A previously profiled lawyer suggested that I call Jerry Alcazar as a potential profile given his talents and experience. As it happens, Jerry and I have many shared connections in the community but we had never crossed paths. In light of his practice in nation-wide product liability defense and mine focused on Minnesota business litigation, it seems improbable that we will ever cross paths professionally. I hope I am wrong. That would be my loss. Jerry exudes kindness, focus, and professionalism. The Minnesota bench and bar are fortunate to have him.
Minn. Litigator: Jerry, how did you get where you are today?
Jerry Alcazar: I am a first generation removed from the sugar beet fields in northwestern Minnesota. My grandparents were migrant farm workers, my grandfather was born in Mexico, my grandmother was born in Wisconsin, and they raised their family in Texas. They had eight kids and after each school year they packed up the kids and all of their belongings in the family station wagon and drove to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields. They stayed until the crop was harvested, then the whole family drove back down to Texas.
My mother eventually ended up in Milwaukee. She had a sister that owned a beauty salon in the south side of Milwaukee. Then she got pregnant with me, a single mom having her second kid, so she decided to head back home and live with her parents. I was born in Carrizo Springs, Texas. We spent maybe a year, a year and a half in Carrizo. My mother had enough of her parents and decided she was going to move back to Milwaukee. That’s where I grew up, on the near south side of Milwaukee in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Milwaukee.
I went to elementary school in that neighborhood. In fifth grade, a friend of mine decided he was going to Morris Middle School. It was a gifted and talented school on the far northwest side of Milwaukee, a part of Milwaukee I had never been to. I’m not sure why but I decided “That’s where I want to go.”
My mom wasn’t really involved in my education at all. I don’t recall ever showing her a report card through elementary school. I made the decision on my own that I was going to go to this school. I hadn’t been there, I didn’t know where it was, and the day before school started my mom and I drove to the school to take a look at it.
It was a good experience. I went from a school that was 90% Hispanic kids to a school that was 45% African American, 45% White, and 10% “other.” So I was part of the “other.” It was an interesting experience. I had lots of fun and made some really good friends, many of which went to a public high school for college-bound kids, Rufus King, also on the north side of Milwaukee.
After high school I attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for a year and a half. I wrestled for a year, and decided it was just … It was a business and education school, and I didn’t really want to do either one of those.
Minn. Litigator: When you said wrestled, do you mean literally wrestled?
Jerry Alcazar: Literally, yes. I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after a year and a half. I worked full-time through much of my undergrad and went to school at night and in the summers. It took me a while to finish, about five and a half years to wrap that up. Then, I applied to three law schools, University of Wisconsin Madison, Marquette University, and St. Louis. I only had a hundred and fifty bucks to pay application fees.
I got into the University of Wisconsin which is where I really wanted to go and then the next week they sent me another letter saying they were going to give me some money to go and it was just a no-brainer. I packed up everything and headed to Madison.
The summer after my first year I was lucky enough to get a summer clerkship through the Wisconsin State Bar diversity clerkship program.
I ended up at Robins Kaplan in Minneapolis. I’d never been to Minneapolis before. I didn’t know a single lawyer. I had no lawyers in my family, knew nothing about the law, knew nothing about law firms or how they worked.
Still, I had a great experience at Robins. I met some really great lawyers and decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer.
They asked me to come back the following summer, I did. I came back for half a summer, spent the other half in Chicago at the Department of Labor.
They offered me a job and there began the negotiations with my wife about where we were going to ultimately end up. She spent her summer in Chicago and had an offer at Winston and Strawn. Lucky for me, she got a clerkship with Justice Page on the Minnesota Supreme Court. So she was okay with moving up here for a year, and then got a clerkship with Judge Ann. D. Montgomery (D. Minn.) for another year.
At that time, the plan was to stay in Minneapolis for two years and then move to Chicago, but by then we’d made some really good friends and started to grow relationships that we weren’t willing to give up.
Minn. Litigator: When did you leave Robins Kaplan and join Blackwell Burke?
Jerry Alcazar: In July of 2014.
Minn. Litigator: I think you mentioned, since then, your practice area has shifted into products liability defense?
Jerry Alcazar: That’s right. Before I joined Blackwell Burke, I did some products work, mostly from plaintiff side at Robins and insurance work. After joining Blackwell Burke my practice became, I would say, pretty close to one hundred percent product liability defense work.
Minn. Litigator: Is that for a particular manufacturer or a particular kind of product?
