Since almost as far back as he can remember, Walkup Firm Shareholder Doug Saeltzer wanted to be a trial attorney.
“To be the lawyer in the courtroom, arguing cases, trying cases—that seemed to me to be the most exciting job you could ever have,” he says.
He jokes that he’s known the law was his destiny ever since Doug figured out as a young child that he’d never be an NFL quarterback, and he is, by his own admission, “not a very good football player.”
But nearly three decades into his law career, Saeltzer is still thrilled by taking a high-stakes case to court. He loves the challenge of developing a case, strategizing, moving it forward, as well as the adrenaline rush of critical, on-the-spot decision-making and the vital nuances that can make or break a trial—phrasing a question, objecting, responding to a witness. Likening a tense trial to trauma surgery, where there’s no time to have a briefing or take an issue to committee, he says, “You have maybe less than a second, the pause between a witness’s answer and opposing counsel’s next question, to make such important decisions. It’s challenging, exhilarating, and irreplaceable.”
He discovered early on that it’s not just the process of a trial that energizes him; it’s seeing the results he gets for his clients and the difference he can make in restoring their lives after tragedy—and the material impact these cases can have on law and society.
“I represent individuals whose lives are forever changed due to the wrongdoing or negligence of somebody else. That’s what I love doing, who I like helping. These are important cases. That’s my favorite part of the practice: to see a wrong get righted.”
Saeltzer’s sense of purpose and rigorous approach to practice and trial have resulted in over $100,000,000 in jury verdicts and settlements for his clients.
But he took a somewhat unusual route to plaintiff’s law—through the military.
Accepting a direct commission into the United States Army Judge Advocate General Corps after graduating from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1994 was a move that made sense for many reasons.
First, Saeltzer says, “I always had a desire to serve the country and thought it would be a great way to do that.”
Second, government service offers a unique opportunity for a new and inexperienced lawyer to begin trying cases right out of the gate.
Saeltzer cites his time in the Army as pivotal to his development as a trial lawyer. It’s the nature and structure of the entire military, he says, to put young people right into action under the mentorship of senior officers. And the training systems are first-rate.
He attended the U.S. Army Airborne School in Virginia, then prosecuted criminal cases at the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina, where he was appointed Senior Trial Counsel after just one year.
In court as a JAG attorney, he says, “It’s 100% trial lawyer. It’s the same rules, the same process—applying the law and the facts and making a persuasive argument on why your client should prevail. Everything I learned there I use daily.”
After completing three years of service and being honorably discharged with the rank of Captain, Saeltzer was eager to return to San Francisco. He felt that “the stars aligned” when he got the job at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in 1998.
He was motivated to move into plaintiff law chiefly by the responsibility and independence of representing individuals, not corporations.
“I’d represent real people with real problems, and they would be relying on me to get them justice. That was the number one appeal. I would continue doing trials, not transactional work behind the scenes. I would be the one in court for my client.”
His conviction about the importance of that work has continued to expand with time and practice.
A particularly defining case came in 2010, with Liou v. State of California. A 17-year-old girl was left in a permanent vegetative state when she was struck by a car while crossing seven lanes of traffic within a marked crosswalk. Several similar accidents had previously occurred at the same intersection. Saeltzer and Walkup Firm partner Rich Schoenberger proved that Caltrans knew the intersection was problematic—a federal study had revealed the dangers of such crosswalks because they give pedestrians a false sense of security—yet no action had been taken. The trial resulted in a $12.2 million award to the plaintiff.
For Saeltzer, the verdict not only brought the deep satisfaction of securing meaningful compensation for a devastated family but showed him there was no reason to fear the proverbial Goliaths. Cases against powerful entities can be won, despite the odds. “Your hard work can pay off for your client, and you can set a new standard moving forward, to hopefully get a change.”
He’s also not afraid of going to bat for complicated clients. Though a defense team may highlight some minor transgression in a plaintiff’s past to try and turn the jury against them, Saeltzer believes that presenting people with honesty and authenticity, in all their humanness, makes them sympathetic. ”
As current Vice President of Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC), Saeltzer is actively engaged in the fight to protect the rights of consumers against tort reform. “Large, powerful interests don’t like being held accountable. There’s a threat to the class of people I represent. It’s an attack that applies across the board, not just to one of my clients in one of my cases. It’s a legislative attack to change the law, to prevent people from having access to justice and access to courts. So I felt a responsibility. I know the issues, and when legislation comes up I can speak to the practical side of it. You’re not representing one person anymore, you’re representing all the consumers of California.”
Although the courts were hamstrung for many months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created many challenges, Saeltzer sees some silver linings for the civil justice system. Everyone on a case—client, judge, opposing counsels, jury—now interact virtually, and that’s unlikely to end with the pandemic. Attorneys have had to adapt, stay agile and state of the art, and realize that it’s crucial to be an effective communicator for your clients, no matter the platform or mode. The upside is that working online “makes access a little easier. It makes it easier to meet with clients who are often incapacitated and can’t meet [in person]. It allows you to take cases that are in remote locations. So I do think there are positives, but you need to be careful that you’re making a connection. I believe there’s still value to in-person meetings and trials.”
Also an in-demand educator, Saeltzer is an assistant professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, serves on the National Institute of Trial Advocacy faculty, and is a frequent guest lecturer for numerous law associations.
His many awards and honors include continuous selection as a Northern California Super Lawyer since 2010. In 2011 Saeltzer was honored as “Trial Lawyer of the Year” by the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association. That same year, he was elected to membership in the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA).
Although he never became an NFL quarterback, Saeltzer still loves sports and competition. A father of three, he spends his well-earned free time coaching his kids’ teams.
“Practicing law is hard work. It’s not something that you can do halfway or without being fully committed. So, if you’re going to devote and sacrifice that much of your life, make sure to do what you love. The more I go along, the more confirmation I have that this job fits me like a glove.”