What Made You Succeed in Law on your Own Instead of a Big Firm?


(Dan at his Encino Civil Rights Law Office)

A good friend changed my mind from a naval career that my Dad had planned for my brother and me. My friend was in his third year in Law School. He challenged me to consider there were better ways to use my intelligence, and motivation to have a meaningful life. He first challenged my commitment to the Vietnam War with a few graduate student friends at U.C. Berkeley in 1965 when my ship was in dry-dock at Oakland shipyard. I was the ship's navigator with an officer rank of Lieutenant J.G. after graduating from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

(Dan navigated the USS OAK HILL(LSD-7) to Vietnam and the Far East with 300 marines in 1966-7)

They angered me at first but when I realized they were better informed on history I chose to read a few books they recommended that awakened my conscience and need to find the truth different from the defense department propaganda I had been taught. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings intrigued me as they were based on testimony and facts I had not heard nor read. I watched my friend argue a case against ten wine growers’ attorneys he brought for Cesar Chavez’s fledgling union and was convinced I could not ever do anything so challenging. He convinced me I could do anything I set my mind on with determination inspired by the concept of justice for the poor and powerless.

(Dan, Joan, and baby son, Aleksey, on the Gallo March for Cesar Chavez 1975)

He also challenged me to connect to my greatest potential by seeking a law degree. My father, on the other hand, discouraged me from the practice of law and said I could never pass the bar exam. However I saw an opportunity for financial independence as a lawyer and at the same time having had the opportunity to argue civil rights cases for the poor and powerless was an opportunity to serve a righteous cause. Soon I had completed my law degree at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.


As a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow, I received a grant for $24,000 for two years to help poor clients. Others said I was doing great work and had transformed from the friend they knew before as an athlete, not an advocate with knowledge of the law. But honestly I did not feel or think I was great. I felt I had found my potential and could be financially sound to raise a family with my wife for the future with a part of a profession that inspired me.

I tried a law firm but soon found the firm life unrewarding as I was on the bottom of a hierarchy with little chance to do more than assist the partners who took the good cases, filed the meaningful pleadings, and were rewarded with salaries that made mine seem insignificant. I had already won a jury trial in a criminal case against farm workers, litigated seventeen class actions, and successfully sued a prosecutor, sheriff, and 28 deputies for the UFW and the ACLU.

However,the partner assigned to me usually asked me to get a continuance, an extension on discovery, research, or write letters. In other words they treated me like a law clerk. Eventually in frustration at thirty six years old with a family, I opened my own practice as a civil rights attorney, consumer advocate, and defamation expert. Everyone told me you cannot make it alone in that field you must work your way up in a firm to be a success. Before long I won an appeal from a dismissal followed by a two week jury trial that netted $278,000, the largest slander verdict west of the Mississippi and had established myself as a trial attorney against a major firm as a solo practitioner. That was something I was told was impossible.


If you have a passion to do something a few people don’t believe possible, you should not be discouraged. You can do anything you set your mind to accomplish with the determination, a reasonable goal, and the necessary training. You can always improve yourself and your future with tenacity, resilience, and the right motivation. Seek out positive people if others discourage your dream. Even if no one sees you as you want to become, you should follow your heart. And, you can do it alone without a firm of competitors if you have the desire to challenge injustice, believe in yourself, are tenacious, and love your work.

 Dan in middle at 40th Annapolis Reunion with roommates, Denny (Harvard MBA business man), Dan (civil rights lawyer), and Rich (heart surgeon)

Daniel C. Lavery

All the Difference by Daniel C. Lavery is available at: http://www.amazon.com/All-Difference-Daniel-C-Lavery/dp/1482676532/ book-cover-all-the-difference
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About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

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