How Jeff Lawson Doubled His Lifetime

An unlucky draft number proved transformational for the San Jose environmental lawyer

Published in 2013 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2013

Photo by: Gregory Cowley

It was Aug. 5, 1971, the height of the Vietnam War, and Jeff Lawson’s draft number came up. He calls it “the luckiest day of my life.”

“I remember watching the ball being selected,” he says. “All my close friends drew numbers that did not require them to go.” 

Yet the military would, in a roundabout way, propel him into law, then shape the kind of attorney he would become. For much of the four decades following his wartime service, Lawson—who has become one of the country’s top environmental lawyers—would devote many weekends to practicing law for the National Guard while spending weekdays at Silicon Valley Law Group in San Jose.

“It was like doubling your lifetime,” says Lawson. “I would go do the military stuff and come back as refreshed as if I had gone fishing.”

Growing up in Fremont, he never imagined he’d have much of even one life. He was one of three sons of a single mother who later, he says, married an alcoholic. The family bounced on and off welfare. Lawson hung out with a crowd that he says wasn’t going anywhere; two close friends died young, he says, from drug use and “hard living.”

The military became his pillar. Lawson spent two years training and apprenticing as an electronics technician working on radios, and by the time the training ended, so had the Vietnam conflict.

“When I returned a changed man from my military service,” Lawson recalls, “my friends were still puttering along, working in construction, in factories, as mechanics and riding Harleys. I did not go back to that.”

Lawson, who hadn't thought he’d go to college, entered on the GI Bill, taking remedial courses to make up for his indifferent high school performance.

Again, good fortune in the guise of bad intervened: The junior college wouldn’t give him credit for his electronics training in the military. So he decided to go into law: a calling that, for reasons that baffled him, his high school aptitude test suggested would suit him. He deadpans, “I figured, how hard could it be?”

By the time he entered UCLA School of Law in 1978, the environment was becoming a key legal concern. This was not long after Earth Day was established in 1970 and the first major environmental statutes were passed. “I am a thrifty person by nature,” Lawson says. “Not recycling seemed wasteful. Polluting seemed inefficient because companies were getting a free ride by spewing out pollution that affects other people, not them.”

He met his future wife, Lucinda, in a “random course” on environmental law at San Jose State University, and went on to become a founding member of the Journal of Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA. He knew he’d pursue the field eventually, but upon graduation he re-entered the Air Force as a judge advocate and first lieutenant, convincing his wife the stint would provide an opportunity for them to travel rather than be stuck in one place while he built up a private law practice. “We spent three years outside Cambridge, England,” he notes. “My wife considered it the honeymoon I couldn’t afford as a law student.”

It also gave him training he wouldn’t have received as a young associate in private practice. He was assigned to handle courts martial, both prosecuting and defending cases.

He once defended a soldier who was stationed at a secret air base. The soldier came home one day and smelled hair cream on his pillow. He didn’t wear hair cream, Lawson says, “but he knew who did. And he knew his wife had been sleeping with him.”

The man, stricken by grief, missed maneuvers. “There is no excuse for missing maneuvers,” Lawson says. “If you are hit by lightning, it is not an excuse. So we pled guilty with extenuating circumstances.”

In his closing argument, Lawson gave a moving account of the soldier’s one-day absence without leave, during which, in his grief, he had visited his child and stopped by his mother’s grave. “At the end, the panel found him guilty, because they had to, but they found him guilty with no punishment,” he relates. “And these were senior guys, not bleeding hearts.”

Craig Manson, general counsel for Westlands Water District, served with Lawson in the Air Force, where they were on the opposite sides of many court cases. Manson, says Lawson, “has a way of dealing with people that’s very effective. He can build coalitions and draw people to his point of view in a way that I’ve only seen half a dozen other lawyers be able to do.”

After he left active duty in 1986, Lawson went to work at Reed, Elliott, Creech & Roth for Terry McMahon, a well-known IP attorney who is now a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Menlo Park.

Lawson’s military experience in criminal cases served him well in the technology practice group. The firm was handling a case involving an Italian distributor for Advanced Micro Devices, the huge semiconductor company.

“The attorneys from the firm would go over to Italy and they couldn’t get any evidence, and I told them I’d do it,” Lawson says. “They were used to civil law, where you would conduct an interview and write a one-sided declaration overstating everything the person said. The Italians refused to sign it. I went in with a person who had a computer and printer, and typed out everything they said, and I figured it out with them. I started faxing back declaration after declaration, and the firm thought I was a hero.”

McMahon taught Lawson the value of a lawyer’s toolbox. Says Lawson, “A lot of lawyers have one tool—they are aggressive or very smart—but if that doesn’t work, they don’t know what else to do. By working hand-in-hand with Terry, I saw he had a lot of tools in his toolbox. If he wanted to schmooze you, he was the nicest guy in the world. If he wanted to intimidate you, he was scary. If he wanted to show off his intelligence, he was very smart. If he wanted to be simply a country lawyer, he was.”

