Being his authentic self, he carves a path as a civil rights advocate in his hometown
Persistence and a downright bold approach helped launch Adante Pointer’s career in law, and he has carried that formula with him to reach new heights as a notable civil rights lawyer in Northern California and perhaps the nation.
Pointer is known best for representing the family of Oscar Grant III in a wrongful death lawsuit against BART after agency police officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Grant on Jan. 1, 2009. And while it certainly was a landmark case, Pointer has gone on to achieve results in several more civil-rights cases involving police officers’ excessive use of force and abuse of authority.
His journey to becoming a founding partner for Pointer & Buelna in Oakland started under the wing of acclaimed civil rights attorney John Burris. How that journey started is a story he has told quite often, and Pointer was kind enough to tell it once more.
“The interesting thing is that when I went to law school (U.C. Hastings), and when I came out of law school, I actually saw myself working on behalf of the city governments and being more focused on transactional work, like trying to bring economic development to underserved communities,” Pointer said. “That’s what I kind of thought I was going to do, but I could not get an opportunity at a law firm to do it.”
Getting the job interview
Indeed, Pointer said he couldn’t find a job after graduating from law school, and a colleague with the bar suggested he look into the John Burris firm. Pointer knew the name, checked out the firm’s website and asked around. He soon found out Burris did a lot of big civil-rights cases.
“So, I learned more about him, and I essentially stalked him for about three months,” he recalled. “A ton of emails and telephone calls, but getting nothing returned. Then I happened to bump into him just driving through Oakland. I pulled alongside of him while he was at a stoplight and talking on the cellphone, and I got his attention. I said, ‘Hey, I’m the guy that’s been calling you for the last three months.’ And he kind of brushed me off. I said, ‘I really want an opportunity to sit down.’ Finally, he told me to talk to his assistant.”
Pointer did one better and showed up at Burris’s office the next day, he said. After hours of waiting, Burris showed up and they had a five-minute conversation before Burris was on his way out again, telling Pointer to come back the next day.
“I showed up the next day in a suit ready to work,” Pointer said. “I was like, ‘I’ll get the coffee. I don’t care.’ That started my career in civil rights (law). I went from being a clerk to being one of the attorneys to help manage the office.”
Pointer certainly made his mark in the civil rights arena, winning verdicts in other headline cases such as the one for “Celeste Guap,” a young woman sexually abused by officers from multiple East Bay police departments, and representing the family of Ronell Foster, who was shot several times in the back by a Vallejo cop in a case where Pointer’s team uncovered a police gang within the city, resulting in the highest settlement in Vallejo history.
In his most recent civil rights trial in June 2022, Pointer won a record $21 million verdict against Fremont police for the family of pregnant 16-year-old Elena Mondragon, who was shot and killed by plainclothes officers while she rode in a vehicle with a man wanted by police in several robberies.
Oddly enough, Pointer himself was caught up in a situation similar to what many of his clients experience. He filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department after he was pulled over and made to crawl on the ground by armed officers because they said his car fit the description of one from which a suspect fired an AK-47 assault rifle earlier in the day.
“I managed to negotiate my way out of the car safely, told them I was an attorney, then was made to crawl backwards under threat of being shot,” Pointer told news outlet San Francisco Bay View. “I was then handcuffed and put in a police car while they searched my car.”
Remembering his roots
Raised in West Oakland, Pointer recalled riding a bus to a wealthier section of the city for school. A visit to a friend’s home in Piedmont put into context for the young Pointer what it meant to be a lawyer.
“We pulled up, and it looked like the White House,” he recalled. “Manicured lawns, columns. Then we go inside, and his mom says, ‘You guys want a snack, like some cereal?’ So, we go to his cupboard, and he had like eight boxes of cereal. My first thought was, ‘What does your dad do?’ His mom was there to pick him up every day, and his dad was at work. He tells me his dad is an attorney. I was like, ‘I want to be an attorney.’
“It grew from that; just the idea of an attorney and what that might mean because I kind of straddled two worlds,” Pointer continued. I took a bus across town to where there was affluence in abundance. I started realizing early that I lived in two different societies. And I wondered why we live so close to each other but have been in different worlds. I wanted to become an advocate for my community. As I grew and matured, I realized that learning the law, learning how to advocate, learning how to analyze things, was going to be a very important tool to have.”
Pointer actually developed a keen interest in politics that he continues to carry to this day. He majored in political science at UC Berkeley and traveled to Washington, D.C., to work on Capitol Hill for one summer. He also worked locally for the late Rep. Ron Dellums as well as Dellums’s successor and current Congress member Rep. Barbara Lee, with whom he worked all the way through law school, he said.