Jerry Alcazar: We represent a number of fortune one hundred companies. One particular client manufactures fall protection equipment for different trades, construction workers, iron workers, workers in the oil industry, window washers…If someone requires protection from falling our client makes equipment that will protect them from falling.
Minn. Litigator: Now, one question I have for you about products liability defense work is, I’m sure that state by state varies in terms of legal culture, if you will, but is the substantive law substantially different state by state for products liability – if you could possibly generalize like that?
Jerry Alcazar: Generally it’s the same, especially with respect to the products that we defend. We deal with negligence, strict liability, and failure to warn claims. Very generally speaking, the law does not vary that much. What’s helpful for us is we have a network of local lawyers who are very helpful in providing good information with regard to local nuances in the law and practice.
Minn. Litigator: Now, I would think fall protection, you mentioned that you get claims of failure to warn, but I mean fall protection does not seem to me to be a very technologically sophisticated or complicated idea. I’m assuming it’s generally some sort of harness and some sort of clipping onto things. What is there that you could fail to warn about?
Jerry Alcazar: The equipment – much of it – is a harness, an anchor, and life-line that connect the worker to the anchor. The engineering of each component is very sophisticated but things can go wrong when the equipment is not used the way that it’s supposed to be used. In the cases we’ve handled workers didn’t use the equipment correctly despite clear instructions on the labels and manuals.
Minn. Litigator: How frequently, in your experience do these go to trial?
Jerry Alcazar: Not frequently. Each case, however, is positioned to be tried and our folks are ready to try each one. I enjoy trying cases, I haven’t tried a ton of them but it’s the most fun part of the job.
Minn. Litigator: What was your last case you tried?
Jerry Alcazar: It would be the Hallett Dock Company v. American Steamship Company case, a twelve-day jury trial in Duluth tried before U.S. District Court Judge Michael J. Davis.
Minn. Litigator: Did you win?
Jerry Alcazar: We did win. We represented the owner of a 1000 ft. freighter, the Walter J. McCarthy and their insurance carrier. We recovered everything our clients were out, $4.6 million and pre-judgment interest. I understand that this case was the first or second maritime cases ever tried in front of a jury. It’s my claim to fame.
We weren’t expecting to get all of it but it was a nice surprise.
Minn. Litigator: You mentioned that going to trial is one of your favorite parts of your practice, although we don’t get to try cases very often these days as civil litigators, what are other parts of your practice that you particularly enjoy?
Jerry Alcazar: Well, since being at Blackwell Burke, I’ve had the opportunity to manage a couple of dockets and act as national counsel for some great clients. I along with the talented lawyers at our firm work with our clients to efficiently oversee litigation that is important to their businesses.
I personally appreciate the responsibility and trust our clients place in us. Robins proved to be a good training ground for the work I do now. At Robins, I had the opportunity to work up my own files and learn how to practice law. I was able to run with them, work with the clients and then report back to partners that I worked with. My work at Blackwell Burke is at a much bigger scale and the day- to- day management of cases is something that I’ve found I really enjoy. Regular client interaction is also something that I particularly enjoy and really look forward to every day. I know the chances of trying a case these days are slim to none so I’ve had to find other things about the practice of law to embrace.
Minn. Litigator: Do you do any pro bono work?
Jerry Alcazar: Pro bono work has always been important to me. Over my career, I’ve been able to do pro bono work that I am proud of. While I was at Robins I took on a criminal appeal. My client was an individual in Park Rapids who was cited for operating a motorized wheelchair while under the influence. His conviction was overturned because the statute was clear that a person in a motorized wheelchair, who is disabled and uses the wheelchair to get around, is a pedestrian not an operator of a motorized vehicle. That was the correct result.
I’ve also worked on several asylum cases. In December of 2014, our client, a Somali refugee, was granted asylum. It was a special moment from him and I glad I was able to be a part of it.
Minn. Litigator: What is your least favorite part of the practice of law?
Jerry Alcazar: I really enjoy being a lawyer. It’s fun. It’s hard. Every day brings new challenges, which I really enjoy. The one thing that I probably like the least is billing time. I like doing the work, but keeping track of it in six minute increments can be kind of a pain. I’m sure if you talk to a hundred lawyers ninety-five of the hundred would feel exactly the same way, but that’s just the nature of the beast.
Minn. Litigator: Is there any part of the practice of law, aside from the billable hour kind of model that you would change if you could just wave a wand and change something? Either civil procedure or substantive law?
