A transcript of this podcast is easily available at lovethylawyer.com.
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Hon. Greg Syren, Alameda County Superior Court.
Judge Syren served for over 25 years as a Public Defender, primarily in Alameda County, but also served in Napa and Solano. As an attorney he tried numerous serious felony cases to jury verdict, and successfully represented thousands of indigent criminal defendants. He brings his vast experience as an attorney to the bench. He has served in criminal, civil and family assignments and is currently very involved in collaborative courts.
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Greg Syren / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: In collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association, this is Love Thy Lawyer where we talk with members of the ACBA about their lives and legal careers. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the LTL podcast. And yes, I'm a member of the Alameda County Bar Association. He served as an Alameda County Public defender for over 25 years.
And before that served in both the Napa County and Solano County Public Defender's office. He's tried over 50 felony cases to jury verdicts, plus numerous misdemeanor cases to jury verdict and handled thousands of criminal cases as a public defender. Now for the last eight and a half years after having been appointed to the bench by Governor Jerry Brown, [00:01:00] he is a Judge of the Alameda County Superior Court.
Judge Syren, Welcome to the Alameda County Bar Associations Barristers Club, and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
Greg Syren: Good afternoon, Louis, how are you?
Louis Goodman: Well, thanks so much for being here. We're going to have to stop meeting like this since we were on a zoom call last week. Just about this time when you were explaining your assignment doing the diversion program.
So I'm wondering since you are doing that right now, can you tell us just a little bit about that assignment and how you happened to get it?
Greg Syren: Sure. I'm doing Collaborative Courts in general. I have been handling, January of this year been handling the Drug Court, both the North and South County Drug Courts, the Behavioral Health Court, I've been doing the Conservatorship Calendar, the John George calendars.
And sometime in mid January, the court began receiving emails [00:02:00] from the Public Defender's Office, indicating that there was this statute that had gone into effect in January of this year regarding Misdemeanor Diversion. And they were wondering where they could begin setting their cases for the Misdemeanor Diversion Statute.
And so Judge Smiley and I had a conversation. Then we checked in with Judge Desautel, and I volunteered to set up the Misdemeanor Diversion Court. And so that's one of several assignments that I'm currently doing, but we started that in earnest, probably in February of this year. And now every Wednesday morning, I handle 30 plus cases for intake on Misdemeanor Diversion in the afternoons.
I actually talk to the defendants, explain the terms of their diversion, the terms of misdemeanor diversion in general, and set progress reports and whatnot.
Louis Goodman: What tasks you do for the court right now?
Greg Syren: The drug court, as I [00:03:00] indicated, got Behavioral Health Court today, which is a Thursday. And I do the John George Conservatorships the LPs and Murphy Conservatorship calendars on Tuesday and Friday. And I've been doing a little misdemeanor settlement on Tuesday afternoons as well. So that's kind of my week.
Louis Goodman: And you recently served a fairly long stint in the Family Court. Is that correct?
Greg Syren: That's correct. Three. And I was there just short of three and a half years, but the last year, the pandemic year, I was the Supervising Judge at Family Law. I learned a lot, It was really challenging. I developed a deep respect for the Family Law Bar and for the notion of self-represented litigation and what folks who don't have lawyers have to try and [00:04:00] navigate their way through in a Family Law setting. So, I'm actually very proud of myself for having done that assignment. I sort of volunteered to go do Family Law, which is sort of unusual for bench off.
Louis Goodman: What do you think is the biggest difference between the Family Law assignment and the criminal stuff?
Greg Syren: The Criminal assignment is much more civil and the Family Law assignment is, I won't call it criminal, but it's kind of, what's the right word, it's emotional. There's a lot more hyper bubble, hyper ability in Family Law. People are really going through a difficult chapter in their lives and they get very emotional about their cases because you're talking about their children, their employment, their homes, their property.
All that sort of thing. So that the biggest [00:05:00] difference is the tension level in Family Court on a daily basis is so much higher than it is in criminal. The criminal practice, it's really remarkable.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Greg Syren: Originally, I was born in Chicago, South Side, Chicago. That's where my parents are from and we moved to California very young. I was like literally 6 or 10 weeks old or something when we moved out to California. Lived in California for my young years, moved to the Philippines for a little while, my father worked for the Navy. So I was in the Philippines from like 66 to 70. I lived in Virginia for a little while and then back to California.
So mostly I'm a California born and raised guy, but with a little, little stints at various places.
Louis Goodman: Where'd you go to high school?
Greg Syren: The South Bay in Sunnyvale, Fremont High School Sunnyvale.
Louis Goodman: How was that experience for you?
