Former Alameda County Deputy District Attorney, Former Mayor of San Mateo, David Lim joins me on the pod to discuss his career decisions and how they have affected his life. He's a lawyer, a teacher, and a coach. David's an interesting guy and it was my privilege to talk to him.
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Attorney at Law
David Lim – Podcast Transcript
Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect. Today we welcome David Lim. He's a former Alameda County Deputy District Attorney.
He's the former Mayor of the City of San Mateo. And he's been an educator. Please help me welcome David Lim. Mayor David Lim, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Thank you so much for being here. And I'm very honored that you're talking to me today.
David Lim: Hi, Louis. It's good to be here. Glad to be on your podcast. Thanks for inviting me.
Louis Goodman: What was it like being Mayor of a city in the Bay area?
David Lim: It was a lot of fun. You know, I ran for the city council of San Mateo in 2006. I won, and I served two terms, so a total of eight years, and in San Mateo, we rotate the Mayorship position. So. I was selected by my colleagues to be Mayor in 2013.
And again, in 2017 and I had a wonderful time doing it.
Louis Goodman: What made you decide to get into city politics to begin with?
David Lim: You know, I started when I was still working for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. In San Mateo, like many smaller cities in California, city council is a part- time position.
So I had gotten involved in my community serving on a City Commission. I was on the neighborhood watch board for the City of San Mateo and when one of my City Council members who I adored, decided to retire and left a spot open, it just sort of was a natural progression for me to decide, to run for City Council.
And my boss at the time, Tom Orloff gave me his blessing to, you know, do this part- time gig. And I ran and I had a lovely time doing it, but it really was just a sense of community involvement that made me seek out the City Council Seat.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally David?
David Lim: So I grew up in Montebello, California, which is a small suburban town in Los Angeles County, kind of near East LA.
And I was born and raised in the same house for 17 years until I left for college.
Louis Goodman: And what high school did you go to?
David Lim: So, the name of the high school was very strange. It's called Schurr High school. Like, you know, for sure, but it's spelled S C H U R R. It's named after George Miller Schurr, who was an administrator the Montebello Unified School District. And I don't know what he did to get a school named after him, but he did something. And so he's got a school named after him. No one else has ever heard of this man.
Louis Goodman: And after you graduated from Schurr, where did you go to college?
David Lim: So I went to UCLA for undergrad, got my bachelor's degree in political science.
And then I did another year to get a master's degree in education. Also, UCLA.
Louis Goodman: Did you teach for a while?
David Lim: I did. So my first career was not the law. I was a school teacher in Los Angeles Public Schools. I taught for about three years. I taught Middle School History. I actually taught two years of middle school.
And then I did a year as an adjunct Professor at UCLA, helping to teach in their Teacher Ed Program. So a total of three years in education.
Louis Goodman: What made you start thinking about going to law school?
David Lim: So I had actually gotten into a PhD program at UCLA after my second year of teaching. They said, UCLA approached me, my old professor and said, we really like what you do.
We'd like you to come full time to the faculty at UCLA, but you need to have a Doctorate Degree. So I got into a doctorate program at UCLA. I was going at night. While I was teaching and it almost just about killed me. I was 23 at the time I was young. I was teaching all day and going to classes all night.
I had no social life and I literally looked in the mirror about two months into the program and thought, is this really what I want to do with my life? And I love teaching. I love being in the classroom, but it was just too much. And I thought, you know what? I always wanted to go to law school. I still have that desire to go to law school.
If I don't go now, I won't go. Because after about five years in teaching or anywhere in a job, you might kind of get settled in. So I said, I'm going to go to law school. And so I quit the teaching job. I dropped out of the PhD program. I packed up my truck, moved to the East Coast for a year, worked on Capitol Hill while I took the field and got my applications in.
Literally just sort of caroused and worked and had a good time in DC until it was ready to come back to time to come back and go to law school.
Louis Goodman: Where did you work for in DC?
David Lim: So I worked for the late Congressman Robert Mitsui. He was a democratic Congressman out of Sacramento. Great man, great mentor. He actually went to the same law school.
I went to Hastings law school. So when I was applying, he gave me a lot of good advice about, you know, which law schools to apply to what he did with the practice of law. He passed away in early two thousands, but he was a great guy to work for.
Louis Goodman: He was a real mentor to you.
David Lim: He was a mentor.
Yeah. He was a nice guy.
Louis Goodman: When you went back to Washington, did that sort of peak your interest in politics as well?
David Lim: You know, I'd always sort of been interested in politics, but that, yeah, it really did give me the first taste of how to do politics effectively. You know, I went there without a job and I basically walked the halls of Congress banging on doors, dropping off my resume.
Then I came back to law school. Yeah. I came back to East, came back to California, moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I chose San Francisco because it reminded me the most of an East coast city. And I'd had so much fun in DC I didn't, I wasn't ready to go back to Los Angeles.
So Hastings was a good school. They accepted me.
Louis Goodman: What was your experience in law school? How did you like Hastings?
David Lim: I did not like Hastings at all. To be honest with you. I thought, you know, after my time as a teacher and then I'm working in DC, going back into graduate school and being told what to think and when to do things was a little, little hard.
So, I, you know, fought the system a lot. I would ask a lot of questions that really had nothing to do with anything about the study of law and were more kind of policy, social justice issues. I was not intimidated by my professors, you know, when they tried that whole Socratic method, if I, you know, did the reading and didn't understand it.
And they asked me a question, I would say, I had no idea what you're talking about. And I think over time they grew to respect me because they realized, Oh, wait, this guy, you know, he's in his mid-twenties, he's not, you know, some newbie out of undergrad, he's got some world experience. And so I actually ended up becoming friends with a lot of my professors, but the beginning was rough.
I didn't like the competitive nature of, you know, everyone worrying about their grades so much. I really thought you should be learning about justice and you know what it meant to be a good moral lawyer. But, yeah, Hastings was very, very cutthroat.
Louis Goodman: When you got out of law school, what was your first legal job?
David Lim: So I've only had three legal jobs. The first one that I did for almost 20 years was as a prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. I did a short break, about 13 years in, I moved over to the Santa Clara County DA's Office, which has a whole, we can do a whole podcast just on. The politics of moving district attorney's offices.
It didn't take so after 18 months there, I moved back to Alameda. I lasted another, Oh, probably six, seven years in Alameda. And then I retired. Last year in 2019, opened my own private practice, did that for a year. And now I'm at a firm called Richards, Watson & Gershon, which does public law, representation
Louis Goodman: When you were in the district attorney's office, can you tell us about, any notable experience that you had there, whether it was a specific case or just an experience having been there.
David Lim: Yeah. You Louis, you and I were in the trenches together. I know that the listeners are podcasts don't know that, but you and I have been friends for a long time.
You were always one of the good guys, but you were a defense attorney who fought hard for his clients and you know, you and I could probably sit for three hours and tell stories of funny things that happened to us and to our clients, both victims and defendants. But I will tell you, I have to. I have a number of good stories.
I have nothing, but really good memories of being a District Attorney for Alameda County. The very first.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, me too, by the way. You know, I was in the DA's office years ago and it was a great place to work. Really great.
David Lim: Yeah. It was, it was, it's the two stories that stick out the most. If I had to pick, you know, One or two.
So the first one was, you know, I'm a brand-new DA. I work at the old Berkeley, Berkeley Municipal Court. It's not there anymore. This was before they consolidated all the courts into Superior Courts. And, so I had a Berkeley Municipal Court. I was doing the misdemeanor calendar and jury trials in Berkeley, which is, you know, kind of like if you're a Prosecutor, it's probably the most unfriendly venue to be dropped in as a new District Attorney because it's very liberal and they are very, you know, even back in 1999, when I started black lives matter had not even come onto the scene yet, but there was a very high, suspicion on any government prosecution agency.
And my very first case, literally the first week I had, you know, I hadn't even sat down and warmed up my seat yet. I get handed a case to take out to trial. It's a case involving, the old Albany Bulb. The park and rec area out there. Probably every 10 years, Albany gets a bee up their bonnet and they say, okay, we want to clear all the homeless people out because we want to develop it into housing or a park or whatever they want to do.
So back then they were in one of their moods and they wanted to, clear out the bums. So they did, there was a man there named Michael Smith, who was this eccentric, you know, homeless guy. And he had, he was an artist and he built this wonderful native American teepee painted, and they basically bulldozed it.
And they forced him out and they charged him with trespass and it was a political case because they needed to make an example of someone and they had decided to pick on poor Mr. Smith. I get this case for jury trial. I'm looking at it and going, this is not why I became a District Attorney. I did not become a District Attorney to pick on you know, homeless guys who just want to live somewhere and have this beautiful teepee that the city bulldozes down seemed crazy to me, but you know, I was brand new and I needed the job. And, my boss explained to me that, you know, sometimes you get marching orders and you got to follow them and you know, he was in violation of the law.
So I screwed up my courage. I had no idea how to pick a jury. I had no idea how to make In Limine motions. I just went in there. I literally got my butt handed to me, I think it was like a 20-minute acquittal where people said, how can the city do is to this poor man? And so I fulfilled my constitutional obligations as a prosecutor.
Luckily things got better. I started handling, you know, real cases after that, where people had committed real crimes, but I'll never forget that one. Cause he was a really nice man. He would talk to me while we were on breaks and he at one point said, Oh, I know you're just doing your job. You know, no harm, no, no hard feelings.
And he was so nice and he really made it better for me to feel like, you know, he was going to be okay. So I felt okay. And you know, you, and I know it was a misdemeanor trespass, even if he had been convicted, he wasn't going to do any time. It was more just a political statement. So that was kind of an eye-opening kind of fun first experience, a very low stress jury trial.
One more story. So yeah, the other story was a little more serious, but again, it's fine. It's sort of the gallows humor that Louis you and I have, right. As being in criminal law. If you practice it for any amount of time, you take it seriously, but you also kind of have to laugh at some of the weirdness that goes on. Otherwise you'll go crazy. So this was a case, it was a very serious case. It was an attempted murder, assault with an assault rifle. A young man basically decides he's going to kill his rival. He walks up on a van that he thinks contains his rivals, starts shooting a Mac 11 or some sort of semiautomatic weapon at the van, just lights up the van. Peppering it and you're right with bullets, such a bad shot. He hits the van. Luckily doesn't kill anybody. Thank God. But it also turns out that the van is full of people. He knows his friends, his rival was not in the van. It was just like six people who all knew. One of them jumps out of the van and started screaming, Mooky, Mooky. It's me. Don't shoot. Don't shoot. And he gets hit in the ankle for his trouble. So that's the worst injury thing. Thank goodness. But during the trial, we basically call all six witnesses and because all six witnesses are friends of the defendant, they were reluctant witnesses, uncooperative witnesses, I think you and I used to call them and, The defendant for some odd reason, decides that instead of just sort of appealing to the friendship of his friends, to tell them, you know, to not cooperate with the prosecutor, he decides to go strong arm tactic.
So he has three guys come into court every day and sit in the audience and basically glare at the witnesses as they're coming in and glare at them while they're on the stand. And this has the effect of them all, not suddenly not remembering what happened. But I'm able to impeach each of them with their statements.
And so it goes very well for me. Cause a jury is watching these, you know, thugs in the audience mean mug my witnesses and they can put two and two together. And it was a very quick trial. And I remember that attorney yelling at his guy saying, you gotta get these guys out of here. You know, you they're ruining the case. You're going to, you're going to get convicted so fast. And of course, nobody listened. So the funny part of the story is they've done this to, you know, three or four of my witnesses. I got two or three more left to go. We're coming back from a lunch break. I come into the hallway of the old Rene C. Davidson courthouse, which is you, and I know you come up the elevator and you come into an hallway and you're kind of locked on the floor and the courtroom doors are on either side of the hallway. Well, the courtroom doors were locked because we were coming back from lunch and I was a little early and I wanted to sit out there and, you know, go over my notes for the afternoon session.
And the witnesses are downstairs in our office with our inspectors so that, you know, they're kind of being kept safe because of these guys walking around and we didn't want some sort of altercation that could pop off. So I'm sitting there alone in this hallway, the courtroom doors are locked.
There's nowhere to go. I'm sitting on a bench, the elevator door opens and two of the guys come in. Two of the thugs come in. And they see me and they come over, they sit right next to me on either side of me, clearly in an effort to intimidate me. And they're just sitting there and I'm thinking, okay, what am I going to do?
I'm you know, I'm alone. My police officer inspector’s downstairs. If these guys suddenly decide to wail on me, there's not a darn thing I can do about it. If I scream, I don't think anyone's going to hear me. But then I think they're not dumb enough to attack a prosecutor in a courtroom. Are they? But you and I Louis know that everything happened they didn't, you know, they're not the smartest bananas of the bunch of they’re trying to intimidate witnesses.
So I'm literally there sitting there with them for about 30 seconds. And finally, I decided, you know what, I'm just going to, I got to play tough. I gotta play tough if I don't who knows what can happen. So I turned to them and I said, I'm very polite. I don't yell at them, but I said, gentlemen, can I help you?
I said, because you know that I'm the District Attorney. And is there anything that I can answer? Any questions I can ask for you to answer for you? Anything at all that I can help you with? I just want to let them know that I wasn't scared of them. I was trying to just act confident and it's hilarious because they kind of look at me for a second and then they go, Oh my God.
We're so sorry. We thought you were the next witness. We did not know we do for a guy. You were the District Attorney. It's our bad. We would never they're like we don't meet. We would never try to do anything to the District Attorney, man. We're so sorry. It was it all good. And I'm looking at them like, first of all relief that I'm not about to get beat up, but to being like you guys gotta be the dumbest people ever. I've never met, like we've been trialed out for a week and that, and you've seen me as asking these people questions, but maybe they were so fixated on it. The witnesses they never took notice of me, which is the only thing I can think of.
But the funniest part was they became so nice. They were like, Oh, we're so sorry. Oh, you know, we didn't mean it. You mean last week I on the, and they left and I thought in their mind signs, intimidating a witness. Okay. But intimidating a DA is not like that's a weird. That's a weird line to have, right. A weird line.
Not to cross you figure if you're going to do me a witness. What does it matter to intimidate the, but I thought it was hilarious because after that, they were kind of nice to me. See me and they'd sort of wave kind of smile and then go back to intimidate witnesses. It was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, well, everybody's got their job. You know, the judge has got a job. You've got a job. Attorney's got a job. That's nice. That's their job to intimidate witnesses.
Louis Goodman: You left the district attorney's office and went into practice for yourself. Yes.
David Lim: For a year or two.
Louis Goodman: And what sort of practice did you have at that time?
David Lim: So I left office, took my pension. I'm 50 and I had one of those old timey pensions. That's really good. So I've turned 50. I'm like, I'm going to take that good old timey pension and opened my own practice focused mostly on criminal defense work, I would say about 80% criminal defense. And then I was trying to build up a land use, civil practice from my time as a city, a city council member.
Cause I really enjoyed a local municipal law. I enjoy watching our city attorney work and I thought I want to do that. That's kind of fun.
Louis Goodman: How did it feel going from the District Attorney's Office over to the criminal defense side?
David Lim: You know, it wasn't as hard a transition as people would think. I think people always think that for a prosecutor, the hardest part is interacting with your client who is now the defendant.
