Q&A with Judge Allison H. Goddard

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Judge Allison H. Goddard is a federal magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. She joined the court on August 1, 2019. 

Before her appointment, Judge Goddard was known for her work representing employees and consumers in class actions. She also represented numerous patentholders in intellectual property disputes. Her trial resume includes several class actions, employment cases, and a patent infringement case. Judge Goddard earned the Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award in 2017 from Consumer Attorneys of San Diego for her work in a high-profile case against San Diego State University. She was named to the Daily Journal’s Top Women Lawyers List in 2018. 

Judge Goddard previously served as President of the Federal Bar Association in 2009 and as a lawyer representative for the Southern District of California from 2011 to 2013. She is also a former member of the Federal Courts Committee.

She received her undergraduate degree from Boston College and her Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego.

Can you give us a brief overview of your career?

I went to law school at University of San Diego School of Law and graduated in 2000. When I graduated, I had an offer from Cooley Godward to do business litigation. So I went to work for Cooley for four years. I did a lot of work on the defense side, focusing on class actions and complex litigation. The partners I worked with most were Michael Rhodes and Michelle Doolin. Both taught me how to practice law and I owe them a lot for that.

I left Cooley when I was a fourth year, in 2007. At the time, I had a nine-month-old child: my first baby. I decided that, if I was going to spend time away from him, I needed to do it on my own terms. I started Jaczko Goddard with Chris Jaczko, who is now at Procopio. We did a lot of what Cooley did, on a smaller scale. We handled a lot of business litigation and a few class actions. I always kept an IP practice doing local counsel work in patent litigation for various companies, both on the plaintiff’s and defense side.

In 2011, I left Jaczko Goddard and joined Jim Patterson from Patterson Law Group. Jim and I have been friends since law school, and we worked together at Cooley. He needed help with a growing plaintiff’s side complex and class action litigation practice, so I switched gears from primarily representing defendants to representing plaintiffs. We handled a lot of privacy class actions, some Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) cases, and some wage and hour class actions. We had some interesting cases, including a $36 million verdict against Restoration Hardware and multi-million dollar settlements against other national retail companies.

I left in 2019 when I was appointed to be a Magistrate Judge. I was sworn in on August 1, 2019. I had applied once before for the Magistrate Judge position, so the lesson is that, if you are interested in this position, you often have to apply more than once. I know there are some people on the court who applied over five times. So be persistent if that is what you really want.

What made you to want to become a judge?

I just really love the law. From the moment I started law school, I knew it was the right place for me. I was a fish in the right water. I had thought about being a judge earlier in my career, but it was not really on my radar screen then. I did not feel like I had enough experience for it. I was always careful to keep my options open as far as pursuing a judicial position down the road. For example, I always tried to be professional and courteous with opposing counsel. I really tried hard to be civil and build a good reputation in the community, which is very important if you want to be a judge. But I did not do all that just because I might want to be a judge. It is also a better way to practice. It is the right thing to do and it makes the practice of law more enjoyable.

One of the benefits of being a judge is that you have a lot more control of your life and your schedule. You lose a lot of the stress that you have as a practicing lawyer. The stress of deadlines is not as severe. The stress of dealing with opposing counsel is non-existent. You don’t have that at all. That was a very stressful part of my practice, especially working in complex litigation because I found myself up against the top lawyers in the country.

The most important thing about being a judge is that it has enabled me—after 20 years as a practicing lawyer—to stop focusing on building a practice and generating income and instead focus on public service and giving back. For me, it is an awesome advantage to being a judge. Having both a civil and criminal docket, I feel like I get exposure to the whole world. It broadens my perspective. It certainly gives me perspective when I am dealing with civil disputes over money, after I come off the bench dealing with criminal cases that deal with freedom, and liberty, and victims. It has just given me this great broad perspective.

And like being a lawyer, one of the best things about being a judge is that you are learning every day. It is a constant challenge with constant learning every day.