Greg Syren: You know, high school was great for me. I had a really good time in high school. I was [00:06:00] involved in a lot of things academically.
It was relatively easy for me. And I enjoyed it. A lot of friends in high school, played tennis, was in the band, did speech and debate, you know, that kind of stuff.
Louis Goodman: Sure. When you graduated from Fremont High School, where'd you go to college?
Greg Syren: I went to Berkeley, UC Berkeley, and that was also a really good experience for me.
I lived in the co-ops at Cal, so it was a very, you know, I like to characterize my, I was sort of the last gasp, of the hippies, I went to Berkeley in 1977 and lived in the co-ops, which was kind of a Bohemian sort of slightly drug induced experience for most people living in the co-ops. And, but it was really good.
One for me and Cal was, you know, Cal was challenging for me. It was not easy like high school was for me, [00:07:00] but I learned a lot while I was there and I really enjoyed the experience. It was definitely a more diverse experience for me. I mean, Sunnyvale's a fairly homogeneous community. Berkeley was not in 1977.
So I got to experience a lot of diversity, which I thought was a really, really a good thing for me personally, in terms of my personal growth.
Louis Goodman: It's interesting that you describe yourself as the last of the hippies, because I remember when I very first saw you in court, when you were a Public Defender, I thought, where did they get this guy with the crew cut and the military bearing to be an Alameda County Public Defender?
Greg Syren: Yeah. Well, yeah, at some point I cut my hair, but back in those Cal days, it was past my shoulder and, you know, I had to get tar. I carried around the guitar all the time. I mean, I really was sort of the last gasp of the hippies.
It's fairly funny.
[00:08:00] Louis Goodman: When you graduated from Cal, did you go directly to Law School? Did you take some time off and work or travel?
Greg Syren: Well, I took a little time off. My father lived in Los Angeles at the time. I had a girlfriend whose parents lived in LA, so I spent some time down in LA. I was trying to get a job, frankly.
It was not a good economic time. So the beginning of the like 1981, and I had gotten a degree in Conservation of Natural Resources from Cal and I wanted to work like for some kind of Environmentally kind of organization or a governmental organization that dealt with environmental issues. And I couldn't get a job.
I couldn't find a job. So really it was at the suggestion of an ex-girlfriend's father that I consider applying to Law School. Really. Wasn't sort of a part of my goal or what I aspired to do, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Louis Goodman: What did [00:09:00] he say to you that got you thinking?
Greg Syren: He was a general practitioner down in the San Fernando Valley.
And he had a good life. He’d built a nice life for himself and he suggested to me, maybe you ought to consider going to law school, even if you want to do environmental kind of stuff. A lot of is going to help you with that, but also provide you with other opportunities.
Louis Goodman: And where'd you go to law school?
Greg Syren: I went to McGeorge School of Law. It's a University of Pacific Law School in Sacramento.
Louis Goodman: And how was that?
Greg Syren: McGeorge was at that time, that school had a very high California Bar Pass rate. And that was sort of its claim to fame. That if you went to Lake George, you ended up passing the Bar, but what they didn't tell you was that they frequently flunked out about a third of the class along the way.
Louis Goodman: Well, obviously you did get through and you passed the Bar.
Greg Syren: I did.
Louis Goodman: What was your first legal job? [00:10:00]
Greg Syren: My first legal job was working for, it was the Napa County Public Defender's Office, but it was contracted through a firm in Napa.
Louis Goodman: You then spent some time there and you went to Solano County Public Defender, but really your career prior to going on the bench was as an Alameda County Assistant Public Defender.
It was tell us a little bit about that experience.
Greg Syren: At that time, and I think it's even true today, Alameda County had a rep for being arguably the best Public Defender's Office in the state. And so, yeah, even though I had started working in Napa County and working at Solano County and I was actually quite happy there. The then Public Defender, a guy by the name and with Jim Jenner who I'm sure Louis, you know, but Jim Jenner was getting ready to close out his list.
And he called me up and he said, well, are you interested in coming to work in [00:11:00] Alameda County? And I said, well, I'm quite happy here in Solano County. I don't know. So I went interviewed with him and at that time, the pay was dramatically better in Alameda County than it was in Solano County.
And my then wife said, no, you're taking the job in Alameda County. So I came down Alameda County and I had two years in at that time. And so I came with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Like I know what's going on and I know how to do this. And then I actually learned how to be a real Public Defender when I got here.
And so, you know, that's a process. It takes years to become a really solid, meaningful criminal defense lawyer. And I had a lot of great, you know, sort of guides and mentors along the way who helped me to understand what being a competent exceptional Criminal [00:12:00] Defense Lawyer looks like.
