Top Ten Lawyers San Francisco Chronicle

Meet the Top Ten Lawyers

Here are the Godfather of Silicon Valley, the Odd Man Out, the attorney known as the Last Hope, the Cop, a real Perry Mason, and, among others, our own cover boy, everyone’s No. 1:

Sunday, May 4, 2003

Cliff Palefsky


Despite the image of lawyers as greedy and selfish, lots of lawyers really care about the law and their clients.

Take Cliff Palefsky. He is so relentlessly passionate about the rights of workers that even over the phone, one can feel his intensity.

Well, he says, “You gotta believe in something.”

Palefsky, 49, is an employment plaintiffs attorney. Many in town say there is none better. He also considers himself a civil-rights lawyer, especially when it comes to privacy concerns, because he views worker rights and civil rights as intertwined.

To Palefsky, workers are one of the most powerless groups of society, with few rights and even less leverage. Just to get a job, he notes, applicants are subject to psychological and drug testing, credit checks and other privacy intrusions. And more and more, job applicants are forced to sign contracts forfeiting their right to sue for workplace grievances – even in wrongful termination claims or civil-liberties disputes.

This is called mandatory arbitration – and it drives Palefsky crazy. He has taken this issue to court, and recently helped write state legislation curbing its use.

The Inner Richmond District resident grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. As a boy, he liked figuring out the whodunit in mystery novels, so he decided to become a lawyer. He graduated from the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1974, and in 1977 got his law degree from Georgetown.

He soon joined a practice that evolved into the seven-lawyer firm of McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky. In 1981, he and a partner won a landmark case: In Roulon-Miller vs. IBM, they proved that even at-will workers could successfully sue their employers for being fired. It was the first major wrongful termination verdict in the country. Palefsky’s reputation grew from there.