- Law Job Star
The Life and Career of William Du Bois, Criminal Defense Attorney for Hans Reiser
by Mary Waldron
"I enjoyed advocating at an early age for people who couldn't advocate for themselves," says Du Bois. "That was a natural tendency that I had; it got me in a lot of fights when I was a kid."
Du Bois went on to undergraduate school at the University of Oregon, followed by the University of California — Hastings College of the Law. Immediately after he graduated in 1969, Du Bois charged at the chance to get his feet wet in the courtroom.
"I started looking for firms that would get me trial experience," Du Bois says of his career plan after law school. "When I was looking for work in 1970, there were a lot more opportunities than there are now. It
was pretty much a question of where you wanted to work, unless you wanted to get in one of the silk stocking firms."
Du Bois accepted a deputy district attorney position with the Alameda County District Attorney's Office in 1970, and he remained there for six years.
"I tried a lot of cases, and I enjoyed it a lot. It was a real gratifying experience," he says.
After discovering that working for the government was not for him, Du Bois decided to take his prosecuting experience to the other side as a criminal defense attorney. He branched off with some other former attorneys from the D.A.'s office and started his own firm in 1976 called Sullivan, Nakahara & Du Bois.
"We started from the ground up, taking everything that walked in the door," Du Bois says of his first firm.
Within only months it became apparent to Du Bois that criminal law was a good transition for him.
"I found that I would rather defend a murder charge than represent someone in a divorce. It's just a different mentality," he says.
Although he had a clear perspective on the prosecution side, Du Bois admits that it took him a few years to really get the hang of criminal law.
"I knew how to prosecute them, but I didn't really know how to defend them. There's a series of reflexes that one develops as a defense counsel which took a good 18 to 24 months for me to develop," he says.
Unlike most other private defense attorneys, Du Bois keeps busy by trying approximately four to five murder trials per year.
"That's the thing I really enjoy doing — that's why I practice law, and that's why I practice criminal law. Those are the types of trials where you are essentially in the ER of social relations, and it's your job to patch things up if people get wheeled in with lives that are pretty well in jeopardy," Du Bois says.
Since last November Du Bois has been representing Hans Reiser, a computer programmer and developer of Linux open-source file systems who is accused of killing his wife, Nina Reiser. His wife disappeared more than two years ago, and after some suspicious behavior and biological evidence against him turned up, Reiser was arrested.
After a month-long recess from the trial due to the holidays, Du Bois launched back into action on January 14.
"So far, the government hasn't proved a lot," Du Bois says of the trial. "They've used a lot of witnesses; they've had 45 witnesses, and they've put in hundreds of exhibits. If you have a good case, you only need two or three witnesses, and one of them is a pathologist. The best cases are the briefest, most succinctly stated. This one is the opposite of that — it's elaborate, complex, and complicated. That is because there is a lack of evidence that a crime was committed."
Rumor has it that Reiser has been hounding Du Bois to let him testify, which many legal professionals know could be a disaster, even if Reiser is innocent.
"It will be a real challenge if he testifies," says Du Bois. "We haven't decided if he will testify. When I'm done here, I'm going to go discuss that with him, again, for the umpteenth time. We have been over this a lot. One of the challenges in this case has been what to do in that regard."
Du Bois has also stumbled upon a few mentors during his extensive career. Clinton White, a prominent African American criminal defense attorney, taught Du Bois "how to be fiery on the subject of social issues that are connected to any given case."
D. Lowell Jensen, now a senior judge for the northern district of the federal bench in San Francisco, was a mentor to Du Bois when he got his first job at the D.A.'s office in 1970.
"He hired me and inspired me in terms of what type of lawyer I would become and what kind of integrity and care in the analysis of the evidence of every case that I would adopt."
With his legal career journey approaching its 40th year, Du Bois can pinpoint a few bits of advice for law students and young professionals:
"Keep your eyes open. Learn as much as you can every day because achieving any kind of success in trials is a success that actually takes years. With each case you try, you learn and you're better able to try the next one."