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Attorney at Law
Elena Condes – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to practicing attorneys about their lives in and out of the practice of law. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect. She has vigorously defended the rights of the criminally accused for over 25 years. From her office in Berkeley, she has appeared in Courts throughout the Bay area.
She has extensive volunteer experience and currently serves on the board of the LA rasa lawyers association. She is currently running for Judge of the Alameda County Superior Court, and her name will appear on the November ballot, Elena, Condes welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Elena Condes: Thank you, Louis and happy to be here.
Louis Goodman: Well, I'm very honored and pleased that you're participating in this podcast. We certainly enjoy having people who [00:01:00] have the kind of experience that you have, and also someone who is taking the opportunity to run for judge. Your office is in Berkeley. Is that correct?
Elena Condes: I've had my office for a little over 20 years.
I started with an office in downtown Oakland.
Louis Goodman: Now I know you do criminal defense. Is that your primary practice area?
Elena Condes: It is, I do restraining orders, often times they're sort of connected to the criminal cases that I have, but it is primarily criminal defense.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Elena Condes: Tucson, Arizona.
Louis Goodman: Is that where you went to high school?
Elena Condes: It is.
Louis Goodman: Tell me a little bit about your high school experience.
Elena Condes: Thanks. That's a good question. You know, it was a mixed experience.
Elena Condes: I was in school when Title IX came into effect. And so it was when our school was first had a junior varsity softball team.
And so I joined that team and by the end, by our senior year, we were the state champions [00:02:00] in Arizona. Our whole team was, and it was also a hard experience because I was outed when I was in high school. I was about 16, 17. And then I come from a very traditional Mexican Catholic family. And so when I was outed, I had this choice to make about whether or not to be honest about who I was.
And knowing that there would be consequences to that or not, in sort of stay in the family. And I chose to be honest and, you know, and from there I've been on my own. And so I went to, I used to at a donut shop, I made donuts at night and got into a community college and started community college.
And then from there went to transfer into the University of Arizona.
Louis Goodman: Well, let's explore that a little bit. When you say that you were outed, I assume you mean around your sexual orientation, is that correct?
Elena Condes: That's correct.
[00:03:00] Louis Goodman: And what was your family's take on that?
Elena Condes: Well, it wasn't positive. I was taken to see the priest.
And the priest sat me down and he made this Venn diagram. You know, the thing with the three circles, there's an intersection. And he told me, you know, if you, when you follow the church and your family, you're in this, you know, the warm center of the Venn diagram right there, the warm center where everybody intersects.
But if you stay the way you are and you essentially, if you stay queer, you're out here in this circle all alone. And so, you know, that that experience was, that was a hard one because I've grown up in the church. My family is we have a lot of family in the border town of Nogales and spent a lot of time there with my grandmother and in the old.
Hey, old ladies going to [00:04:00] church, you know, and praying the rosary. And so that kind of rejection was really hard, but it formed who I was. And since then I have always been one to never, you know, step away from standing up for the truth and for what's right. And you know, I think it formed me. In a positive way, even though it was such a difficult experience.
Louis Goodman: When you left Santa Rita High School, you went to Pima Community College.
Elena Condes: Yeah, that's right.
Louis Goodman: What was that experience like?
Elena Condes: It was fun because, you know, when I left my parents' house, I had an apartment with a bunch of friends. And I was working nights, making donuts for $5 an hour. And, you know, you sort of see people who are been working in that kind of a job, you know, for a good chunk of their life.
And I thought, boy, if I don't get myself into college, that's me in 20 years, you know? So [00:05:00] I started taking classes and I was a Fine Arts major first. And then, you know, it took a bunch of classes here and there until, you know, I was in a class, it was a Criminal Justice class that I just took. There was this sanctuary movement that was going on in Tucson at the time.
And people from El Salvador, Mala, we're coming through Mexico and into the Arizona border when the Wars were going on down there. And so there are a lot of refugees in Tucson and there are a lot of people dying in the desert, much like they are today. And there are some priests in Tucson who we're giving them sanctuary.
