From law school to the courtroom

A conversation with Molly Alarcon on her route from intern to Deputy City Attorney

Molly Alarcon has been a Deputy City Attorney since 2018, but she has been working with the City Attorney’s Office since law school. The Bay Area native got her start at Yale Law School where she interned at the City Attorney’s Office and joined the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project. The project, known as SFALP, is a partnership between Yale Law School and the City Attorney’s Office that matches our attorneys with law students to collaborate on cases. At SFALP, law students get an opportunity to work on public-interest affirmative litigation, and San Francisco’s Deputy City Attorneys get a pipeline of sharp and enthusiastic students pitching in on cases. Now as a Deputy City Attorney, Alarcon mentors law school students following a path she’s been down.

Why did you get involved with SFALP as a student?

Yale Law School has a number of impactful legal clinics for students, including ones devoted to veterans’ issues, educational equity, workers’ rights, and immigration, but SFALP attracted me for the variety of important cases brought by the office and because San Francisco is my home. Growing up just across the Golden Gate Bridge, I was aware that San Francisco is a special, progressive city. I knew we were pioneers in fighting for marriage equality, health care access, and environmental protections, but before I learned about SFALP, I did not appreciate the role of the City Attorney’s Office and Dennis Herrera’s leadership in making progress on those issues (and more). I was also interested in government service and in becoming a litigator, so applying to join SFALP to help the City Attorney’s Office develop and litigate affirmative cases was a no-brainer.

What were some of the SFALP cases you worked on as a student and what role did you play in them?

The year I started law school, City College of San Francisco, the only community college in San Francisco and an engine of upward mobility and continuing education for tens of thousands of students each year, faced an existential crisis: a private accrediting body planned to revoke City College’s accreditation. City Attorney Herrera had the bold vision to sue the accrediting agency for its failure to follow Department of Education requirements or provide due process to the school. As a student, I worked on the case with Chief Deputy City Attorney Ron Flynn, Chief of Complex and Affirmative Litigation Yvonne Meré, Chief of Strategic Advocacy Sara Eisenberg and Deputy City Attorneys Matthew Goldberg, and Tom Lakritz—the trial team that successfully litigated the case and prevented City College from going under.

I interned for the Complex and Affirmative Litigation team during the summer of 2014, about a year after the case was filed, and I helped with legal research and fact-development for the parties’ cross-motions for summary adjudication, as well as some trial preparation. When I joined SFALP that fall, I continued to work with the attorneys remotely from New Haven as the October 27, 2014 trial date approached. On the eve of trial, I decided to skip school (shhh) and fly out to San Francisco to help the team in person. The Giants beat the Royals to win the World Series that week, but the more exciting victory happened in a courtroom at 400 McAllister Street. I was thrilled to play a small role in it.

Molly Alarcon (center) attends a hearing in the City Attorney’s Office’s successful bid to save the City College of San Francisco.

How did working on SFALP affect your career goals?

Interning in the office during the summer of 2014 and working with the SFALP clinic over four semesters of law school affected my life in a dramatic and direct way: I realized I found the job I wanted one day. There aren’t many places with the combination of factors that make the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, and the Complex and Affirmative Litigation Team in particular, such an attractive place to work: special authority under state consumer protection law to vindicate the rights of the People of the State of California; a visionary, progressive boss who takes his capacity and obligation to bring high-impact public interest cases seriously and is willing to take on the likes of Bank of America, Donald Trump, and the largest oil producers in the world; colleagues who are funny, kind, and brilliant; and an office that supports work-life balance and nurtures its young attorneys. As I approached the end of law school, I found it hard to imagine a place that could rival these characteristics and allow me to come back to the city and state I love.

What has it been like to work with Yale students now that you’re on the other side as a Deputy City Attorney?

I really enjoy working with current Yale students, who consistently impress me with their hard work and dedication to our cases. The past three semesters I have helped lead the clinic’s “New Ideas” working group, where students brainstorm and develop ideas for new affirmative cases. This is among the most challenging work our team and the clinic does, since it requires an understanding of the problems faced by San Francisco residents, rigorous vetting of possible legal claims and defenses, and the ability to fail magnanimously (since most ideas never come to fruition!). The students are creative, committed to improving society, and thoughtful in considering the role of the City Attorney in addressing issues that face San Francisco. As someone who’s been in their shoes, it’s rewarding now to be on the other side and help students hone their skills and get real-life experience with litigation.

I have been told that students feel more comfortable contacting me with questions about their research than the more senior attorneys on our team, since they know that only a few years ago I was in their shoes. But if these students knew my colleagues better, they’d know that I’m the last person they should call, since my co-workers are all smarter, nicer, and more experienced than I am!

Is there any advice you’d give to current law students?

Get enough sleep and surround yourself with people whom you admire.