From Astrophysics to Employment Law by Dan Gildor

From Astrophysics to Employment Law: A Conversation with Valerian Law’s New Senior Counsel

By Alex Li

Dan Gildor, Valerian Law’s new Senior Counsel, has lived many professional lives: as an aspiring astrophysicist at MIT, a programmer at start-ups during Silicon Valley’s dot-com boom, an environmental litigator enforcing the Clean Water Act, a lawyer for the Department of Industrial Relations, and a plaintiff’s-side employment lawyer for renowned class-action law firm Chavez & Gertler LLP. Dan now brings his extensive experience with wage-and-hour and consumer law, class actions, PAGA representative actions, and employment law in general—along with the insights he has picked up along the way — to Valerian Law. 

I sat down with him to talk about these past experiences to learn how they influence his legal practice and work with clients. We discussed how empathy, self-reinvention, and thinking outside the box are critical to the success of legal professionals and achieving the best results for workers. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

1. What brought you to the law? What’s your origin story as a lawyer?

Dan: I went to MIT to study astrophysics, but I ended up majoring in political science instead because understanding how people behave was much more fascinating—and less predictable—than understanding how a particle might behave. But there aren’t many jobs for political scientists, so I was able to leverage my experience at MIT learning how to program computers to get jobs at several Silicon Valley startups. At the time I was living in Palo Alto and was a member of a rowing club that maintained its boathouse in Redwood City. The owner of the land on which the boathouse stood decided that they would demolish the boat house and replace it with office buildings. I realized when I went to the planning commission meeting about the proposal that I didn’t know how to debate the issue, aside from saying “I don’t think you should do this.” That made me realize that law school was something I would need to pursue in order to enable myself to fight for what I think is right.

2. How does your variety of past experiences influence how you practice law? Do you see it as an asset?

Dan: I don’t think everybody should go to law school straight from college. You will be a better attorney the more well-rounded you are. If you’ve never worked retail, how are you going to appreciate what your client is telling you about their experience? When you’re more well-rounded, you’re more likely to understand, appreciate, and share experiences with the client. That will give you an edge when litigating the case and will definitely help you build trust and empathy with the client. I am also very curious and enjoy learning new things. This curiosity helps in my practice because I look to learn something from each client.

I also think that I have an edge as an attorney because I spent time writing computer programs. There is a mental exercise that you have to go through when writing a program that is similar to the mental exercise you go through when constructing a legal argument. Both start with a goal in mind and you have to get to the end by applying logic and reasoning. My experience writing code trained me to think concisely and to organize points in sub-blocks that can stand on their own in the same way that the best legal writing works. 

3. Can you give an example of how this affects your approach to case work?

Dan: My background has prepared me to approach cases in a holistic manner and uncover what is really going on in a workplace. One instance that comes to mind is when we filed a lawsuit against a major retail corporation. Initially, they appeared to be providing their employees with lawful meal and rest breaks. However, upon further examination, we discovered that the company had designed incentives that encouraged employees to skip or neglect their breaks. This occurred during a period where plaintiff attorneys were struggling to certify cases involving employers with seemingly compliant meal and rest break policies.

So it’s a hard question— how do you certify a Labor Code violation claim when the defense is saying “Everybody chose to violate our policy, and we don’t have the obligation to police them?” “How are you going to pin it on us?”

You have to swim upstream a little bit: figure out what the employer is actually doing, what they’re saying, and how that impacts the way people think and behave. We drew on a lot of social science research uncovering what goes on in industrial organizations, specifically why people don’t necessarily comply with official employer policies. That was the unique feature of the case: we incorporated social science into the legal world to show the court we had a theory that would result in finding the defendant’s liability. We worked with an industrial organizational psychologist to research the issue and the principles uncovered. We got the case certified. It’s not something I’ve done in other cases, but this case specifically called for it.

4. You mentioned the importance of empathy and trust-building in your work with clients. How do you think these qualities affect your work with clients?

Dan: An attorney, especially a plaintiff’s attorney, has to be part attorney, part therapist, part friend. There is an underlying bond— the client has to trust the attorney, and the attorney has to trust the client. Empathy goes a long way toward establishing trust. If you can be empathetic, if you can appreciate what someone has gone through, they’re more likely to trust you. I spend a lot of time putting myself in other people’s shoes. I think that helps with empathy, and building trust and understanding. Most importantly, it keeps me from pre-judging situations and people.

5. What do you think is rewarding about the law and working as a lawyer?

Dan: The ability to effect change. Class actions, for example, help a lot of people, and allow you to effect change more easily and readily than having to litigate each case individually. Some people become grassroots organizers, some people become legislators, and I’m not really suited to that. Given my strengths and limitations, being a lawyer is how I can contribute. I’ve always wanted to be part of cases that have impact beyond simply the outcome of the case itself.

A nation with laws is better than a nation without laws, because where there is law at least you have the avenue and recourse of the judicial system. If you look at the history of the law, and how it has developed to protect and expand individual rights in this country, it’s a significant tool. I mean, courts ruled there were LGBTQ rights before all the legislators did, so it can be at the forefront of social change. Or it can end up canceling it. It works both ways. 

In the case of the rowing club, if I faced that issue again today, I’d have to brush up a bit on that area of law. However, I would have a better idea of how to approach that issue. I’d be able to frame my statements and arguments better; I’d know how to pursue the right avenues; and I’d better understand the process by which things proceed. I remember one case I did early on, an issue of statutory construction regarding the Clean Water Act. The argument I made boiled down to the placement or absence of a comma in that language of the statute, and whether a “catch-all” simply modified the previous term or functioned as a “catch-all” at the end of the list of requirements. I came up with that argument, and the court of appeal adopted that argument. It was kind of a nerdy, geeky sort of victory, but it had a dramatic impact on the kinds of pollution mitigation measures that the state could require cities to implement. 

All of that requires tools and knowledge that I’ve gained as a lawyer. These victories make law school and years of hard work totally worth it.