Published October 18, 2011
Volume 19, Number 10

Attorney Paul Loya: A Passion for Solving Problems

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Named a Northern California “Super Lawyer” by San Francisco magazine, Paul Loya, senior partner with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, has numerous successfully litigated cases to his credit. The formal biography on his firm’s website references his role as lead counsel in “the only precedent-setting case where a California tenured teacher was fired solely for incompetency.” Loya has handled appeals at the state and federal levels, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite his impressive string of victories, Loya knows the real secret behind a successful legal outcome: “the key is to practice preventive law so your client avoids those kinds of cases.” He realized the effectiveness of this strategy fairly early in his career. It has been reinforced over decades of practice, shaped by a complex stream of background influences.

Many of Loya’s life choices can be traced to his heritage as a Mexican-American, but not necessarily in expected ways.

His grandmother and her sisters saw their husbands killed in the Mexican Revolution. In search of a living, they gathered up their children and headed to California. “They even picked up an abandoned child on the way,” Loya relates. They wound up in Santa Clara. Ultimately, Loya's family managed to buy a small piece of land in El Cerrito, where they raised chickens, geese, goats, and a cow.

It was a fortunate move for Loya, who benefited from the high school's academic environment, in part a consequence of the many students whose parents were professors at Cal.

“It was a tremendous high school education for me. I played basketball mainly, but I was also a math addict.” He traces this affinity to childhood. “My dad was a machinist and had many tools, so I started learning about measuring things when I was a tiny kid,” he recalls.

Prompted by the Sputnik era and the push to beat the Russians to the moon, Loya entered UC Berkeley as an engineering major. He ended up with a math degree. He supported himself as a member of the longshoreman’s union, working on the docks and organizing plants. “It was so interesting to get exposure to this side. I didn’t realize then that it would be an asset later,” he notes, adding that, back then, “the best part was that I made three times more than what I could earn as a dishwasher.”

By the time he finished college, his career aspirations had shifted. He had intended to use his degree in math as the launching pad for a career in science and technology law, but a summer job he held while at Boalt Hall, working for a Spanish-speaking legal defense group in Oakland, started to change his mind.

It wasn’t for the standard reasons, though. Even with his ethnic background, Loya never felt himself the underdog. “The year I entered law school there were zero Latinos in the graduating class. By the time I graduated, in 1973, my class had maybe 10.” His minority status did not deter him. “No one in my family talked about being discriminated against. We’re very proud of our background and what our parents had gone through to get here,” he declares. “Even though I have worked many years to stop bias, sometimes for youngsters an over-emphasis on ethnicity and discrimination can offer an excuse for failure.”

The legal defense post gave him the chance to do some very interesting work, including negotiations with a major U.S. corporation. The experiences were instrumental in an important realization. “I figured out that if you were on the side of authority, it was better to fix or resolve the problem, rather than letting the other side sue to get what was right.”

After getting his law degree, Loya went to work for Alameda County defending school districts in labor and employment cases. Here, another family legacy surfaced: a strong appreciation for the value of education. “When my grandparents lived in Mexico, education was an opportunity they didn't have.” Knowing how important the public school system is made Loya feel comfortable working on the employer side with his new client constituency.

Over the course of his own education, his natural talent for math transformed itself into a passion for problem-solving. Honing this skill has made him an excellent negotiator, able to find a compromise to suit both parties when dealing with difficult issues. To illustrate, he tells the story of a client that needed to cut worker wages in order to remain viable. While the pay cut was difficult for the workers to take, Loya reasoned that it was more important to save jobs. “Sometimes,” he says, “you have to go outside the box for a solution. It’s like a puzzle—let’s figure out a way to make this move forward.”

His solution was to have the company open its books and show the workers and the union where the money was going. Ultimately, that is how the case was settled. “You have to look at the interests of both parties, rather than just the immediate proposals. What is more important, a raise or the job still being there in five years?”

After his work for the county, Loya decided to enter private practice, taking a position in labor and employment law with a firm in southern California. In the late 1970s, a heavy travel schedule across multiple time zones convinced him it was time to shift gears. He came back to the Bay Area and started his own firm, a single-person shop in Pleasanton. Shortly thereafter, four of the attorneys from the southern California firm decided to start Atkinson, Andelson.  

That was 30 years ago. Atkinson, Andelson has since grown to about 150 lawyers and a total of 250 employees spread through seven offices in California. The Pleasanton branch, which has made several moves over the years, settled into new quarters at 5075 Hopyard Road in August 2010 with 19 lawyers and roughly 30 employees—and plenty of room for expansion. 

The growth did not happen by accident. Loya has also gleaned insight into operational strategies during his long tenure with the firm. “You have to understand that you are running a business, not just providing professional services. To transcend ‘Mom and Pop’ status, you have to delegate, communicate, and trust people. When we interview candidates, we do so with an eye to having the new hires sit in our own seats one day.”

He also supports having expertise in multiple subject areas.  “We thought we could provide better services if we were diverse,” he remarks.

These days, Loya has stepped back somewhat from direct practice, focusing more on marketing and business development through presentations and workshops. Occasionally he will take on an interesting case.

In his downtime, he likes to keep active--cycling, kayaking, swimming. Knee surgery has limited his golfing and walking at the moment, but he expects to rebound soon. “It’s just a matter of time,” he says. If he applies the same passion to recovery that he has displayed in his professional career, it will not be long.


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