Profile: Jonathan Davis

Former labor union rep goes all in as a ‘proactive’ lawyer for the underdog

Stephen Ellison
2018 November

Devotion has multiple levels of depth, no matter the object, and in some people it may be difficult to gauge. But plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Davis makes no bones about his zealous approach to his work as well as a similarly devout enthusiasm for family life.

Davis, the managing partner with the Arns Law Firm in San Francisco, believes passion, a sense of justice and a willingness to work hard are indeed crucial to the success of any plaintiffs’ lawyer, even referencing a colleague’s mantra to “Practice law like the client is in the office with you.” But then he takes it a step further.

“I think empathy is a really important characteristic because we have to understand on some very deep level the suffering our clients and their families are going through,” Davis said. “We have to be immersed in that in order to really embody the cause when we’re standing in front of a jury. And just having a love for the challenges we face every day, looking at it like ‘I love doing this.’ I feel like that every day.”

That daily devotion and dedication is not just about the client. It’s also very much about the law. Davis considers himself a trial lawyer, but his interpretation of that aspect of the job is that he is more of a civil litigator. While a mere one out of every 10 cases goes to trial, he and his colleagues live and breathe litigation, he said, with depositions and discovery and use of subpoena power that puts pressure on the other side.

Davis thrives in that arena, to be sure, handling personal injury cases that often arise out of workplace incidents and product defects causing injuries or wrongful deaths. And when one of those cases does go to trial, there’s nothing else like it, he said.

“I love going to trial. It is a full-on commitment,” he said. “When you’re in trial, it’s like skiing in deep snow: You’re all in, and you’re fully committed, and that’s what you are doing. And that’s a great feeling, it’s a great experience.

“It’s exhilarating and exhausting and perilous, but in the end just a very gratifying way to work,” Davis continued. “It’s an honor to be able to do that. There aren’t very many people who have the opportunity in life to go try cases and advocate for people who have been injured or wronged.”

Davis and his team at the Arns firm recently took on a high-profile wrongful death case against Bay Area Rapid Transit. In July, 18-year-old Nia Wilson was stabbed to death in an apparent random attack at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. A suspect was arrested and charged, but Wilson’s family believes the transit agency failed to maintain its own standards for riders’ safety.

“That has been a transformative experience for us on a number of levels,” Davis said in August, “and hopefully we’re going to get some civil justice for this family and make some changes within the BART system that will benefit everyone in the region who uses BART.”

Davis also pointed out how, at the Arns firm, justice truly is for all. Four of its lawyers, including Davis, are bilingual, as are four associates, which broadens the firm’s client base in such a way that reflects changes in demographics. It also allows them to communicate with people in their first language, “a great advantage,” Davis said, because it puts people at ease when they can speak to the attorney in their native language.

“Because no one wants to be in a lawyer’s office, right?” he said. “I always say to people, ‘I’m sorry you’re here, but we’re glad you’re here – we’re going to take care of you.’ The minute you walk in the door, you’re part of our family. We’re gonna take care of you like you’re family.”

Union rep turned plaintiffs’ lawyer

Originally from Connecticut, Davis did not take the conventional route to the law profession. He graduated from Connecticut College in 1988 and went to work as an international representative and national field director for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union. That was back in the day when there were still unions and factories that made textiles and clothing in the U.S., he said.

Davis traveled across the country, working on various campaigns, taking on manufacturers violating labor laws and financial institutions that were essentially underwriting the demise of those industries, he said.

“I worked with some very creative strategists, and we put pressure on entities to try to change their behavior,” David recalled. “We had some successes and some failures because working in the labor movement is like dealing with a stacked deck.

“I was interacting with a lot of law-yers, and there were times I felt like the lawyers were telling us what we couldn’t do, and I wanted to be a lawyer who told people what they could do,” Davis continued. “I wanted to be a proactive lawyer that was taking the fight to the other side as opposed to being reactive. I worked with people that were very creative, and one of our iron rules of strategy was to always escalate, and when in doubt, continue to attack. So, I went to law school when I was 30 after six years in the labor movement.”

Davis may have also drawn some influence from his upbringing in a family that was “very politically involved” in local and state politics in Connecticut. He said his parents were great believers in the law and the institutions that have such an impact on people’s lives. It was a very progressive upbringing, he recalled, in a family that believed in doing the right thing and fighting for the underdog.