And I never really thought that was an issue. Even as a prosecutor, I was probably one of the more liberal prosecutors you'd ever meet. I mean, you heard my story of Michael Smith, the teepee guy and sort of the sympathies I had for him. To me, there was always a thin line between a person who was a defendant and a person who was the victim.
A lot of times it boiled down to who drew their gun first.
Louis Goodman: Were most of your cases in San Mateo County?
David Lim: I would say, yeah, the large portion were in San Mateo County. I did a few with our good friend, Jack Noonan. He's a very prominent well-respected defense attorney in Alameda County. Nice guy.
He had some cases he needed help with, so I worked with Jack on a few cases, but you know, it's hard driving from San Mateo to Dublin. It's a long drive.
David Lim: Yeah. I mean, yeah, the, before times now you just go on to the blue jeans and you appear, and your microphone doesn't work and that's a whole another set of problems.
Louis Goodman: I'm wondering if your experiences coincide with mine, which is people tend to, I think, to get in trouble with the law, mainly because they're either drinking or using drugs or both.
David Lim: I would say that's absolutely fair, you know, or if they just have bad decision making processes, you know, you go through the mind and you talk to your client and you've done this a hundred times more than I have thousands of times more than I have.
But I agree with you that the, the trigger factor for most crimes is some sort of substance abuse, you know, but I think socioeconomic status plays a large role in it that. You know, if you are financially insecure, if you're housing insecure, it leads to a lot of stress which can lead to poor decisions because of the stress that you feel that you need provide for your family.
And you make decisions which ended up not, you know, being the best choice.
Louis Goodman: Well, do you, do you think that the, that the legal system is fair or dispenses justice, or do you think it's unfair and doesn't dispense justice?
David Lim: See, I'm used to talking to those who don't know. I mean, this is the secret that we can release to your listening audience, that prosecutors and defense attorneys, at least the good ones on both sides, we get along.
Right then, would you agree? I mean, like if you had a client, if I was still a prosecutor and you were the defense attorney and you had a client that you absolutely believe was innocent, you would do everything in your power to acquit him. You would come at me with every tool in your legal arsenal, but at the end of the day, we would go get lunch.
We might hang out. We might even see each other in Tahoe, skiing and talk and hang out with our families. That's a secret that I think people who watch Law and Order don't understand is that you know, it's important in the system for the system to work for there to be good relationships between prosecutors, defense, attorneys, judges, court staff.
And so to answer your question, I am not avoiding your question. My point is I think that our system, our American judicial system is the best system in the world. Hands down for dispensing justice, but like every other construct, it is a human made construct. And so it is still susceptible to the prejudices and foibles of are very humanistic.
Louis Goodman: if someone was, just starting out in their career, someone was in college and asked you about going to law school. Would you recommend the law as a career for a young person?
David Lim: Yeah, that's a loaded question because on the one hand I've had a great career. I have had no complaints.
That's paid for my house. It's allowed me to have a very privileged lifestyle with my family and we are never wanting for anything. You know, I would say it's not for everybody, you know, I think you have to go on with a clear mind of what it is that you want to do. I think the advice I'd give to people, in fact, I gave this advice to my niece because she's starting law school this fall and the advice I give young people is, you know, law's a wonderful career. It teaches you wonderful skills in terms of analytics, in terms of thinking and negotiating and parsing down issues. But you shouldn't do it just because you want to make a lot of money. Because I think if you go into law thinking, Oh, I want to make a lot of money. You're going to be miserable. You're going to go to the highest paying job that you can find, which is probably going to be some firm. But if you're not passionate about it, you're quickly going to become disenchanted.
Louis Goodman: What one thing would you like to change if you had the power to do it?
David Lim: Wow, that's a great question.
So in terms of societal health, I think the one thing I could change would do, I would improve our education system.
Louis Goodman: David Lim. Thank you very much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. We've known each other for quite a while. I certainly learned some things about you today that I didn't know before.
So thank you very much for being so open about it.
David Lim: I enjoyed being on your podcast, Louis. I wish you the best of luck and that's nice to hear from me. Always. Good to talk.