Published May 17, 2005
Volume 13, Number 5

In Succeeding as an Attorney, Bill Adams Finds His Biggest Asset is His Innate Sense of Fair Play

By Jay Hipps

Courtrooms are tense places. With one side winning and the other losing, nowhere outside professional sports are differences between the victors and vanquished so clear cut. That dynamic can bring out the worst in people but Bill Adams, an attorney with his own private practice since 1997, has a secret weapon: He knows where legal issues end and human issues begin.

“I like to be involved in something where it ends up being something constructive or a lesson learned so that both the winner and the loser take something from what happens, and that’s the kind of thing that guides me,” he says.

william F. AdamsThose words would seem hard to live up to but a quick glance at Adams’ resume shows them to be true. He’s worked as both a corporate attorney and in private practice and advocated for both defense and plaintiff. Some of the work which he has enjoyed the most has been undertaken on a pro bono basis, such as a landmark apparel industry contract which earned him coverage on CNN and in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News.

Ironically, he had no intention of becoming a lawyer when he entered UC Santa Barbara in the fall of 1968.

“I really had no idea what lawyers did when I got into the legal profession,” he laughs. “I knew that my college social science degree wasn’t going to be particularly lucrative—I would be flipping burgers—and I had a roommate who was dyed-in-the-wool to be a lawyer and he kept encouraging me to do that, too. Going to law school was very popular then; Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were both killed in 1968 and people were idealistic in response to that.”

His first job after UCLA Law School was with the Southern Pacific Railroad. “In those days, I saw it as my attempt to save the railroad industry from an unjust demise,” he explains. “The railroad industry should not have been allowed by public policy to go to pieces as it has. A railroad is 50 to 100 times more efficient than highway transportation.”

While he was not able to change the fate of the railroads, he did work on a project that even today illustrates his legal philosophy of seeking the middle ground and gave him a taste of the unsentimental nature of his profession. “I filed the very first motion on behalf of the railroad industry to get rid of cabooses because they were a safety hazard,” he says. “Even though I love cabooses.”

Those who’ve played crack-the-whip at a summer picnic will recognize the danger that cabooses posed immediately. “The people who were working in them would be unexpectedly knocked to the ground and knocked senseless when the slack of a train would be taken up. The Southern Pacific Railroad at the time was getting hundreds of injuries because of that.”

While the union representing railroad employees initially opposed the plan, a middle ground was found with the suggestion that the caboose’s usual occupants, the brakeman and conductor, be moved to the front of the train and a camera be rigged on the rear of the train to capture a backward view. “They were thinking they would be eliminated but we worked out something that solved it, although it led to the unfortunate departure from our landscape of the wonderful caboose.”

From Southern Pacific he moved on to Hewlett-Packard, where he played a key role in winning FCC approval for Spread Spectrum, a ruling which paved the way for cordless phones, wireless computer networking, and other technologies. “The FCC initially gave our proposal a very chilly reception but we gradually figured out how to sell it using a term I invented, ‘geographical re-use,’ which illustrated our point that I may be using 25 megahertz of this frequency spectrum but the people in the next office can be using it again. Eventually, the FCC suddenly got the idea that this looked like a good thing and got behind it.”

Adams entered private practice in 1985, focusing on labor and employment law. His favorite case from this phase of his career was the apparel industry master agreement which won him so much notoriety.

“The secret (to the agreement) was that it was creative, because no one had ever thought of how to help the apparel industry come into compliance (with employment law),” he says. “They had traditional ways of doing things; most of the employers learned their trade in Hong Kong and figured they could just come over here and do things the same way. We had weird overtime laws and all kinds of things that they just absolutely could not adapt to, so I created a new formula for them.”

That formula included built-in wage and hour law compliance for sewing contractors and created an hourly wage incentive system that eliminated piece work wages. It was an incredible success.

“In the first year that they adopted this agreement, wage and hour compliance went from 12 percent to 90 percent in three years according to the Department of Labor’s random survey data,” he says. “It really transformed the industry and it allowed people who were in the underground to come out of the underground and be solid citizens again.”

Making a difference in the community is important to Adams as well. “You’re not a success until you’re someone who’s contributing to society,” he says. “As we hurtle on this orb into space and ultimately into oblivion, what does it all mean? It doesn’t mean anything during our lifetimes unless we’re in a position to be remembered as someone who contributed, someone who helped.”

That attitude is reflected in his continued pro bono work as outside general counsel for the Commonwealth Club of California, the nation’s oldest public affairs forum. His public-mindedness is also evident in his work as counsel for the California Psychological Association.

“The thing I really like about psychologists is that they are very intelligent, highly educated people to work with and they’re actually there to help people,” he notes.

While an understanding of the law is the single key talent on which an attorney depends, an understanding of the human psyche and sense of fair play are also valuable skills which Adams relies upon.

“In litigation you have an adversarial system. There is ultimately a zero-sum game where one person wins whatever they were trying to get and the other person doesn’t,” he says. “But short of that, there are always settlement opportunities and creative ideas that you can come up with where there is to some degree a win-win, where the person who has been wronged gets something and the person who has done them wrong doesn’t suffer as much and is perhaps induced to change what they’re doing.

“For example we sued a prominent bank for wage and hour violations. The one thing that we were after, and we were willing to take less money as a result of, was to make sure that they changed their practice, to become lawful, so that everyone in the future would benefit from that, and that has happened in each of the class actions that we’ve done. Employees hired today or are currently working will be treated lawfully.”

That makes all the difference—because to Adams, the human benefit is greater than the monetary one.


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