“I don’t come from a family of lawyers,” he said, “but I do come from a family of people who have strong values, that those who don’t have power need to be given the tools that speak truth to power, and law is probably the greatest way we can do that on a daily basis.”

Davis attended Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia, where he earned the Barristers Award for Excellence in Trial Advocacy and the Moot Court Award. During law school, he worked as a clerk for a union-side labor firm in San Francisco. At around that time, he and his wife Susan, having lived all along the East Coast most of their lives, decided the Bay Area was where they wanted to live.

“We had been coming out here quite often; my wife was a foodie before it was cool,” Davis said. “And I can drive to snow, and she doesn’t have to go. I’m bicoastal; I have family in Napa, Santa Cruz, San Gabriel Mission. My family walked into California from Mexico in 1780, and it’s been part of my dad’s family since. His dad, my grandfather, met my grandmother in San Diego. He was a Navy man, and he brought her back to New England. The other part of my family emigrated from Ireland and also has been in New England for a long time. But this is home.”

After many arbitrations with that San Francisco union-side labor firm, Davis decided he wanted to get into trial work, so he answered a blind ad and walked into the Arns law firm, “and the rest is history,” he said.

Taking down big companies, countries

That history has a number of seven- and eight-figure verdicts and settlements, including an $11 million result in a wrongful death case involving a delivery driver who was killed by a Toyota transport truck and a $7.5 million verdict in a ladder collapse at a construction site in Manteca. In the latter case, Davis remembered bringing in a key witness who proved to be the turning point.

“I had found a witness in Arizona that the other side had essentially overlooked,” he recalled. “We tracked him down and put him on the witness list; brought him up from Arizona, put him on the stand, and he just blew the case wide open. Our guy’s leg was nearly severed but saved. Bringing in this witness and putting him on the stand was very satisfying because it felt like we had done the extra work.”

Another case of note, Davis said, originated at the Port of Oakland and involved a large crane brought in from China, he said. Their client was the family of a mechanic who was crushed to death in a pinch point that should have been engineered out of the crane. The crane was supposed to have mechanical access areas that would comply with OSHA, and it didn’t, Davis said.

“We were able to get a service on a state-owned enterprise in China and then made a very difficult summary judgment motion,” he said. “We were able to get through some pretty nasty litigation and get a good result for our client, and that was satisfying because we essentially sued the Chinese government and were able to get some justice.”

One other memorable case for Davis was a wrongful death case out of Stockton that got him a nomination for SFTLA Trial Lawyer of the Year. In the case against California Materials, the defense offered $750,000, and Davis obtained a $2.9 million award. “That was satisfying because we felt the other side was discounting the case for a lot of reasons, but one of them may have been because our client’s last name was Frias instead of Jones or Davis,” he said.

Balance it out

When not in court or at the office, Davis spends as much time as he can with his family. He makes a point of awaking at 5-5:30 a.m. for some quiet time and meditation, he said. Then he tries to eat breakfast with his sons every morning before they’re off to school. “It’s a mindful practice of mine to have a quiet breakfast in the household,” Davis said.

He also enjoys skiing, yoga and just being outdoors. He is a backyard bird watcher and likes to read.

“I’m involved in a mindfulness of law program now, with an organization called Warrior One,” he said. “I’m learning and training in mindfulness practices and try to apply those to the work that I do as a lawyer and in the office and community work we do here on a day-to-day basis.”

When it came to advice for young lawyers, Davis said it’s too easy just to tell young and aspiring lawyers to find their passion, follow their hearts and do what they love. It’s no longer that simple, he said.

“The truth of the matter is kids are coming out of law school with [tens of] thousands of dollars of debt; I mean, they’re really in a squeeze,” he said. “Giving advice can sound like passing on judgment, but I would say be mindful of the first work you take just out of school because it can put you on a path, and you don’t want to get locked into something that in five to 10 years you wish you’d never done. The worst thing in the world is a miserable lawyer. We chose this profession, we went into it with our eyes open, so take on responsibility and ownership of it. Whining and complaining about what you’re doing is just no way to live. Be mindful of what job you take, whatever it is, and commit to it 100 percent.”

Stephen Ellison

Stephen Ellison is a freelance writer based in San Jose. Contact him at

Profile: Jonathan Davis

Copyright © 2024 by the author.
For reprint permission, contact the publisher: