Judge Paul Grewal NetIP (Network of Indian Professionals) Interview – The Life of a Federal Judge and the Path to Get There

‘NetIP Spotlight: Live Your Potential is a monthly show featuring experts on trending topics.’

“The Life of a Federal Judge and the Path to Get There”
Jasbina Ahluwalia interviews Judge Paul Grewal

Jasbina interviews Judge Paul Grewal, U.S. Magistrate Judge, Northern District of California.

Judge Grewal will discuss the following topics:

  1. What factors to consider in deciding to pursue a career in law
  2. The path to becoming a judge and tales to share
  3. How fascinating a day in the life of a U.S. District Court Judge can be


Magistrate Judge Paul S. Grewal was appointed in 2010. He has presided over and settled criminal and civil cases in a wide range of subject areas, including patent, employment, civil rights, commercial contract, trademark, and federal misdemeanor cases. He serves as a member of the court’s Technology Practice and Patent Local Rules Committees.

Judge Grewal received his Bachelor of Science from MIT, where he was elected to Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi, and his law degree from the University of Chicago. After graduating from law school, he served as a law clerk to the Honorable Sam H. Bell of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. After working on complex commercial litigation at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, he served as a law clerk to the Honorable Arthur J. Gajarsa of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Judge Grewal then joined Day Casebeer Madrid & Batchelder (which later merged with Howrey LLP), where he was elected partner and served on the firm’s management committee. His practice was focused on intellectual property litigation, with an emphasis on patent trials and appeals. He has tried patent cases in a variety of federal district courts across the country, and has argued appeals before a variety of federal appellate courts, including the Federal Circuit. His clients ranged from large technology and biotechnology firms to small medical device and financial firms to individual inventors. He also was registered to practice before the Patent and Trademark Office, and his practice included re-examinations before the PTO.

Judge Grewal is a former President of the South Asian Bar of Northern California and the North American South Asian Bar Association.



Jasbina Ahluwalia

(00:47):  Hello everyone. Welcome to NetIP Spotlight: Live Your Potential where we invite guest experts to speak on a variety of trending topics that matter to you. I’m Jasbina Ahluwalia, your host. I want to warmly welcome you to our show this evening.

I know everyone is crazy busy these days. I appreciate your investing time and joining us this evening. To give you a lay of the land, our guest speaker and I will be discussing his insights for about 20 to 25 minutes. After the discussion, you’ll have the opportunity to ask him any questions that you might have. With that said, let’s jump in.

Today’s guest speaker is Judge Paul Grewal. Judge Grewal is the United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of California. He’s a member of the Northern District’s Technology and Patent Local Rules Committee.

He also is co-chair of the Federal Circuit Bar Association’s Judges Committee and co-chair of the Federal Court’s Committee of the Santa Clara County Bar Association. Judge Grewal received a law degree from the University of Chicago, and his undergraduate degree from MIT.

He is the former president of the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California and the South Asian Bar Association of North America. Welcome to the show, Judge Grewal.


Judge Paul Grewal

(2:08): Thanks, Jasbina. Thanks for having me.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(2:11): It’s a pleasure to have you on. Why don’t we start the show by you telling us about your path to becoming a judge? I’m sure listeners would be fascinated. I know I am.


Judge Paul Grewal

(2:21): The path to become a judge, at least in my case, was really first and foremost the path to becoming a lawyer. I started off in a little town in northern Ohio called Stow, where I grew up as one of a small member of Indian-American kids in the early and mid-70s. After graduating from high school, as you mentioned earlier, I got my college degree and my law degree.

After that, I had to figure out what I wanted to do in the practice of law. Like a lot of law students, I was eager to cut my teeth clerking for a Federal Judge or two, and that’s what I did. I first clerked for a District Court Judge, a Trial Court Judge in northern Ohio, where I was from, and then after that I clerked for a Judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

From there, I entered a private practice. After about 14 years of private practice, I had the opportunity to join this court and was appointed in December of 2010 as a U.S. Magistrate Judge here in San Jose, California.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(3:31): Wow! This is so interesting. You mentioned that, as a law student, there’s so many paths one can take. What was it about the Federal clerkship that really excited and appealed to you navigating your way to that?


Judge Paul Grewal

(3:49): I was one of those kids who knew pretty early on that I wanted to practice law, even before I really knew what that meant. I wasn’t quite born with a briefcase in my hand, but pretty close. Like a lot of kids in our community, I was encouraged to consider other career paths, perhaps more traditional and secure career paths.

