or media, entertainment, business. My experience was that we were very isolated from that and kept in specific niches. And so I think it’s important that people are not limited to certain neighborhoods, occupations, ideas, what have you, and that you become part of the society at large. I just felt it was in some ways an isolated community. And so it made me want to understand the system, how the system worked, it made me want to be an advocate, and it made me want to strive to represent my community in a way that was positive.

Did your family immigrate the U.S. recently?

My grandparents are from Mexico. My parents were both born in the United States.

Did you see any kind of mistreatment in your neighborhood of Latinos? Was there any kind of social justice aspect that drove you into law?

I don’t know that I saw specific mistreatment of Latinos because where I lived most everybody was Latino. But I did become aware, for example, the high school that I went to was not as good or well-funded as other public high schools in Los Angeles. So as you get older, you start to notice the disparities in how schools are funded, the type of education you receive, the resources that are made available to specific communities. And you start to see that there’s a lot of injustice in the way that government responds to specific communities. So that made me also want to have the ability to be an advocate for those types of things, whether it’s as a lawyer or through community involvement.

So then you went to Boalt. That would have been …

I graduated in 1990. I went to Columbia College and then I started at Boalt [UC Berkeley School of Law]. I started at Boalt in 1987.

Was there a lot of activity there that interested you, political issues?

At the time there was a very, what I would consider a very strong group of minority law students, Latino, African-American and Asian law students. There were a lot of issues at that time around diversity and the legal profession. I was very interested in that. There was a big push at that time to diversify law, particularly large law firms. But I have to say, I’m not really persuaded that that’s panned out the way people were anticipating at the time. I feel that we have a long way to go.

Do you mean people thought things would change more rapidly?

Yes. It still feels to me like we have a long way to go. My own personal experience has been is that there’s still a lack of diversity in many areas of the legal profession.

You ran for a superior court position in 2010. Can you talk a little bit about what drove you to seek public office?

We have a long way to go in terms of diversifying the bench. So I felt it was important to try to raise that issue in my campaign. I also think that was sort of a crash course in politics, in San Francisco politics in particular. So I learned a lot doing that that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I view it as a positive thing. I view it as something that enables you to put your ideas out there and express them, and as a candidate have people want to know what you think about those things.

Was there anything that surprised you about campaigning, good or bad?

Obviously it’s really important to be able to raise money. And that is something that you deal with as a candidate. I didn’t enjoy that part of it as much. I found that a bit of a challenge. The good thing about being in the United States is really any person who has the desire to run for office can put their name on the ballot. And even if you don’t win, I think that’s an incredible opportunity, it’s an incredible honor to be able to put your name on the ballot and have people vote for you. People don’t have that opportunity in many parts of the world. So I really appreciated that.