We're giving them water and food and housing when they arrived in Tucson and we're going to the desert and leaving water for them. And those priests were getting prosecuted. One of the lawyers that represented those priests came to talk to the class. And, you know, there are no lawyers in my family.
And in my mother's side of the family, I was the [00:06:00] first girl to go to college. So the lawyer that came in to talk about representing the priests and the work that they were doing, I mean, that really struck me. I mean, like, Wow. There is something I could spend my life doing. You know, it is righteous work.
You are standing up for people who can stand up for themselves and who are protecting other people and, and that's for me.
Louis Goodman: So it sounds like you've had kind of a mixed relationship with the Catholic church and with priests. In other words, you know, some of them have been people who are like real mentors to you in a way, and others were people you had real differences with.
Elena Condes: Yeah, and you know, I think the difference is how they have chosen to follow their path, you know? Well, one was to condemn and the other was to, you know, for salvation for [00:07:00] people. And so, yeah. So yeah, you're absolutely right there. Both sides of that coin.
Louis Goodman: What's your relationship with the Catholic church?
Elena Condes: No, I don't have one. I would have to say there's probably the biggest regret in raising my daughter because you know, there is something to those rituals. There is something to that having. Having that sort of bigger than yourself, sense of a divine that I don't think I was able to successfully give that to my daughter because of my conflicted experience with the church.
Louis Goodman: Now, it sounds like you decided to go to law school even before you went to the University of Arizona.
Elena Condes: Yeah, that's correct.
Louis Goodman: When you graduated from the University of Arizona, did you go directly to law school?
Elena Condes: No, I didn't. I didn't know what I was doing, so I graduated in August, so not in the traditional kind of end of June sort of thing.
So I graduated in August and [00:08:00] then I applied for schools. And there weren't a ton of schools that started in the middle of the year, in the January term. But I had been accepted to a couple of schools. One was in the Midwest, one was up North and then one was Golden Gate University that had programs that started mid year.
So I went to Golden Gate University.
Louis Goodman: How did you like that experience?
Elena Condes: I liked it. My first semester of law school was the first semester of any of my schooling where I wasn't working at the same time as I was going to school.
Louis Goodman: What did you think about being in San Francisco as opposed to being in Arizona?
Elena Condes: As you can imagine it's a lot different. Yeah. That was a really, really great thing to see. And you know, when you come from where you've been all your life, to someplace, completely new, some place that is open and accepting to everyone. You get [00:09:00] to define who you are and who you're going to be, and you get an opportunity.
Louis Goodman: What was your first legal job after law school?
Elena Condes: I was a law clerk, my freshman year of law school in a Construction Law Firm. And so that is my sort of quasi legal job. I work for this Construction Law Firm, second half of my freshman year. And I worked there for a bit.
Louis Goodman: Have you always sort of like, you know, basically been on your own?
Elena Condes: Yeah.
Louis Goodman: What do you really like about practicing law?
Elena Condes: I really like all of the people I get to meet, you know, you probably know this, you dive into somebody's life and the most difficult moments of their life. And you can really get to see more of a human when they're in those positions.
And so I really appreciate really getting to know people on a deep [00:10:00] level for a short period of time and do that over and over again. You know, for the last 26 years, it's like that the best about it. I met some wonderful, wonderful people.
Louis Goodman: So if someone was coming out of college, just graduating from the University of Arizona and they were thinking about a career, would you recommend going to law school if they asked you?
Elena Condes: I would. I mean, it is noble righteous work, so I would recommend it. You know, I think I CA I can't imagine. No through the East Bay, let us a lawyers association. We give out scholarships to Latin ex law students in the East Bay. And when we see the applications, the scholarships we have coming out of Law School is just eye watering. So, I hope something changes in that respect soon because I, there is no way I could have gone. [00:11:00] I could go to law school now with the debt, these kids carry.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. It's insanely expensive, certainly compared to when I went to law school. It's yeah. I mean, like you say, it's just mind boggling the debt that people are carrying these days coming out of school.
Let's talk about that LA Raza a little bit. Tell me a little bit about that organization and what got you interested in working with them?