I got an engineering degree, and from there I headed off to law school. I knew pretty early on I wanted to be a lawyer, and really a trial lawyer, even before I started in law school. As a trial lawyer, it was hard to imagine a better way to learn what worked in court and what judges cared about, than to go work for a judge and see what he or she cared about.

I did it not only once, I did it twice. For me it was an exceptional opportunity. I could not imagine doing anything else or anything better. That is what got me into court and working for a couple of Federal Judges. I got to see how lawyers did some things well and did some things not so well, frankly.

I got kind of inspired by the former and in a strange way, inspired by the latter, too. I always knew that no matter how much I might struggle or had to work to get ahead in the practice of law, knowing that there were lawyers out there who had a go of it and maybe not doing it so well, gave me the courage to try. I could at least do that much and hopefully much more.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(5:27): That is so interesting. Tell me one of the best practices you’ve observed by any lawyer at any point in your career. I’m also going to ask you to mention one of the worst, for our lawyers among us who could learn from that. What’s one of the best things and what’s one of the worst things actually that you witnessed or curiously heard about through your years?


Judge Paul Grewal

(5:58): The best lawyers, whether we’re talking about lawyers in a little country courthouse, at the Supreme Court or anywhere in between, the best lawyers consistently focus on one thing, which is figuring out what the problem is for the court or for the jury, and providing the answer.

Whether it’s here in my court or when I was trying cases myself as a trial lawyer, I would see lawyers come to court with a problem-solving attitude and perspective. They would provide answers to the people who were responsible for making the decisions, and I knew I was watching something special, or going up against something special if they were my opponent.

That same spirit has carried forward even today when I’m sitting on the bench now. When I see lawyers who are coming to court looking to solve the problem rather than give a fancy speech or go off on tangents and issues that don’t matter, I’m really impressed and really inspired.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(6:58): I imagine that no day is the same for a U.S. District Court Judge, but that said, will you share with us what a day in your life as a judge looks like?


Judge Paul Grewal

(7:11): I would say the best part about serving as a judge, and this I think is true no matter what kind of court you may serve on or in what capacity, the best part about being a judge is exactly what you suggest, which is no two days really are the same. There are some things that do stay largely the same from day to day, in my court anyway.

You mentioned that I sit as a trial judge in the Northern District of California, and as a Federal Court trial judge, most of what I focus is on is what happens in the courtroom. You might imagine that a typical day being something like the following. At 8:30, I often begin my criminal calendar, which means I hear criminal cases that have been assigned to me and that require immediate attention.

On my criminal calendar, I’m responsible as a Magistrate Judge for providing defendants who have been indicted and arrested with information about their case. I will explain to them what they’ve been charged with and explain to them what the maximum penalties are that they might face. I will explain to them their rights under our Constitution defending themselves in the case.

I’ll also consider a request by the government to detain that person as the case moves forward, something that we call a “bail hearing.” All of those things are happening, case after case, just on that one calendar beginning at typically 8:30 in my court.

By 10:00 or 11:00, I may move on to any number of other kinds of cases. One of the wonderful things about Federal Court is that the cases not only change day-to-day, they change hour-to-hour. At 10:00, I may have an intellectual property case.

Here in the Northern District of California in Silicon Valley, we see a lot of cases involving patents and copyrights. I may have a case involving those issues at 10:00. Then 11:30 might bring a civil rights case where an individual has charged a police officer or a police department with violating his or her civil rights.

After that case, there may be cases involving security fraud or anti-trust. There could be other criminal matters in the afternoon involving drug conspiracies or immigration violations. It’s really a huge mix of cases that changes every day and every hour in a way that I can’t tell you how much I enjoy. That goes on and on throughout the day until the courtroom is finally closed around 5:00.

Once the courtroom is closed at 5:00, the work doesn’t end. In a lot of ways it just begins, because then I retire to my chambers where I turn to the work of reading briefs for the cases that are coming for the next day. I also write opinions in cases where I have to issue written decisions for a case.

I also have to tend all these administrative matters that are involved in running a court chambers and running a court docket. That gives you a little bit of a sense of how it works. It’s never dull and it’s never quite the same.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(10:26): It’s never dull. That is fascinating. I imagine with the diversity that you see with these different cases, that you have many tales to tell from your experiences as a judge and possibly as a litigator prior to that. Do any come to mind to share with our listeners at this point?