What is your rough breakdown between civil and criminal docket?

I don’t know what the breakdown is, as far as number of cases, because my criminal cases do not last as long. I carry about 180 civil cases, on average, and that can go up or down by 20 cases or so. I estimate that I spend about maybe 60% of my time on civil cases 40% on criminal.

How have you found the transition to being a judge? Was it hard?

It has been great. One of the things that has been amazing to me is that I have incredible staff. I have never felt this supported in any part of my career. For most of my career  I was basically on my own. I always had a really good assistant, but associates would come and go. And I was lucky when I had them for a little bit of time. But I never had this consistency.

My clerks are just excellent. They are very smart. They are great writers. They are great researchers. And they are very good at dealing with attorneys who call. They are friendly to them, which is very important to me. I want to be a very user-friendly court.

The rest of the court staff is amazing. Whenever I need anything, I just make a call, and then people run right over. When I am on the bench in criminal cases, I have a courtroom deputy, I have pretrial services, I have interpreters, and I sometimes have probation, in addition to the lawyers on either side. For every minute I spend on the bench, I would estimate people spend at least 15 minutes collectively supporting me, which is pretty amazing. There is just so much work that goes into it, and they do such a good job.

What advice would you have for attorneys appearing before you?

Be prepared. You really need to be prepared. You are going to serve your client much better if you are prepared.

What does that mean? Part of that is knowing your audience. When you appear before me, let’s say if it is for a status conference or a case management conference. You know, I am carrying about 200 cases. So be ready to give me the two-minute summary of the case, in case I have not had a minute to bring myself up to speed.

Make sure you know what you put in the complaint. And make sure you know what your defenses are, and what the jury instructions are for them. The first question for a lawyer takes on a civil case should be “what are the jury instructions?”  That tells you what you have to prove.  That is what it is all going to boil down to.

Make sure you are the master and the expert on your own case, so you can educate me on all the things I need to know. You shouldn’t assume I have that base level of knowledge, or leave it to me to do that work.

Besides, being unprepared. What else should lawyers appearing before you avoid?

We really, really, really do not like it when you overstate case law. I read it all. And if it’s obvious to me that you are trying to pull the wool over my eyes, it is not going to help you in the case. It is going to be bad for your client. You do not want to lose the confidence of the court by pushing too hard. I do not see this every day, but when I do see it, it is often over issues that really are not the needle movers. Why would you do that?

Another thing is: do not disparage your opposing counsel. It is so hard to not do it when they are doing it to you. But it is really rare to find a situation where you are dealing with someone who is difficult, and you have managed to stay out of the gutter too. A lot of people come in and they feel like we are going to drop the hammer on their opponent because they have been so unreasonable. But that is not really what we are interested in doing.

The important thing is that the playing field is level. The most important people in the courtroom are your clients, not you. And so, whether or not we reprimand your opposing counsel is not what is important. What is important is that your client should feel like they got a fair shake in court. So sometimes that means we don’t rebuke your opposing counsel like you would like. And oftentimes, what we find is that there is blame on all sides. So be really careful not to sink to that level.

You really have to be respectful of other people. For example, if you have a pro se litigant.  A lot of them do not understand the system and they feel like their back is against the wall. They can have misunderstandings that can be very difficult to unwind. They should be treated with the same amount of respect as the partner in your law firm.

Back to joining the bench, what have been the hardest part and most challenging parts?

The hard part about that question is that there really has not been anything that feels hard.

I do not want you to get the sense that it is an easy job. It is a very challenging job in the sense that I have to deal with all aspects of the law, including a lot that I never dealt with before. I never handled a lemon law case before becoming a judge. I had very limited experience with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And I certainly had no maritime law experience. Making sure I feel competent to step in as a judge in those cases means that I have to be prepared. I practice what I preach. I really have to do a lot of extra work. But that is a good challenge. It is kind of a fun challenge. I think the reason people love the law is because they get to keep learning every day.

