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COURT: Northern District of California APPOINTED: March 13, 1999, by judges of Northern District DATE OF BIRTH: May 20, 1955 LAW SCHOOL: Columbia Law School, 1981 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Judge pro tem, San Francisco Superior Court, 1994 to 1999 Any examination of U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero must begin with the bow tie. In a realm where nearly every other man wears a necktie, Spero’s choice stands out. Most obviously, it evokes his mentor, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer. Some lawyers believe it also gives Spero an air of being “old-fashioned.” The judge says although he likes that thought, the interpretation gives him far too much credit. “It’s totally about my liking the look better,” Spero says. What is important to realize about the bow ties is that they’re intentional. They show Spero is paying attention to his appearance, that he thinks about the demeanor he projects from the bench as he deals with seemingly intractable problems. After a little more than five years as a jurist, Spero is well-known for his success in resolving cases, from settlement conferences farmed out to him by district judges to consent matters where parties agree to let him do the trial. Ask lawyers and judges Spero’s secret and they’ll tell you it’s his ability to remain calm and empathize with litigants, to think creatively and strategize several moves ahead in the game. It also helps that Spero has a great time on the bench. One lawyer says he has a “twinkle” in his eye. “In settlement conferences, I want to establish the most open set of circumstances I can, so I want to make sure that people are comfortable communicating whatever it is that they need to communicate,” he says. “I want to project an image that facilitates that.” Robert Feldman, a former federal prosecutor who’s been at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for 20 years, said Spero doesn’t waste time, yet gets things done. “You don’t leave there feeling like you’ve had a session with a rug merchant, and you don’t feel like you need a shower,” Feldman says. Randolph Hall, litigation supervisor in the Oakland city attorney’s office, says Spero’s “boyish good looks” can be disarming because he’s so effective. Hall — who has appeared in front of the magistrate dozens of times — says he’s seen Spero resolve cases with some ingenious, non-monetary ideas, such as having the police chief come over to apologize to people who have filed misconduct suits. In person, Spero is attentive and dry-witted. He speaks with a measured, even pace, pausing before answering questions. If his mind is racing through possibilities and strategies, neither his mouth nor his eyes betray any degree of distraction. Spero’s even temper has won him a lot of fans in the criminal and civil bars. He says there’s no secret, except that he pays a lot of attention to it. “It’s a constant and intentional project. Like everyone, I’m emotional and I have emotional reactions, but I don’t want my emotions to interfere with my judgment,” Spero says. “I’ve learned to deal with things dispassionately.” Not every federal district lets magistrates resolve cases in the same as done in the Northern District, which has an innovative approach to alternate dispute resolution. Magistrates here get civil cases in three ways: off the wheel, as long as parties consent; referrals from the court’s ADR program; and hand-offs from district judges. One measure of a magistrate, then, is popularity among the district judges. Although the clerk’s office doesn’t keep statistics, Spero gets high marks from his colleagues. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton says she likes to use Spero for business cases, especially those involving securities, antitrust and patent issues. “I think he understands the monetary markets,” Hamilton says. Hamilton recalls one particularly troublesome investment fund case that she referred to Spero. He did such a good job, she says, that both parties consented to him handling the entire case. Spero’s resume explains his business sense. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1981, Spero went to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, where he did corporate takeovers, securities and antitrust. He joined Coblentz, Cahen, McCabe & Breyer in 1984, where he remained until 1999 when he put on the magistrate’s robes. At Coblentz, he worked closely with Breyer doing securities, general commercial litigation and some white-collar defense. Although Hamilton pointed to Spero’s background as a business lawyer, she says she gives him cases mostly because he’s handled other referrals so well. “A positive rapport is even more important than experience,” she says. “A settlement conference requires a certain chemistry between judge and parties.” Of the dozen lawyers and judges contacted for this article, only one came close to criticizing Spero. Judge Breyer says that when first appointed, Spero seemed “uncertain” in criminal cases. Spero agrees but says he now feels up to speed and credits the other judges and magistrates for showing him the way. Criminal defense attorney Cristina Arguedas of Emeryville’s Arguedas, Cassman & Headley says that as a lawyer, Spero had enough intellectual distance to be objective but was also very committed to his clients. “That’s a very sought-after quality that most lawyers don’t have. He’s a very unusual person, so he was an excellent lawyer,” Arguedas said. “Being a judge is the perfect job for him.”

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