Judge Paul Grewal

(10:48): One of the real pleasures I have in my work is that, as a trial judge, I try a lot of cases. Most of my cases are jury trials, so I really enjoy bringing members of the public in and explaining to them the process. I enjoy inspiring them and empowering them to serve as a partner with the court.

In most cases with a jury, while I’m responsible for deciding what the law is, the jury is responsible for ultimately deciding what the facts are and what the outcome of the case should be, in light of that law.

One of the things I really enjoy is working with members of the community and the public in that capacity. From time to time, it may surprise you, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about jury duty as I am, so I often have to break down some resistance. Hopefully it is not just to get people willing to serve, but also excited to serve.

After a trial is done, it’s normally my practice to meet with the jury and thank the jurors for their time and service. I answer questions they may have about the process. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is when I meet an individual who initially was very skeptical about serving as a juror. Either they were disappointed that they were selected or outright hostile to the idea of having to give up days or weeks of their time.

After the trial is over, I hear from that same reluctant juror nothing but praise for the system and nothing but praise for the process. That’s a good day. It is something that gets me excited to come in the next day and do it all over again.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(12:33): That’s pretty amazing. Not everyone on the bench is doing that. That is pretty amazing in terms of representing the field and representing the law.


Judge Paul Grewal

(12:48): Yes, I think a huge part of the job and the role that I see is educating the public and serving the public. Part of that service is explaining to the public what it is we do and why it matters.

Whether it’s in talking to jurors or meeting with the community, I think it’s just critical for all branches of the government, but especially the courts, to explain the process. They also need to constantly educate the public on what it is we’re doing and why the work here matters. It’s something I really enjoy doing.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(13:26): Speaking of educating the public, what have you found to be some of the biggest misconceptions that the jurors have? You really do follow them and then you go ahead and have that debriefing with them. What have you found to be some of the biggest misconceptions they may have, whether it is the system or what their role is? Does anything come to mind?


Judge Paul Grewal

(13:51): Yes, a lot of people come to the court with a lot of preconceptions and fixed notions about what it is that happens here on a daily basis. A lot of people are surprised we even have juries to decide all kinds of issues that are put to them in these trials. Most people understand that, in a criminal case, a jury will decide whether a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not.

Fewer members of the public understand that, in most civil cases, jurors are also required to decide issues that will ultimately turn the case or resolve the case one way or the other. For example, I mentioned earlier that this court has a large number of high technology cases that involve intellectual property disputes and patents in particular.

Many people are surprised to learn that under our Constitution, the typical patent case is resolved not by a judge like me with special training or experience in the area, but by regular citizens who are called upon to decide who’s telling the truth, who’s more persuasive and who’s not. I enjoy exposing the community to that responsibility and also seeing the magic of a jury work.

In most cases, I have seen this happen, where you have eight, nine or twelve members of the public who have absolutely nothing in common with one another, except that they all received a summons to come to my court on a given day and a given time.

You see a group of eight, ten or twelve people with nothing in common come together around a common problem or case, and have to work together to resolve that problem and reach a consensus. They come from all sorts of different experiences in life, with all sorts of different backgrounds that they bring to the court, and it’s a really magical thing to see work.

I have to say more often than not, it works wonderfully. I’m very proud of what we do here.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(15:54): For our listeners who are listening to all of this and may be contemplating a career in the law, whether they are starting on their career or even a career transition into the law, what do you view as the factors that one would be well-advised to consider in deciding to pursue a career in the law?


Judge Paul Grewal

(16:15): I think of law as fundamentally being about solving problems for people. Lawyers solve problems, judges solve problems and other members of the court and legal community solve problems. If you’re someone who really enjoys the challenge of figuring out what someone’s problem is and coming up with a solution, law can be tremendously rewarding.

You can have that same experience in all sorts of other fields, such as medicine, engineering and all sorts of different things. People don’t tend to think of law in that same way. That has certainly been my experience. I have had clients as a practicing lawyer, and now I have parties in front of me. When they come to me with a problem, I can provide them with a solution.

It’s tremendously satisfying work. Whether to study or practice law depends on a lot more than just whether you enjoy solving problems. I always encourage students who are thinking about attending law school to really think long and hard about what it is they want to do after law school. Do not look at law school as a weigh station on the way to the rest of their life.

The fact of the matter is that in 2014, law school is very expensive. It’s very difficult and the job market has changed dramatically. It’s not something that you can do casually and just cast aside even if it ultimately isn’t what you want to pursue. You have to look at it as a means to an end.