Louis Goodman: Obviously you did this for quite a long time. What did you really like about it?
Greg Syren: The clients.I think more than anything, I like the clients. I like getting to know the clients. I like getting to know their stories, how they had managed to find themselves in the position that they've found themselves in. What difficulties and struggles they'd had. And that was an, that was probably the most enjoyable thing about being a Public Defender for me.
But also the colleagues. My colleagues were definitely a motivating factor for staying in the job as a Public Defender. They were people of, you know, similar life philosophy. Kind of the same ilk politics, largely the same and people who I really like spending time with. And so in addition to working with Public Defenders, I also socialize with Public Defenders quite a bit.
And you were recommended to the law by a Lawyer. [00:13:00] And I'm wondering if you, as someone who is a Lawyer and a Judge would recommend a legal career to a young person coming out of college and thinking about it.
Greg Syren: That's a loaded question, Louis. I think that it's a much more complicated answer than it was in 1982 or whatever, when I was applying to Law School. I think the profession, the legal profession is a great profession. I think it's a great way to make a living, but you can't just sort of wander into law school anymore. And that's kind of what I did. I sort of wandered into law school thinking, well, you know, Irving suggested I go to law school, so it sounds like a good idea to me. So I'm going to go to law school. Because it's too expensive. First of all, just sort of wander into law school and wonder if it's going to work for you and you and [00:14:00] I have both known enough lawyers to know that there are a lot of lawyers who aren't all that happy in the profession.
And so I think that people who are considering going to law school and I think it is a great profession. But they need to do some groundwork to make sure that that's in fact what they want to do. And so that means really finding out what lawyers do from day to day in a given area, that the person might be interested in going into law, in finding out what that profession really looks like day to day, week to week, year to year.
And whether that's something you really, really want to do. And so taking that little break between college and law school. I think it's a great idea. I think doing some leg work or volunteer work or working for an organization that has lawyers so that you can see what it looks like is a great idea too, so that when you [00:15:00] do actually go to law school, you know, in fact that's the profession that you want to pursue.
I don't know.
Louis Goodman: An attorney who has an interest in being a judge. What's your comment to that individual?
Greg Syren: Well, my comment to that individual is if you've been around judges enough to know kind of what the life of a judge looks like, and that looks like something you're interested in doing then talk to people, you know, you got to network to become a Judge.
Of course, you know, about half of the Judges in Alameda County who do Criminal Law. But there are another, you know, 35 to 40 Judges who don't do Criminal Law, do other forms of law, which really have little or nothing to do with Criminal Law. And if you want to become a Judge, you ought to see whether or not you're going to be able to put up with some of those other practices, because once you become a Judge, you don't just get to do what you want to do.
You get to [00:16:00] do what the Presiding Judge tells you you're going to do.
Louis Goodman: Well, I think that it leads into some other questions or perhaps just a comment that I would have, which is that I think a lot of people, especially civilian people don't really understand that being a Judge is being involved in a certain hierarchy, just like being in the DA's Office or being in the Public Defender's Office or being in a Law Firm that there are certain seniority's and certain elected positions within the Judicial Branch. And that, as you say, you don't just get to say, Oh, this is what I do, and this is what I want to do. That there are assignments that need to be filled and some assignments are considered somewhat more choice than others.
And there's a certain politics that goes with that.
Greg Syren: Yeah, no, I think all of that's true and I just think it's important when you're thinking about [00:17:00] use you, you start out you're questioning asking me well, what, what do you think about people who are aspiring to be a judge? Yeah, that's definitely something to think about because just like in every organization, there is a hierarchy to the organization, their issues of seniority and their issues of competence, quite frankly.
And sometimes you don't get to choose what you end up doing.
Louis Goodman: This podcast is presented and supported by the Alameda County Bar Association. ACBA provides a wide range of Certified Continuing Legal Educational Programs, Networking Opportunities, and Social Events. If you're a member of ACBA, thank you. If you are not yet a member, we hope you will consider joining this organization.
That is by, for and in support of practicing attorneys. And now back to our interview, do you [00:18:00] think the legal system is fair?
Greg Syren: That's such a big question, Louis, do I think it's fair? I think my colleagues do the best they can to be as fair as they can do. I think the Criminal Justice System, if you're at, you're used to, you asked about the legal system in general, there are so many aspects of the legal system that I don't really know or understand at this point.
I understand the need and the cry for Criminal Justice Reform. I understand where that's coming from because I live, I lived through the harsh aspects of criminal justice in this community in the late eighties and nineties.
Louis Goodman: Is there anything that if it were within your power to change in the way the legal system works, that you would change?
I don't have any magic wand for that. I think a lot of the things that are happening in criminal law now are happening appropriately and [00:19:00] some of those things are beginning to conflict with each other. So there's such a need by many state legislators, excuse me, to do criminal justice reform that there's not great communication and integration about that criminal justice reform.
So now we're running into conflict.
Louis Goodman: Regarding that.
Greg Syren: Oh yeah. And I think a lot of the people who are passing criminal justice reform, and I think with the best of intentions really just haven't had much experience in the criminal justice system. So they don't really know what they're legislating about.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. I sort of agree with that.
Greg Syren: I guess maybe the answer to your question then would be, I wish legislators would spend a little more time talking to defense lawyers and district attorneys and judges. Before they begin promoting certain forms of criminal justice reform.
Louis Goodman: I'm going to shift gears a little here a little bit.
[00:20:00] I'm wondering what your family life has been like and how practicing law and being a judge has affected that?
Greg Syren: I am married. I have three kids there. All grown at this point, I'm in my second marriage. So I would say the job at some point had some adverse effect on my first marriage, but by and large, I mean, it was difficult when I was a lawyer navigating family and sometimes the demands on a trial lawyer that can be real can be a very difficult combination sometimes to deal with. But as things stand now, I am thankful. I've got two beautiful sons. One of whom is 33 and one is 30. My 30 year old just passed the bar. So he's a practicing lawyer and I've got an 18 year old daughter who's in college and a beautiful [00:21:00] wife who retired a couple of years ago.
And so now she's largely at home making sure 18 year old daughter gets through college.
Louis Goodman: All right. What about recreational pursuits? What do you do when you're not on the bench that you enjoy?
Greg Syren: I have a lot of interests. All right. Which is, you know, sort of in combination with the question you asked about how did you navigate your family life with your practice of law or being a judge?
One of the things that did my former boss, Jay Gaskill. Who I'm sure you remember was the Public Defender of Alameda County. He was a big proponent of lawyers having some other interest outside of simply the practice of law. And so along the way, I'm an avid tennis player. I have been since I was in high school and continue to play regularly on the weekends.
I'm a musician. I like to play. [00:22:00] I'm a guitar player. I play saxophone, played in the big band. For 20 years a saxophone I've been teaching myself to pay the cello during the pandemic. Cause I happen to love cello. I think the cello is the most beautiful instrument of all. I'm a huge cook. I'm a big cook. I love to cook and I'm a gardener.
So I've got a huge garden in my backyard, six raised beds that grow vegetables every year and roses and flowers and stuff. So I've got a lot of recreational interests outside of the practice of law.
Louis Goodman: What keeps you up at night?
Greg Syren: Worry about my kids even now, sadly, you know, but even when kids go out on their own and they're independent, you still worry about them all the time.
So that in part keeps me up, but also keeps me up is politics. And you know, that the disparity in income that [00:23:00] exists in our country, that's a huge thing for me to this world of haves and have nots that we seem to have developed throughout this country is real troublesome. To me.
Louis Goodman: Let's say you came into some real money, a few billion dollars.
What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Greg Syren: I’d stop working. I would start a foundation. I developed a foundation to support those interests that I was most interested in. I'd make sure my kids were taken care of. Yeah, I think that's what I do. I might, you know, I mentioned previously, I got a degree in conservation of natural resources from Cal for a reason.
And that was the environment was a huge, huge thing to me then, as it is now. And so that. Quiet you asked me what keeps me up at night. The climate change thing keeps me up at night as well. And so if I had billions of dollars, I would probably [00:24:00] focus a lot on that.
Louis Goodman: Is there one message that you'd really like to put out to the world?
Greg Syren: I hope that people, as they grow into their adulthood, into their profession, into their life, that they figure out what makes them truly happy.
Louis Goodman: Judge Greg Syren. Thank you so much for joining us today for the Barristers Club of Alameda County and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
Greg Syren: Louis.
Thank you very much for having me. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's edition of Love Thy Lawyer in collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association. Please visit the Lovethylawyer.com website, where you can find links to all of our episodes. Also, please visit the Alameda County Bar Association firstname.lastname@example.org. Where you can find more information [00:25:00] about our support of the legal profession, promoting excellence in the legal profession and facilitating equal access to justice. Special thanks to ACBA staff and members, Calin Daihlin, Saeed Randall, Hadassah Hayashi, Vincent Tong, and Jason Leong. Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey.
I'm Louis Goodman.
Greg Syren: No, I mean, I saw, that question previously and the answer is no, not really, but anyway, I don't know if that answers your question.