I try and go deep. For example, I really try to dig deep for settlement conferences. I had a case where my settlement efforts obviously did not work because it went to trial. But when the trial was over, I set another settlement conference because I felt like the parties needed to at least have the conversation. I pulled out the trial transcripts and I read them all. I do not think the parties were expecting that. But it was a huge help to me. Because when they tried to say “well, this happened at trial,” I could give them a different perspective based on what was in the record.  I have cases where I’ll say: send me whatever you want. So I get deposition transcripts, and I read the deposition transcripts.  It is very helpful for sizing up the case. And I don’t mind going deep. I really like to do that, when I can and when the case calls for it.

Since you mentioned settlement conference, can you speak to the Southern District’s practice of Early Neutral Evaluations (ENEs) and the value of them?

I think it has become even more valuable to litigants now that we have been doing it so much on Zoom. It is not as much of a financial hardship to travel for the parties, and we like it because it gives us more flexibility in our schedules.

People come to the ENE with different perspectives. Sometimes, clients are frustrated that they had to spend all this money just to come, and there is no way they would settle the case. But we really only allot two hours and two hours to the court is not too much to ask litigants if you’re going to file all these motions and ask us to do all these things for you.

One of the things I really work hard to do in ENEs is to try and size up the case. I will find out what information both sides need to really talk about settlement. In class actions, I will lean on the parties to agree to early discovery on an informal basis. And I will issue an order saying this is what one side is going to give and this is the date they are going to give it by. And then we will reconvene, so we keep settlement on the front burner. I do that a lot.

Another thing I will often do, if I feel the case warrants it, even if the parties are far apart, is that I will issue a mediator’s proposal similar to one you would get from a private mediator. The only difference is I am not looking for anyone’s repeat business. So when I issue a mediator’s proposal, I do not ask both sides if they will accept it before I make it. What I tend to do is ask what their bottom lines are individually, and I don’t share that information. Then I take their bottom lines and I see if there is a way I can push each of them to try and find the happy medium. Even if they do not take the mediator’s proposal, I still feel like it gets them closer to settlement.

One of the things I find is that ENE’s can help when people get really stuck, especially if a plaintiff starts at a really high number and that high number is based on the hope of getting a lot of non-economic damages. That is really hard for a defendant to value. If the plaintiff starts at a really high number and the defendant comes in a $5,000, then that is not going to get anything done. Well, how can we change our number?  The plaintiff won’t come down because defendant won’t go up. Proposals take away the need to have the parties exchange numbers, and they are kind of negotiating with me.

Once I have their numbers, I can ask “what is that based on?” This is another great thing about Zoom. I will often pull up an Excel spreadsheet, share my screen, and walk through the numbers. For example, I’ll ask “what are your economic damages?” We will put that in the spreadsheet. And then we’ll see what happens if they get a certain multiple of that as their non-economic damages. But then I also point out that they have to back out attorneys’ fees, costs, etc. Sometimes I can show them that settling for less at the outset really is not much less than they would get if they went to trial, and it takes all the risk off the table and puts money in their pocket. And then I can do the same thing for the defense. That is a fun thing to do on Zoom.

I think that most people are not used to that. They do not think a judge can use Excel. I find it to be very useful. And I cannot really do that effectively in a conference room. It is much easier to do if you have the ability to share a screen. I think it is a great practice. It is one of the best parts of my job. I really enjoy doing it.

Can you comment on your discovery practices?

My discovery rules are based on the rules that I followed as a litigant before Judge Karen Stevenson in the Central District of California. The parties have to email me with a brief description of the issue and a neutral statement. Then they get to give me a sentence or two about their position and let me know when they’re available for a phone conference.

Before I get on the phone with them, I already have a sense of what’s happening. Maybe I can look up the statute or look up the case law, or maybe it is something that I dealt with in practice. I can think through it before I call them. I will often try to broker or an agreement. If it’s a thorny issue, like privilege, I will issue a briefing schedule.