Whether you end up practicing law or not, one of the most valuable reasons to go to law school is to learn how to think like a lawyer, even if you don’t want to work like a lawyer.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(17:53): Absolutely. What you just said in terms of the problem solving really resonates in terms of the value of a legal education. I really appreciate you sharing your insights with us, Judge Grewal. I’m wondering if you have any last thoughts or a take-home message you’d like to share with our listeners before we give our listeners a chance to ask you questions.


Judge Paul Grewal

(18:19): I would just love to see more members of our community think about law and think about public service practicing law as a career. Before I became a judge, I practiced law for about 14 years, I was in private practice working for large law firms and small boutiques. I loved every minute of it.

I loved trying cases. I loved appearing in court. I loved writing briefs. As satisfied as I was in that world, it just could not compare to what I’ve been able to do in the three and a half years serving on this bench. There’s just something really inspirational about coming to work every day and working with other people, other judges and other staff members. They all share the same sense and mission in the public court and public service, and in the work that the courts do.

If that is something that appeals to you as a person, this could be a tremendously satisfying career and career path to think about.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(19:26): Thank you, Judge Grewal. Everyone, now’s your chance to ask Judge Grewal any questions that you may have. I’d like to remind you that if you have a question, please go ahead and press one, and we’ll take your question. Welcome, caller.


Caller One

(19:56): Hi, Judge Grewal. I just wanted to thank you so much for being on the call tonight. I wanted ask you, this kind of a thing as well from your last statement there, we met at a North America conference. I noticed you’ve been heavily involved in non-profit volunteering, and in that organization in particular. What are your thoughts about being a South Asian attorney and the importance of non-profit volunteering, and what’s some advice you might have about picking the right one?


Judge Paul Grewal

(20:26): Thanks for your question. One of the things I really enjoy about the legal profession is that it allows you to pursue whatever your personal ambitions are, whatever they may be. It could be someone who argues in front of the Supreme Court or someone who has a huge practice in commercial litigation, while at the same time pursuing public good and doing important public service work.

Even when I was building my practice and trying patent cases before I came to the court, it was really important to me to do pro-bono work. It is important to be involved in bar associations, and to be a member and a leader in community organizations.

Law is rather unique and it gives you an opportunity to do all of those things in parallel rather than serially in your career. At different stages of your career, there are obviously opportunities to focus and really turn to one or more of those different goals or tasks. It’s very important not only for the public good, but for the personal good to pursue opportunities in public service.

It’s important to do non-profit work, even as you’re building your career in the law. That’s something I’ve tried to do and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do.


Caller One

(21:40): Thank you very much. I do appreciate that advice.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(21:47): Here is our next caller. Welcome, caller.


Caller Two

(21:57): Hi Judge Grewal. Thanks so much for taking the time today. You mentioned near the end of the discussion that it is valuable to know how to think like a lawyer, but you also mentioned earlier that a good law school has become very expensive. Would you be able to share a way of learning how to think like a lawyer without earning a law degree?


Judge Paul Grewal

(22:20): The short answer is that there are ways to study law without taking on six figures of debt going to law school. The simplest way would be to read cases and that’s how it used to be done before there were law schools.

This sounds a bit extreme, but I have to say I still read published opinions from the Supreme Court all the time. I do that so I can understand not only the particular legal issues that they may be discussing, but also to better appreciate and develop a sense of how the Justices think and express their thinking.

That ability to express that thinking with clarity and in a persuasive way is really what separates the good from the great. There are plenty of opportunities to read and study case law online and elsewhere that wouldn’t require you to go to law school.

One of the most valuable parts of attending law school or taking at least law school classes in college or in graduate school, is that you do so with other people who share that same interest and passion. In law, so much of the learning is collective in nature. The model of studying law alone by yourself without the opportunity to discuss it and debate it with others is selling yourself short. Those are at least a few ideas.


Caller Two

(23:56): Thank you.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(24:00): Thanks for taking our listener questions, Judge Grewal. What is best way for our listeners to contact you in the future if they’d like to do so?


Judge Paul Grewal

(24:11): I’d love to continue the conversation with anyone who may be interested. The best way to reach out to me is through my email address. My email address here at the court is paul_grewal@cand.uscourts.gov.


Jasbina Ahluwalia

(24:34): Thank you very much, Judge Grewal. In case you joined us late or if you’d like to share this show with people in your life, a recording of this show will be sent out. I appreciate everyone hanging out with us. Make sure to join us for next month’s show. We hope that you’ll be joining us at the 23rd Annual NetIP Conference this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. Goodnight, everyone.


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