Photo of Sonne, Tyler and Sinnar
James A. Sonne, Ronald C. Tyler, and Shirin Sinnar, JD ’03

Ronald C. Tyler
Director, Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford Law School, Associate Professor of Law

Ron Tyler has a catalog of memories of criminal cases built up over almost a quarter of a century as an assistant federal public defender at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California. But one client stands out even today: a man accused of being a high-ranking member of a white prison gang, “Bob,” who was already serving multiple life sentences for violent crimes when his case was assigned to Tyler.

The case was challenging for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the tension Tyler felt as a black man defending an apparently racist client. Tyler was certain he would be spending much of his time not only building a defense but also teaching his client racial tolerance, in part, he hoped, by setting an example.

As it turned out, Bob wound up being a teacher himself—about the prison forces that lead to racial segregation of inmates regardless of individual beliefs about the dangers of prejudice and the human capacity for change. In a striking example of racial tolerance, Bob spent years teaching himself Spanish. He became so proficient that the paralegal in Tyler’s case, a fluent Spanish speaker, could conduct meetings with him completely in Spanish. During the entirety of the case, Tyler says, Bob was accepting and exceedingly respectful to every member of the defense team.

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Tyler was known as something of a gadget guy. “I was the first in the Federal Building to have the newest electronics, a PDA for my schedule, and then a smartphone,” he says. “I’d be typing something, and judges would ask me about the device, wanting to know how I used it.” That Tyler was a tech-savvy public advocate isn’t too surprising. He has a degree in computer science and engineering and worked in high tech before going to law school. Now embarking on the third chapter of his career, this time as an associate professor and the director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford Law School, Tyler enjoys the arts as much as the sciences, and he excels in public service as well as in business. He’s a right-brain, left-brain sort of guy, but his career in the law is all about heart.

Tyler grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one of 11 children. The family budget was tight, but his parents were intent on helping Tyler and his siblings get the best education possible and go to college. He did well in school, was active in the drama club, and took advantage of new classes in computer programming. In 1977 he headed east to study at MIT—and in 1981, along with a bachelor of science degree, he received the Wiesner Student Art Award for achievement in the performing arts. Graduating right when the tech industry was gaining steam, Tyler was lured to Silicon Valley by Hewlett-Packard for a position as a technical marketing engineer.

“I feel fortunate to have worked at HP while Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were still active in the company and the ‘HP Way’ of managing was very much in use,” says Tyler. He caught the early startup wave in 1983 when he left HP to join Daisy Systems Corp., a company that pioneered computer-aided engineering. He spent three years flying around the world training design engineers. And while he was “having a ball,” he couldn’t ignore a nagging feeling that he was on the wrong path. “I could see that as much as I was excited about working at a startup, I needed to be true to my values,” he says. Those values represent a deep commitment to helping the poor and marginalized, something his parents modeled for him and his siblings. His father helped run the Community Action Program in Cheyenne, while his mother volunteered with the local Title I program to provide public funds to underserved schools. And they impressed on their children the importance of both education and civil rights.

“I have never forgotten where I come from, that I grew up poor. And I have always wanted to make a difference and work in those communities,” he says. So he decided to redirect his career and go to law school. “My high school friends predicted I’d go to law school and work for social justice. I proved them wrong for a while, and then they were proved right,” he says.

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TYLER EMBRACED THE RIGORS OF LAW SCHOOL, even thrived. “I loved it. Particularly after studying computer science at MIT, it was much easier,” he says. He began as a Tony Patiño Fellow at UC Hastings College of Law and later transferred to UC Berkeley School of Law, where he was a notes and comments editor on the Ecology Law Quarterly.

After earning his JD from Berkeley in 1989, Tyler clerked for Judge Marilyn Hall Patel at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The pull of tech was still strong though, and Tyler had an offer from Morrison & Foerster to work in IP law after the clerkship. His plan was to join a firm for a while before pursuing his dream of public advocacy. But sometimes plans change.

“The experience of clerking with Judge Patel taught me a lot, but particularly that I wanted to be a public defender, though I was thinking I would do that later—after working at a firm,” he says. Judge Patel, whose chambers were right across the hall from the Office of the Federal Public Defender, suggested that Tyler meet with the director to learn more about the job. But clerking is demanding and Tyler’s schedule was hectic, so it wasn’t until the last day of his clerkship that he finally made the call to set up a meeting.

“We sat down together after lunch on Ron’s last day with Judge Patel, and by dinnertime he was hired to work for me,” says former U.S. Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California Barry J. Portman, who retired last spring after 40 years on the job.

“That meeting changed my life,” says Tyler. “And I loved working as a public defender. People often say it’s a thankless job, but that’s not the case. My clients were very grateful, and they were genuine.”

“Ron is soft spoken but very sincere,” says Portman. “That is what grabs you after you talk to him for a while—his passion and interest in the underdog.”

Tyler hopes to share that passion with his students at Stanford Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic. “The clinic will emphasize the importance of respect for clients and will foster a professional sense of identity and purpose that places at the forefront the virtues of integrity, consideration, civility, and the pursuit of personally meaningful work,” says Tyler.

Along with representing clients as a public defender, Tyler has also been a leader in criminal defense training. As a member of the faculty of the Office of Defender Services Training Branch, the Federal Trial Skills Academy, and the National Criminal Defense College, he has shared his expertise with lawyers around the country. And he has taught the next generation of lawyers as an adjunct professor, teaching trial advocacy at UC Hastings.

“The job of the public defender is very much about telling a story, and that is something that Ron is very skilled at—getting the sympathy of the audience, whether judge or jury,” says Portman. “He’s written materials on the subject and helps train others in this. I remember one judge saying that the law should only permit two objections—if it’s not relevant and if it’s boring. And Ron is never boring.”

As to why he left a job he loved, Tyler says this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “I’d been looking for a new challenge, but one that would also allow me to continue to work in public advocacy. This certainly fits the bill. And I love teaching,” he says. He will spend the fall quarter preparing for the clinic and meeting with the clinic’s partners in the public and private defender offices in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

While Tyler moves on to the next chapter of a very rich career, he leaves behind a legacy—and a lasting impression. On his last day in court, his service was officially recognized by Judge William H. Alsup, who said, “Ron Tyler has been coming in that door, going to that office, seeing hundreds—literally thousands—of clients, and in every single case, doing an outstanding job.” Addressing Tyler, he added, “You are going to leave behind a body of work that would be extremely hard for anyone to match. … You have been the model of what an advocate should be, in my view. And I know that’s the view that other judges, all the judges in this courthouse, share about you.” SL