In a case with pro se litigants, or a case where people are really at odds with each other, I will have the litigants send me a chart with the exact language of the request, the exact language of the response or objection, and then a third column.  Then we’ll pull the chart up on Zoom and we will take three or four hours. We’ll just go through each disputed request and I will say, “this is what I think is reasonable. That is what I think is not reasonable.” And we will put in that third column with a compromise.

This process takes less time for me overall, when you compare it to having to address a motion. And I have never had the parties say that they will not do that after we have spent three or four hours together. It also saves clients a lot of time because it takes a lot more than three or four hours to draft a discovery motion, not to mention all the paperwork that goes with that. So I find that helpful.

I do not offer it as a matter of course. If it is happening, it is either because there is a pro se litigant or because you are not getting along well with your opposing counsel—and you need to fix that.

What do you do as a matter of course?

It depends. For example, I really do not like to force people to negotiate privilege. I think it is uncomfortable and unfair. When I have my call with them, I will say “I’ve reviewed this.  Here is your briefing schedule and this is what I want. I want you to do a joint motion or I want a fully briefed motion.”

My process helps me size up the issue. Sometimes, if it is a close call, like whether or not a particular person should be deposed, I will say “this is what I think.”  And if they do not agree, then they can brief it and I can consider it more carefully. If I really feel strongly about the issue, I will still let them brief it but I will just tell them they need to find a really good case on that issue.

I am not going to take away people’s opportunity to argue their case, especially because I may have missed something in the time I took to take a look at the issue before we got on the phone. And I will always look at it with fresh eyes. But be careful. If I tell you there is a case on point, you need to actually address that case in your papers.

I know you served on the Federal Courts Committee while you were in practice.  Could you speak about your experiences and the value of that service.

It was a great experience for me. It was very helpful. Working in complex and class action litigation, I found myself traveling all over the state. I had cases in the Eastern District, the Central District and the Northern District. I was probably traveling to San Francisco once a month and having the ability to talk and meet with other lawyers from around the state was really helpful.

We also got to meet with various judges when I was on the committee. In the Central District, we got to meet the chief judge and the chief magistrate judge. The same in the Eastern District. It also helped me, as a member of this San Diego legal community, to get some great ideas from other places. The Eastern District has an amazing Learning Center as part of its court. I was able to serve on the advisory committee for the learning center in this district and bring some of that information back.

Also, there is a lot of overlap between state court and federal court, and I think the committee helps educate California lawyers about federal court. It is really important because you find a lot of people who typically litigate in state court, but are in federal court every now and then. That can really be difficult. I felt that the committee did a good job of helping bridge that gap. I am very sensitive to that.

A big difference is that in state court, at least in San Diego, you get a date to disclose your expert and a different date to produce any reports. In federal court, it is the same date for both. I try to be mindful when I announce dates if I know there is an attorney who is primarily a state court practitioner. If so, I point out that the day you serve your report is the same day that you disclose your expert. I cannot tell you how many lawyers have said: “wow! thank you for saying that!”

I think the Federal Courts Committee is a really important committee, and I’m glad it has been rejuvenated.

Is there anything you would like to add to the interview?

The only thing I would say is that, if you’re interested in either being a judge or just having a better and fuller career, I strongly recommend that you do things like serve on a bar committee, locally at the San Diego level or at the state level. Get involved.

If you have any sort of federal practice, get involved with the Federal Bar Association. It is a very close-knit community and having that type of involvement helps you get to know the judges and other people who are frequently in the court. I feel like it makes a difference when someone knows who you are, when you can walk into court with a good and strong reputation. I think that helps your clients a lot.

Practicing law is a profession and you should treat it that way. Professionals are constantly working to improve themselves and constantly trying to interact with other professionals to improve their game. I strongly recommend that.

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