It wasn’t easy being a Latino in high school in eastern New Mexico in the 1960s, Fred Alvarez recalls. He was thrown out of stores, refused service in restaurants, and told by white fathers he couldn’t date their daughters. “It was pretty raw stuff. You had to learn to adjust.”
He adjusted his way to a Stanford bachelor’s degree with honors, followed by a law degree, after encountering a campus recruiter who visited his high school.
“My counselor told me I was foolish even to talk to the guy, but Stanford represented a way out,” says Alvarez, JD ’75 (BA ’72). “I always felt like I was different. When I told the counselor I got my acceptance letter, he said there must be some mistake.”
Today, Alvarez is a prominent employment lawyer with a long record of public service and leadership in the legal profession. At Stanford, he has served as a member of the Board of Trustees and on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the law school. He founded the Stanford Law School Latino Alumni Association. And in April, he received Stanford Associates’ Gold Spike Award, its highest honor for volunteer service. He shares his knowledge of the profession as a guest lecturer at Stanford Law—as does his wife, Beth “Muffie” McLellan (BA ’72), who is a lecturer in residence (the two married three days after graduating from Stanford and will celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2022).
“Fred was a fine student in my very first labor law class here at Stanford. He has had an extraordinary career in the labor law field. Thoughtful and unflappable, he is one of Stanford’s outstanding alumni and an ex-student of whom I’m particularly proud,” recalls William B. Gould IV, Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus, who served as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board from 1994 to 1998 and chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 2014 to 2017.
Alvarez’s impact on campus life during law school included the launch of La Rondalla, the mariachi band he co-founded during his 1L year with classmates Carlos Moreno, JD ’75, Eugene Martinez, JD ’75, Jorge Carrillo, JD ’75, Anna Guerra, JD ’76, Cirilo Flores, JD ’76, and others.
As Moreno, a former California Supreme Court associate justice, remembers, the band held a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in the Crothers Hall courtyard. “We sang traditional Mexican boleros. It diverted us from the frustrations of our studies. Fred had a great heart and a good ear, and he played guitar and something made from the body of an armadillo. He was literally instrumental in getting us to jam together.”
Alvarez played a Bolivian charango, a kind of lute made from an armadillo’s shell, which remains in his collection of stringed instruments. “It was a nice way to get us together and stay a little grounded and sane while we inhabited the strange world of law school,” he says of the band. “We weren’t half bad.”
After law school, Alvarez returned home to serve as a law clerk to the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, but eventually made the Bay Area his home.
Ready to join the legal profession, Alvarez received no offers from the firms with which he interviewed, including Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, where his mother once had worked as a legal secretary. In the mid-1970s, minority lawyers were rare, with women and those identifying as people of color making up just 10 percent of newly licensed attorneys, according to a State Bar of California report. “Not many like me applied” to big firms, he says. Bypassing them, Alvarez started his career as a trial attorney with the Carter administration’s National Labor Relations Board, setting him on a career in employment law.
“It was an easy call, because it was the only job I could get,” he laughs. “That was my shot.”
He quickly saw advantages to the unexpected path. “In employment disputes, both sides believe that they are telling their truth, even though each probably understands the spin they put on it. Each sees the world completely differently and can describe the same event very differently,” says Alvarez. “One way you’re effective as a lawyer is to understand the other side’s point of view.”
His bent toward equal justice and against discrimination would lead him to chair the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
Out of his background, his bar card, and his break into employment law, Alvarez cultivated an even-handed authority and forged a distinguished career, serving as assistant secretary of labor in the Reagan administration and as a Democratic member on Reagan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Alvarez suggests he was chosen in part because he would be easily confirmed by the Senate, then held by Democrats—but his reputation in the field may have had more to do with it. After his government service, he moved into private practice, and this time Pillsbury offered him a partnership.
Later, after building the employment law practice at Silicon Valley powerhouse Wilson Sonsini, he matched his bipartisan government work by joining the conservative-leaning Jones Day as a senior partner in the firm’s employment practice. From there, he went on to the more liberal Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, where he works today. “I have a lot of friends in the plaintiffs’ bar, even though I’m a big bad defense lawyer,” Alvarez says. “I advise employers on how not to get sued. In the government, I was suing them.”
“One of the wonderful things about Fred is his inherent modesty,” says Larry Kramer, head of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and who was dean of the law school when Alvarez chaired the Board of Visitors. “He tries to understand problems from every perspective and offer the best advice in terms of what you need, not what he might prefer himself.” Kramer adds, “Having Fred as an adviser and partner made my work much easier than it would have been without him.”
“Fred has been a warm and welcoming mentor to me since I joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. I remember attending many wonderful dinners for newly admitted Latino students at Fred and Muffie’s house, where you could just see the students start to feel comfortable and imagine themselves at SLS. And since I became dean in 2019, Fred has been an invaluable counselor to me, providing sage advice as the school navigated so many challenges,” says Jenny Martinez, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.
Today, sporting a silver beard and the serene air of a wise elder, Alvarez displays a practiced neutrality that makes him a natural for appointments to national monitorships when litigation leads to consent decrees or conciliation agreements that require oversight of diversity, anti-harassment, and equal pay and promotion standards.
“I’m helping to make organizational change, which is really my passion,” Alvarez says.
At the Stanford Law School Convocation in 2019, Alvarez told students about his grandfather, an impoverished union organizer from Mexico who deflected his grandson’s wish to grow up just like him. “No, Freddy, there are already too many poor people in the world,” his grandfather said, urging him to instead do something useful to help the poor. A Stanford law degree, along with skills masked by an unassuming manner, were key. “Getting underestimated by people who expect high-powered lawyers to look like something else—that’s a gift I’ve used for many years,” Alvarez says.
Looking back, he says, “Stanford made all the difference,” thanks to early efforts by representatives to promote inclusion and scout for people like him. “I submit that the past 40 or 50 years have proven them right,” Alvarez said when accepting the Gold Spike Award. “Stanford has never been stronger—never more prominent, never more engaged with the world in all its dimensions, never more selective in its admissions, never more diverse—than it is today.” SL
John Roemer is a legal journalist who had a long career at the Daily Journal.