"I told you, Hemmingway stressed simplicity."
That is what John Harris, the 2016 Law Day Award recipient, explained when discussing this article. Ever so humble, he was not quite sure why people would want to hear more about him after having celebrating his Law Day Award. It was evident from the size of the crowd that attended the presentation of his award at Stockton Golf and Country Club in April that he is very admired by his peers. Between the tables for his family and friends who also joined in the celebration, it was hard for the legal community to find a seat.
John Harris was born in Dameron Hospital to Marion Harris, an optometrist, and Shirley Harris, a teacher. He attended Lincoln High School, where he holds a "gold pass" for lettering in football, basketball and track. He also served in student government, including serving as senior class president. The tools he acquired from those campaigns must have influenced his later successful run for the prestigious position of San Joaquin County Bar Association President.
John's legal career began at a younger age than most: while attending Lincoln High School, John was appointed City Attorney for the day, foreshadowing his future legal career. He went on to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in English, and thereafter acquired his law degree from the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law.
In his last year of law school, John attended a party in Los Angeles where he met the love of his life, Jill. The connection was strong, but they wanted to take their time to truly get to know one another, so they waited six weeks after they met to get engaged. They would later go on to have three amazing children, the alliteratively-named Alissa, Adam and Alex Harris.
Throughout his youth and into law school John forged friendships with many who he would later call colleagues. He played little league with San Joaquin County's previous district attorney, Jim Willet; studied at McGeorge with Ninth Circuit judge Connie Callahan, and taught professional responsibility to Superior Court judge George Abdallah at Humphreys College's Drivon School of Law. If there were a San Joaquin County equivalent to the Skull and Bones Society, John (and these other distinguished Law Day Award recipients) would be likely members.
While his family and friends pushed him to attend law school, he was thinking of a career in medicine. The only problem, as he states it, was his "laziness" in college. He knew he needed to take the "easier" route, law school. On a serious note, as he states, "I ended up in the right profession. To be a successful attorney, you must know how much effort to put into any given task to be well-prepared and accomplish your goal. However, overdoing anything is not effective or practical in our business."
John's success seems to be hereditary. His children have all pursued different career paths, each making their father proud. Alissa is a successful attorney employed by the State of California, assisting the state in navigating through the transition into (and perhaps out of) the Affordable Healthcare Act. Alissa's daughter Lucy is also John and Jill's first grandchild. Adam presently serves as Director of Retail Marketing for a small, little-known company called PayPal®. He and his wife, Kate, have also added to the family with three children of their own: Piper, Lincoln, and Adeline. Alex has also found success in the dot-com industry, working in direct competition with his brother as a marketing executive for an online banking startup. He and his wife, Kristin, recently added to the family legacy by bringing a little one into the world: John's youngest granddaughter, Madison, reportedly named after a certain San Francisco Giants lefthander.
Though I am often afforded the opportunity to sit down with John in a professional setting, we set aside some time to discuss the more personal side of his fascinating journey in life, and his ever impressive legal career. Below are some highlights from our discussion.
Q: You have now been practicing for over 40 years.What is one of your notable recollections from your early years in the legal field?
A: "Obviously, there are countless great memories. One of the most notable was the day in 1980 when Joel Perisho and I became partners and moved into our first office. It was dark and as we left the office we were pulled over by the police with sirens blaring. They were looking for two men, one described as very tall (like Joel), who had robbed a nearby fast-food restaurant. I thought maybe there were about sixty police cars, Joel said maybe three. We were ordered from the car and searched while police dogs were barking. Eventually, one of the officers recognized Joel from the D.A.'s office and they realized we were not the culprits. After changing my underwear I had a good story to tell. We often wondered whether Mr. Neumiller and Mr. Beardslee had such an auspicious start to their partnership."
Q: You are perhaps best known for your successful mediation practice.When did you start mediating, and how did that occur?
A: "In the early 1990s I got a call from the American Arbitration Association asking if I was interested in attending mediator training. Up to that point, I was only familiar with mediation in family law cases and labor disputes. Mediation of civil cases was just emerging. I accepted, attended the classes and then resumed my regular practice. Over time, mediation and other forms of [alternative dispute resolution] have become the bulk of my practice. I later learned that it was a local attorney, the late Pete Simonelli, who had recommended Dan Quinn and me for the training. I remain eternally grateful to Pete for that recommendation and the career path it provided for me."
Q: What do you think makes for a successful mediator?
A: "Most people want to resolve their disputes.The California civil court system is expensive, time consuming, often frustrating for litigants and rarely provides 'justice' in the eyes of the litigants. Mediation affords parties an opportunity to take control of their disputes and participate with their counsel in seeking a resolution. To facilitate that process a good mediator must be a quick study, be a good listener, have the ability to relate to people, and also be an amateur psychologist.Patience and persistence are key to effectively resolving disputes."
Q: You are a founding board member and past president of the Consuelo M. Callahan American Inn of Court. Why are you passionate about that organization?
A: "The Inns of Court is an international organization of judges, old lawyers, young lawyers, and law students that was established to promote ethics and civility in our profession. Our job as attorneys is hard enough without having to deal with the extra burden of an attorney who is devious or plays with the truth or is combative. That type of conduct absolutely works against the best interests of clients. No case should be about the lawyers. That is a huge impediment to resolution. And it is not just bad for your case, it is bad for your health. The Inn reinforces our ethical responsibilities and the importance of respecting one another and the courts all accomplished in a fun social setting."
Q: In the short time that local mentor-mentee programs have been around, in both the Inns of Court and through the San Joaquin County Bar Association, you have mentored many young attorneys each year. Though I already know your favorite mentee [John was my mentor before I came to work for him], why do you feel those programs are so important?
A: "We each need to share our knowledge with our peers and mentor those with less experience. I built much of my practice and avoided many mistakes (but not all of them) by imposing upon older more experienced lawyers who graciously took the time to give me guidance. This is not just a responsibility but also important to health of the justice system."
Q: An interesting fact that not all in the legal community know is that, your brother, Peter, was the president and CEO of the 49ers organization in the early 2000s. You must have some great memories from that time. What are the most memorable?
A: "I have the best 'big brother' around. During his tenure at the 49ers he was very generous to my family, my friends and several of my legal colleagues. He allowed us to share many insider experiences. My three most memorable experiences of many are the evening I got to spend at a banquet seated next to a very gracious Bill Walsh, escorting George Lucas for an afternoon at a game, and standing on the sideline when the 49ers came back to beat the New York Giants in the 2002 Wild Card game."
Q: I understand that your firm has had very little turnover over the years. Why is that?
A: "I have been very fortunate to work with a special group of people over the years. I have been partners with three respected lawyers who also became friends; Joel Perisho for thirty-four years, the late Steve Woodson, and Dean Ruiz for eight years and counting. I have also worked with a very competent and loyal staff led by Brenda Ford who has worked with us for thirty-two years."
Q: What is the most satisfying aspect of being a lawyer?
A: "For me the greatest pleasure in practicing law is interacting with my fellow lawyers and members of the bench. They are my peers, my friends and sometimes my respected adversaries. We share a common experience and a common challenge. Those relationships continue to build with both older and newer lawyers alike and those interactions are absolutely the most satisfying thing to me about being a lawyer."
As cliché as it sounds, to know John is to love John. One would be hard pressed to find another man as caring, empathetic, and compassionate. Those qualities have assuredly contributed to John's success as a mediator. More importantly, they have helped him to experience many satisfying professional and personal relationships. Those same qualities have also assisted him in successfully mentoring young attorneys, working well with opposing counsel and effectively representing his clients. These qualities, and many more, serve as reminders of why John was chosen to receive the 2016 Law Day Award.