The Most Happy Fellow

Assistant San Francisco D.A. Paul Henderson charms his juries into submission

Published in 2004 Northern California Super Lawyers — September 2004

Paul Henderson is the kind of guy who lights up any room he enters, which is particularly impressive when the room you walk into every day is one of the drabbest in town — the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. With the horrible fluorescent lighting and long bleak hallways interrupted only by the occasional plain brown door invitingly tagged “Sex Crimes” or “Homicide,” this place is a true test of anyone’s ability to maintain their charismatic wattage. But Henderson walks down these halls, a spring in his step, turning the dismal scene into a shiny love-fest with hugs and smiles for all.

On first meeting Henderson, you may have to remind yourself that he’s a real lawyer, not an actor playing a lawyer. With his attractive features and broad, gleaming smile, he belongs on a glossy television courtroom drama rather than in the gritty reality of the D.A.’s office. The confusion would not be completely unfounded; Henderson did have a stint in the entertainment industry — as a model. But a glance at his credentials reveals that this man was destined to do a lot more than sit around looking handsome. Along with his current position as a deputy district attorney in San Francisco, he has a busy national speaking schedule, is on the faculty of the Department of Justice, writes articles for various publications, including the International Journal of African American Art and the American Bar Association’s The Affiliate, and is a part-time hearing officer for civil appellate cases in Oakland.

Not impressed yet? Consider the less-than-easy road he took to get here. While earning his law degree at Tulane University, Henderson was without a permanent address for several months — basically homeless. When his financialaid funds were held up, he had almost no money. He spent nights in increasingly cheap motels and even some “hooker hotels” as he describes them, “ones where you pay by the hour.” Some nights he spent in his car. During the day, when he wasn’t worrying about where to sleep, he was president of his class at Tulane. “It was terrible,” he recalls. “I was really embarrassed about not having any money and constantly being around peers who had so much more than me. I would do whatever it took to not be perceived as ‘the poor one.’” When he describes his economically difficult past, his face gets slightly flushed and more serious, as though he can still feel quite viscerally the frustration and shame. But now Henderson regards his experience being poor “as a badge of honor — it’s not like I escaped Bosnia or anything, but it’s something difficult that I overcame.”

He certainly did overcome it. After graduating from law school, Henderson managed to save money and find ways to buy property. By the age of 32 he had acquired four properties and eventually his net worth reached the million-dollar mark. Henderson attributes this drive for economic stability to his difficult past. Even when he was poor, he would read books about financial planning in the hopes that he would someday have enough money to use a financial plan. He laughs recalling an episode of L.A. Law he watched as an undergraduate in which Blair Underwood’s character is negotiating his starting salary at $72,500. Coming from Henderson’s background, this figure sounded like real wealth. The number stuck with him, as did the idea of being a lawyer. “It seemed like a definite means to economic empowerment.”

But don’t think for a second that he’s in it for the money. Henderson’s strong opinions, particularly about his role at the D.A.’s office, make his passion for law quite obvious. With all the raised eyebrows Henderson gets as a minority prosecution attorney, his commitment to this career path can’t be anything less than solid. “People,” he says, “often challenge my values in being a prosecutor and a person of color.” He says he frequently has to contend with statements like “How could you do that to our community? You just put black people in jail.” But Henderson knows what he’s doing. “From my perspective, the D.A. makes a lot of significant decisions in terms of who’s charging, who’s prosecuted, how they’re prosecuted and what they’re offered. Because so many minorities are caught up in the criminal justice system, it’s extremely important to have people of color on the prosecution side to be involved in those decisions.”

As an African American, Henderson’s choice to be on the prosecution side is uncommon even in a liberal city like San Francisco. When he started in 1995, he was the first black person the office had hired in five years. “It seems like a huge injustice to have people dealing with minority lives and punishments without a background in the community.” Yet even with his clear understanding of the inequities within the criminal justice system, Henderson is able to stay positive and proactive. He’s worked hard to get into a position to serve the neighborhood in which he grew up — San Francisco’s Bayview — where he’s recently been assigned as community relations liaison. “I like to feel I’m part of the change by being actively engaged in what’s going on.”

For Henderson, a serious commitment to making a difference doesn’t require that he leave his jovial personality at home. Henderson is probably the most charming, animated guy you’ll ever meet. A defense attorney who works with him described how difficult it is going up against Henderson in trial: “Don’t even bother trying to be friendly with the jury because Henderson is going to win at that — they’re going to like him, they’re going to be smiling and laughing at his jokes.” When you’re up against this charismatic force, the only possibility is to carve out a role on the more serious, authoritarian side. “The more relaxed Henderson is the more formal [one] has to be.”

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