Lawson, too, has a knack for sizing things up. “I can look at a situation and make a conscious decision about what approach will work best,” he says. “I can decide consciously if this is a person I can argue with, or a person who has to be cajoled, or a person whose life I have to make miserable."

Says Manson, “[Lawson] can put on a game face that’s scarier than anybody else,” he says. “And then he can put on a compassionate face that turns out to be  the real thing.”

One might have expected Lawson, with his electronics background, to stay in the lucrative field of technology law. “I’d be a wealthier man if I’d stayed with Terry and done that work,” he admits. “Environmental law has peaked and ebbed. Terry works on bet-the-company cases, so whatever resources need to be thrown at the problem, will.”

So why the change in course? “I’m an electronics technician and understood the technology part pretty well, but I didn’t love it,” Lawson explains. “Doing the environmental stuff seemed important.”

He thinks for a moment. “When you do criminal law, you’re popular at cocktail parties because you always have stories with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “When you’re a civil lawyer, your friends don’t want to hear your stories, but other lawyers will listen. When you’re a specialist, even other lawyers don’t want to hear it. But when you say you’re an environmental lawyer, people say, ‘That’s cool.’ It seems like a good thing to do.”

Lawson takes on cases on both sides of the aisle.

“I subscribe to the lawyer values of: Everyone deserves a good lawyer,” he says. “I am proud to say that no client of mine has ever been enforced against [for environmental noncompliance] twice.  I make sure that, whatever problem the client had, and despite whatever our position is with the government, we put in place for the client systems, training and people so the mistake does not happen again. Consequently, even in the defense of an enforcement action situation, I feel I have done the environment a service.

“I support environmental values, but I am not an extremist. We need cars, homes, recreation, science, space exploration, a national defense, etc. For an extreme example, I have worked on environmental compliance for bombing ranges that need vast amounts of air space and cause noise pollution, visual pollution and can impact endangered species. But we need ranges. So I feel I help work out the compromises society as a whole needs to make.”

Lawson has handled many important environmental cases, but the one that sticks with him involved Murray Kelsoe, “an eccentric character,” he says, who owned a gas station in Sunol. As was standard practice, Kelsoe was assessed a small fee on each gallon of gas he sold for cleanup in case the underground tank should ever leak. But when a leak did occur, Kelsoe was denied the coverage on a technicality that he had been out of compliance in the past.

“Poor Murray, he lost his gas station and lost his family,” Lawson says. “He ended up living in his car in a fast-food parking lot.” Lawson took the case through every administrative layer of the state board, then on to trial court, and finally won on appeal.

“It was a big victory, because the cleanup fund had messed around with a lot of people,” he says. “Murray couldn’t afford to pay me, so I took the case for free, because I couldn’t stand the idea that he was being squashed like a bug without any thought of what was happening to him.

“Part of Murray’s problem was he had a grumpy personality. A big part of working out problems with local regulators is just being nice to them. I’d had a number of cases that stemmed from someone on the client side treating regulators disrespectfully.”

It was a bittersweet victory. Kelsoe died before he got all of the money, but the rest went to his sons.

Lawson’s service with the U.S. Air Force as a reserve and Air National Guard judge advocate ended in 2009, when he retired as a brigadier general.

Raymond Brinson, who was a partner of Lawson’s for five years at Reed Elliott, says this double duty honed his colleague’s abilities. “If you are in private practice, even if you have a heavy caseload, you’re lucky to have three trials [per year],” he says. “But on the weekend, when other lawyers were cutting the grass, he’d been acting as a prosecutor, defense or judge on a court martial. It kept his trial skills sharp and gave him an edge.”

As Lawson’s military stint was about to end, revising the military manual for courts martial became his passion. The unique nature of the National Guard could lead to legal quagmires because, depending on the circumstances, a unit can be under the control of a state or the federal government. Lawson tells how that led to a circumvention of justice in one sad case.

Three Pennsylvania guardsmen—two men and a woman—who had been assigned to action in Arizona took a trip to Mexico on their day off. The male guardsmen raped the woman outside a bar. One of the men claimed it was consensual, but the other said it wasn’t. It should have been an open-and-shut case. Except that the Pennsylvania Guard had no jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by its guardsmen in other states or countries, and the state of Arizona wouldn’t pursue the matter because the crime didn’t occur there. The Department of Justice said it was too difficult to prosecute a crime that took place in Mexico, while the military didn’t want to turn over jurisdiction to a foreign country.

 “At the end of the day, the rapists got away with it,” Lawson says. “When you join the military, you make an agreement they can send you anywhere in the world and you can be killed. But if you had a daughter in the military, you’d expect them to at least take care of her.”

Lawson spent two years going from state to state, pushing through a military code of conduct that would be followed everywhere. The Pennsylvania Guard just passed its code, he notes. Those who know him say that dogged persistence in pursuit of justice is part of his fabric. “He’s used his survival skills from a working-class family to [apply to] law practice,” Manson says. “Some lawyers will back away from a situation that’s too contentious because they want to keep their hands clean and don’t want to get their suits dirty. Jeff does his duty as a lawyer and then does his duty as a human being.”

Photo by: Gregory Cowley

Photo by: Gregory Cowley

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