All that experience in the political arena brought Pointer to a crossroads in his career. He was torn between continuing to pursue politics as a livelihood or launching his law career. He sought the advice of a policy professor at Berkeley, asking what made sense: “I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can be a politician after being an attorney. But it’s very hard to be a lawyer after being a politician.’”
While Pointer’s work in civil rights litigation and in holding law enforcement accountable have been important focuses of his practice, he certainly hasn’t been limited to just those areas. He takes pride in representing individuals against corporate and institutional wrongdoers as well. In 2012, he represented thousands of victims in the Richmond Chevron Refinery fire after they were seriously sickened by the toxic smoke from the blaze.
Asked about the biggest difference in the areas, Pointer said civil rights cases have an added component or complexity because they carry heavy social overtones.
“Civil rights cases are oftentimes lightning rod cases,” he said. “People have strong opinions one way or the other before they even hear the facts. So because of the type of case it is, there’s a lot of social commentary that’s embedded in the case, whether it’s representing the individual person and their civil rights against the government; the Black Lives Matter thing that’s draped over it now that people just assume is a part of what’s going on; or it’s a referendum on policing. There’s race, there’s class, there’s a lot
of different societal issues that are rolled into a civil rights case, and when you’re preparing to go to trial, you have to be ready to first identify and acknowledge them and then figure out how you incorporate them into what’s going to
be presented to the jury.”
There’s also a marked difference from his perspective as an advocate for his clients, he said – an “emotionalized aspect.” Pointer believes the passion for him is the same no matter who he’s representing or what type of case it is. Either way, the client has been hurt or they’ve been aggrieved, and they’re looking for someone to fight for them.
But with a civil rights case, oftentimes his client is the dead victim’s son or daughter or dad or mother, or all of the above, and that ups the emotional ante.
“When you’re dealing with someone who’s not there to speak for themselves, there’s an added bit of honor, as well as pressure to make sure that we get this right,” he said. “For a civil rights (client’s) family, for people who’ve been impacted by police abuse, this is their only chance to get a crack at justice because there are very few criminal prosecutions. Rarely do the cops ever get disciplined or fired. All those legal channels that the family or the person who feels they’ve been violated have, they don’t control. Those are completely out of their hands, and they don’t get a chance to participate.
“I myself am like a civil prosecutor,” he continued. “We have much more power and sway in terms of putting together a case and actually fighting for these people whose voices would otherwise not be heard.”
Recalling some of his more memorable cases, Pointer of course mentioned the one landmark case that became the subject of the blockbuster feature film “Fruitvale Station.” Even before he and Burris became advocates for Oscar Grant’s young daughter and the rest of Grant’s family, Pointer had to take a moment to process what occurred during those early morning hours in his hometown.
“What I remember that stands out in my mind is waking up that January first and turning on the news and seeing the cellphone video,” he said. “To wake up and see that, frankly, I was thinking, Okay, where do I go next? What am I going to do next? It kind of reignited the passion. And it was a four- or five-year journey fighting that case for Oscar and his family. … That’s a case I’ll always remember because it was the seed, if you will, that you see now with the George Floyd protests” and other such movements.
“Oftentimes in these cases, it’s not just the verdict, it’s not just the settlement number,” Pointer added. “It’s about getting to the family so that they can actually know what happened to their loved one. Otherwise, they never really know what happened, and that’s the type of questions that haunt people for the rest of their life.”
When Pointer isn’t in court or in the office, he enjoys spending time with his family, saying, “It’s a release for me.” He also enjoys trying different foods, traveling and taking in the cultural aspect of places he visits by checking out museums and art shows.
As for the pieces of wisdom he would share with young lawyers, especially litigators, Pointer said first they should not be afraid to take risks in terms of trying cases. There are fewer opportunities to get in the courtroom these days to allow trial attorneys to perfect their craft, so he would urge those up-and-coming litigators to take advantage of every opportunity.
Just as important, Pointer implores young trial lawyers to be themselves.
“I like to tell people as it relates to being an attorney that whatever your unique skill is, your quirk, whatever your personality is, that is your superpower,” he continued. “And what I mean by that is the people we remember as being the legends of the bar, the attorneys, all for the most part have something that sets them apart, whether it’s the way they dress, the way they talk, their cadence. But all of it is their authentic self. Being your authentic self is how you connect to a jury, how you connect to people. We may not all agree, but I think that we all have some admiration for people who are their authentic self, but then also still are excellent in their craft. You don’t have to look a particular way to do this work and have to behave a particular way to be an effective advocate. But you do have to be your authentic self in order to get people to trust you.”
Getaway Spot: The Beach
Go-To Music or Artist: Soul music (Frankie Beverly & Maze; Earth, Wind & Fire; etc)
Recommended Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Between the World and Me”
Dream Job: Astronaut
Words to Live By: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” – Unknown
2023 by the author.
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