Not every law firm invests in growing talent inside and turning its clerical and delivery staff into legal partners, but the small Oakland firm of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer has just done that for the fourth time.
In June, Winston Moody, who began as an intake clerk in 2008 while working weekends in a farmers’ market, became a partner. Before that, Randall Strauss and Jayme Walker, were named partners in 2010 and 2016 respectively, after having started out as a “gofer” and a receptionist. And Steven Cavalli, who retired six years ago after four decades with the firm, worked at the firm as a clerk while attending law school at night before eventually being named a partner.
All of them largely credit firm founder Gary Gwilliam, still at the helm, with inspiring them and helping them succeed at the firm by establishing a culture in which employees are encouraged to collaborate and take on challenging opportunities.
“It’s a meritocracy, and it’s small, so everyone’s talents are needed, regardless of age or any other characteristic. Getting the work done is the only thing that matters,” said Moody, who specializes in employment law.
“When newer people realize that they’re going to be included in meetings with the senior partners and have important responsibilities, they feel encouraged to work hard knowing that their youth or inexperience isn’t an impediment to advancement,” he said.
Gwilliam is someone who has forthrightly talked about personal and professional challenges and how to push through difficulties to have a satisfying life, Moody said. “That’s a pretty ideal environment for starting a career if you’re lucky enough to find it,” he said.
Another element that knits the small firm together is that Moody, Cavalli, Strauss, Walker, and fellow partner Rob Schwartz are all accomplished musicians, and jam sessions are a regular feature at barbecues and staff retreats.
Clerking put him ahead of classmates
When Moody joined as a clerk, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to practice law. He got sucked in with his first assignment, which was to interview ex-Lawrence Livermore Lab employees. They claimed they were unfairly terminated in a cost-cutting move by a joint venture of the Bechtel Corporation and the University of California, which took over management of the federally funded lab. Moody found himself interacting closely with Gwilliam, a veteran trial attorney with vast courtroom experience.
“It was a bit intimidating at first, but it builds confidence for a young person when someone like Gary trusts you with important work,” he said. When Moody got to McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento he realized he had had an exceptional experience working on the Lawrence Livermore case.
“As I got to know my classmates, it didn’t seem like anyone else had had anything similar to my experience as a clerk, so I felt like the firm had given me a unique and important opportunity,” Moody said. “I believed in the case, I knew the firm deeply believed in the case, and I had also gotten to know the clients, so I felt personally invested in it.”
Rising from receptionist to partner
Jayme Walker’s story is similar. She started as a receptionist at the firm in 2006 when she moved from Indiana to San Francisco after college. She became the bookkeeper when that position opened up, and then was called upon to do paralegal work.
“We are a small firm, and there is a lot of opportunity for driven people to do more to help with casework than their job title might imply,” Walker said. “Everyone wears a lot of hats.”
Walker then graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law and clerked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California. She remained in close contact with Gary Gwilliam throughout law school and was invited to return to the Gwilliam firm as an attorney in 2009.
“Young lawyers here are trusted to handle complicated cases and depositions and are included in every aspect of the case. That is what helps them learn,” Walker said. At the same time, Walker appreciated the firm’s culture of balancing work with other parts of life. Today, she and Gwilliam both make presentations to other attorneys about managing stress.
“I’ve talked to so many lawyers who are burnt out and don’t feel valued by their firms,” said Walker, who is president of the Alameda-Contra Costa County Trial Lawyers Association. “We strive to make every employee feel valued, respected and entrusted to be part of the wheels that give our clients access to justice. We also encourage our employees to have balance in their lives, to take time off when they need it, and to know the firm will support them in times of difficulty.”
From delivering papers to delivering results
Randall Strauss didn’t know what he wanted to do for a profession when he joined the firm as a clerk in 1988. He was just looking to pay his bills so he could keep playing guitar in his band after graduating from UC Berkeley.
“Most of my time was spent driving around delivering things,” Strauss said of the position. “I found my way around using paper maps, filing papers at the various courthouses, and dropping off deliveries that couldn’t wait for the mail.”
The law appealed to Strauss, and he fondly recalls his easy-going relationship with Steven Cavalli, who was managing partner by then. Strauss still has a copy of a jocular note he wrote to Cavalli in 1989 asking to replace his beeper with a carphone and an answering machine — then luxuries. “Cavalli’s response, ‘You’re fired!’ had me laughing out loud,” Strauss said. Technology sure has changed.
Cavalli gave Strauss a ringing recommendation for UC Berkeley’s School of Law, where Strauss then got his law degree. After graduation, Strauss worked for a decade at his father’s law firm in Modesto, traveling there daily from the East Bay. Cavalli mercifully put an end to that commute after he ran into Strauss at a legal function in Oakland and invited him to come back to work at Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer.
Strauss went on to play a lead role in litigating the Lawrence Livermore Lab case, which resulted in a $38.25 million settlement after seven years. He became a senior partner in 2010.
“As a plaintiff-only firm, we are always on the side of ‘the little guy’,” Strauss said.
Diving into the deep end
The demands of working in a boutique firm can be daunting. Steven Cavalli recalled with a laugh how on his first day as a clerk, partner Eric Ivary, now retired, gave him a huge file and told him to write a trial brief in a matter of days — and Cavalli didn’t know what a trial brief was. Fortunately, Cavalli was encouraged to ask questions, and he rose to the occasion.
For the next two and a half years, Cavalli, who was married and had a young child, worked full-time at the firm while attending law school at night. He graduated at the top of his class, passed the bar on his first try, and immediately got hired as a lawyer.
“My first day back in the office, there were 80 new files waiting for me,” Cavalli said. “I was told, it’s time for you to dive into the deep end, kid.”
Cavalli leaped in as “wingman” on some of Gwilliam’s big cases. One, a lawsuit filed by a man whose hand was hurt by a winery press machine, resulted in a record-setting $5.5 million verdict. Another, filed against General Motors by a 29-year-old man who became a quadriplegic when his Corvette roof collapsed in a roll-over accident, resulted in a $6.1 million verdict.
Cavalli thinks back to when he was in law school looking for employment, and he applied for a collections job but lost out to a fellow student. Had he got that position, Cavalli likely would not have applied to be a clerk at the firm where he spent his entire legal career.
“Thank God I lost out on the job to my classmate, because I might have done collection work for 40 years,” he said.
“I got the best tutelage in being a trial lawyer that I could get,” said Cavalli. Over time, he became a partner and lead attorney on numerous other cases that resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments.
Making a meaningful difference
All cases require investments of time and money to litigate and great risk, Cavalli said. In the General Motors case, the firm paid to have a replica Corvette built, to wheel in front of the jury to show design defects. With so much on the line, the victories are extraordinarily significant for the firm and its clients.
In addition to the money, each win offers the satisfaction of helping an injured client, a type of compensation Cavalli didn’t get during his earlier career as a probation officer in San Francisco.
His colleague Jayme Walker agrees. “Many of our cases positively impact changes in our communities,” she said. “Our work makes a difference.”