Jerry Alcazar: I also do some chemical exposure litigation. There’s very little or no evidence of a causal connection to our products, but it’s difficult to get out of those cases because of the jurisdictions that they’re generally brought in. They’re usually in L.A. County, or Philadelphia County, or in Illinois, and the time spent to deal with motions for summary judgments in these cases is almost none.
I think it would be, almost better , to have a dedicated court that specifically deals with these kinds of chemical exposure cases and has judges that can devote more time to digging determining whether or not a plaintiff has a viable claim and whether a particular defendant should be in the case. I don’t think that’s realistic, I don’t know that that will ever happen, but it would be nice for our client to not have to spend the time and money to defend these cases when the plaintiff’s exposure to our products is just not causally connected to an injury.
Minn. Litigator: Do you have any message that you would like to communicate to the Minnesota bench or bar?
Jerry Alcazar: I am glad that I chose the state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis to practice law in. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of really good, respectful, reasonable lawyers. The lawyers that I’ve worked and against have been good, ethical lawyers. Folks who zealously advocate for their clients but do so respectfully and a way that invites an amicable resolution for both sides. The judges are some of the best in the country. I, however, have benefited from my wife’s great reputation in front of the Federal District Court judges. [Editor’s Note: Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, Asst. U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota]
Focusing more on the Minnesota Hispanic legal community, I really enjoy how close-knit it is and how accepting it is. I came to Minneapolis with very few connections. The Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association took me in. I very quickly ended up on the board as the vice president of the organization. A couple of years later, I served as president. . It is good to have a place to go with folks that look like me, grew up like me and speak the same language. The Hispanic community is thriving. It’s been one that I’ve been involved with since I landed in Minneapolis and plan to stay involved with as long as I practice law here. I also had the pleasure of serving as the Hispanic Bar Association Region XI President and on the Minnesota State Bar Association Council. I, however, did all these things very early on in my career, before I really knew what it meant to be a good lawyer and leader. I look forward to revisiting these opportunities at some point after I have some additional experience under my belt.
Minn. Litigator: We can and should wrap up and give you a chance to have your lunch but I have two more questions for you. One is, do you keep track of the number of Hispanic lawyers in Minnesota, and is it steady, growing, shrinking, or not in any kind of pattern?
Jerry Alcazar: The number of Hispanic lawyers at big law firms in Minneapolis seems to be declining. Some good friends of mine, Hispanic lawyers that started out in Minneapolis, are no longer in Minneapolis. As far as Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association membership numbers are concerned, I haven’t been on the board in a couple years, but I get a sense that those numbers are fairly steady.
When I was the president of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association we had a big push to get more of our MHBA members interested in applying for judicial positions, and advocating for them to become judges. There were very few at the time. At the time, there had never been a Hispanic judge on any Minnesota Court of Appeals, which was shocking to us. I along with many, many others worked hard to end that, and finally Judge Peter Reyes was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in April 2014.
There’s never been a Hispanic Federal District Court judge in Minnesota, never been a Hispanic Court of Appeals judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. There have been many who have applied for these positions but it’s never happened and that is something that we’ll continue to fight to make happen. There are some very, very qualified lawyers in the Twin Cities that would make great judges, Federal and State court judges, there’s much to do there. My wife, Lola, is the head of the Judicial Recommendation Committee for the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association and has been involved in different issues in the Twin Cities to advance not only Hispanic lawyers, but women lawyers as well.
Knowing the work that we have to do keeps us going. Many have devoted a lot of time and effort to try to change the fact that Hispanic lawyers are overlooked in law firms, overlooked in judicial positions, but they’re out there, they’re qualified, and would do a very good job.
Minn. Litigator: My last question: if you could time travel and you could go back and give some pointers to young Jerry Alcazar in law school about the practice of law, what would you tell him? What have you learned that you would like to transmit or wish you knew at the time?
Jerry Alcazar: I got lucky. I went to Robins and was placed into that firm’s insurance group, a small group where I got some good practical experience. If I could go back to 2003 Jerry and advise him, I’d tell him he needs to get out there and practice law right from the get-go. Do it wherever you can, whether it is pro bono or volunteer your time. Get comfortable dealing with clients of all different respects. And know that it might be harder than you think to advance at a big law firm. Be more thoughtful about how you make relationships, how you grow relationships, and become “politically connected” in a law firm.
Minn. Litigator: Jerry, thanks so much.