Elena Condes: It’s a lawyers association has been around, I think since 1978. And you know, it is to sort of promote and support Latin ex law students and lawyers.
Louis Goodman: How has practicing law either met or kind of different from your expectations as you were going into it?
Elena Condes: Well, yeah, we didn’t have lawyers in my family and I didn't know any, and so I didn't have any [00:12:00] expectations really. I mean, I saw a little bit about how civil firms work when I was working during law school, but I can't say that I really had any expectations, but, you know, it's like everything else that has ups and downs and yeah.
Things I love about it. Things I'm not crazy about.
Louis Goodman: Can you think of a case or a person that you really feel you helped out?
Elena Condes: I had a case it was a woman, Latino woman, she had a daughter who was about six years old. By the time the case went to trial, her daughter was a little bit older. She was about eight or something like that, but she, my client was a victim of severe domestic violence.
She was charged along with the codefendant, her boyfriend. They had two kids in common, those two, and she was charged with a failure to protect her [00:13:00] child as a felony and he was charged with torture of the girl. We went to trial with a Battered Women's Syndrome Defense, she walked out of there with a not guilty and was able to be reunited with her kids because the kids were taken away from her.
When the case started, she was breastfeeding, her youngest baby when she was around.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Those are really brutal cases. I've had a few of them and it's just heartbreaking.
Elena Condes: Yeah, because she was as much a victim as her daughter was. And she was doing the best she could just to keep everybody alive. And so that was really satisfying for the jury to see her for who she was.
Louis Goodman: Let's talk a little about the business of practicing law. How's that gone for you? Because you know, being in private practice and being on your own valves, being a business person in addition to being an attorney.
Elena Condes: I have to say that's probably been the easier [00:14:00] part of it because I ran a business. When I, after, I made rent for a while, I managed a few donut shops while I was in undergrad. And so I knew how to run a business. By the time I got to this business,
Louis Goodman: You are currently running for judge. When did you start thinking about that as a career move?
Elena Condes: You know, I'll say, Oh, over the many years of in the East Bay, La Raza, Lawyer's Association. What we have seen is that they're all a lot of good luck next, Latino and Latina lawyers who have put their name in over the years to be appointed by the governor and where we were, you know, not seeing the numbers and those numbers are going up. I mean, Alameda County is 23% Latino and there's only 13% of the judges on the bench or Latin X 3% are Latinas. And so, you know, I started thinking about, [00:15:00] you probably have heard the old Shirley Chisholm quote, that if they won't give you a seat at the table, you bring a folding chair.
So I started thinking, well, that is how we bring up the numbers. You know, there's not a path instead of waiting to be invited to the table, we get to the table on our own. And so, I have, I feel like I have an opportunity and an opportunity for, you know, to show other young Latin that there is a path for them and this is one of them. So, yeah.
Louis Goodman: Have you always kind of wanted to be a judge and thought of yourself as a judge?
Elena Condes: Not so much. I haven't that I wasn't paying attention before, but just sort of seeing that the effect that judges have on people's lives. And, you know, particularly when, you know, judges are, don't really have the, some judges don't have the life experience of the people who are [00:16:00] coming in front of them.
And I think it makes a real difference in how a person is seen, you know, if they're just so different from their experience. So I think it's always been for the last several years that I've been thinking about it more of a way to serve, given my experience, you know, the sort of depth of knowledge of the law and my experience in the County.
I thought this is a nice way to serve. And, and I wanted to try that.
Louis Goodman: How's the campaign going?
Elena Condes: It's going great. I came in first and, you know, highest vote getter in the primary that endorsed by Judge Brosnahan who is retiring after 40 years, which was a real honor. And I've been endorsed by 32 other Judges in Alameda County.
Which is humbling because you know, they know me and so to have their endorsement is really meaningful. So, it's been great and so [00:17:00] kind and supportive and that's been really nice, you know, because I've always been on my own. Yeah, I haven't had that sort of office environment. Like I don't come from, you know, an office full of people.
So this has been a really nice process to kind of connect with people that I don't normally connect with. So I'm really enjoying.
Louis Goodman: How about raising money? How's that gone for you?
Elena Condes: Um, it's going fine. I'm not, and I think many women have this problem of asking for me for themselves. So that part is hard.
That's probably the hardest part of this whole thing is asking somebody to give me money, but it's really for, you know, I mean, it's for the candidacy. It's to diversify the bench. It's for much more than me, but, but it is still me that is asking. And so that's, I just think that there must be a way, particularly for the judicial race where [00:18:00] they can do it without having to raise so much money because, you know, it's the one office where you probably want the least amount of money in it. And it's the one that has the highest limit, which makes no sense.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. I know a lot of it is like that. I mean, as you know, I ran for judge a few years ago and I found the amount of money involved to be just staggering and I found the campaigning process to be just different than, I mean, really anything that I'd ever been involved with in my entire life. And as you say, you know, some of it was kind of fun and some of it was just grueling. And so that's why I asked these questions. I'm really curious as to what your take on it is.
Elena Condes: The transactional nature of relationships in politics is disappointing. I got to say that I don't like much at all.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Do you have an elevator speech?
[00:19:00] Elena Condes: Pretty much. It changes depending on who I'm forming the elevator with.
Louis Goodman: Well, let's hear it.
Elena Condes: Okay. Yeah. I've been a criminal defense attorney for 26 years in the courts in Alameda County. And I've represented the most vulnerable in our community, ordinary people in their worst moments and make sure that their constitutional rights are protected. More than 50% of people who come into court come without a lawyer. I've served as a judge Pro Tem and I know that it matters when the judge making sense about the most important things in their life understands their lived experience.
I'm the first Latinx to run for Judge in Alameda County. And it felt like that I'll be the first Latina lesbian on the bench. My experience depth of knowledge of the law and perspective or why I was a lead vote getter in the primary. That's about 30 seconds. I think kind of goes on.
Louis Goodman: All right. I wasn't timing it, but it was nice and concise.
Speaking of, of being on the bench, you’ve sat Pro Tem a bit haven't you?
Elena Condes: I was [00:20:00] back in, it was around 2005, 2006.
Louis Goodman: What kind of cases?
Elena Condes: Oh, small claims and traffic.
Louis Goodman: Mainly traffic, a little bit of small claims and yeah, I do it all the time and I enjoy it. But the thing that strikes me the most is how different that courtroom looks from the bench.
Have you noticed that?
Elena Condes: In what way?
Louis Goodman: Well, all eyes are on you and people really expect you to kind of know what's going on and know the right answers.
Elena Condes: Yeah. You know?
Louis Goodman: Yeah. And it's and then you're and you look out over the people who were there and you're really are often times being asked to make some decision that to them at that moment is really important in their lives. And I find it to be a [00:21:00] position of great responsibility.
Elena Condes: Yes, for sure.
Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change in the way the legal system works?
Elena Condes: I would say to make access easier for people in so many, there are so many ways that people have huge barriers to utilizing the justice system.
So I would make access easier.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the system is fair? Do you think it dispenses justice?
Elena Condes: I think I genuinely believe in the potential of our system of justice and I think many, many times it gets it right. And so many times it does not.
Louis Goodman: What sort of thing do you like to do recreation or travel or any other things that you do besides practicing law?
Elena Condes: I like to be outside a lot. Yeah, I do. For a while I was doing adventure races, which isn't a ton of fun. What's up, it's for you to do it's orienteering [00:22:00] mountain bike, riding, kayaking, and trail running. And so you show up, you get a blank, a Topo map, and then you're given the coordinates of these checkpoints that you have to get to. And you, sometimes you figure out, you know, which ones you get first, but you get all the checkpoints and you come back and it's a race and whoever gets all the checkpoints or the most checkpoints and gets back wins, and it's through kayaking, mountain bike racing, trail running, and in the orienteering. It's the best fun.
Louis Goodman: Wow, that sounds great. Elena Condes thank you so much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. It's been a very interesting conversation. I wish you the best of luck in your judicial campaign.
Elena Condes: Thank you so much Louis has been a genuine.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. Many thanks to my guests who have contributed their time and wisdom [00:23:00] and make this show possible.
Thanks as always to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman.