Elizabeth J. Cabraser practices law with a sense of purpose fueled by her social conscience. That social conscience used to get her into trouble for “agitating” at her Catholic school, but now it inspires her work as a class action and mass torts attorney in San Francisco.
Cabraser’s career includes scores of high-profile cases and even some billion-dollar verdicts. From litigating the Exxon Valdez disaster, to serving on a settlement class counsel on behalf of Holocaust survivors, her dedication to the law in the pursuit of freedom and advancement of civil rights is a powerful one. Despite her purposeful strength in the courtroom, her choice to become an attorney was not a completely purposeful one. An excerpt from the 2006 issue of Northern California Super Lawyers details how she fell into her career at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein:
Law school, at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, was an almost random choice. Cabraser had no real inclination toward a career in the field. “I knew I had to get back into school, because it was a socially acceptable way to be poor, and I had the $15 it cost to apply,” she says. She had no intention of being a courtroom lawyer: “I was very shy,” she says. “I wasn’t one for class participation — I didn’t say anything to anyone if I could help it. I loved the drums because you got to sit in the back behind a lot of equipment.”
Cabraser wasn’t the most consistent student, and as she entered her third year, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she would do after graduation. Then one day, during a trip to the law library, she saw an index card on a bulletin board advertising legal research work for $5 an hour. The attorney was based in Sonoma County, where she lived with her parents. “I called the attorney and was hired on the spot, sight unseen,” she says. “My first task was a draft of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals brief, due the next morning. I didn’t know it was an impossible task, so I did it.”
The attorney was Robert Lieff, a former law partner of Melvin Belli, the legendary San Francisco attorney who, earlier in the century, almost single-handedly invented modern consumer rights law, often by way of class actions and mass torts. Lieff had an office in San Francisco and another in Sonoma, where he was starting a vineyard. “He was working on cases he still had from his Belli days,” Cabraser says. “It was my job to help him clean up the files and resolve the cases so that he could close the office and move on. That I utterly failed to do, because 28 years later we haven’t closed yet.”