A front page story in the March 19 New York Times (“Ban on Gay Marriage Led Lawyers to Shift Role”) confirms what many San Franciscans already knew: City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his staff are perhaps the nation’s leading legal organization for achieving progressive change. While its legal strategy on marriage equality gets the most national focus, Herrera’s office has also used the courts to combat wage theft, close nuisance liquor and grocery stores, improve substandard housing, and ensure that restaurants provide legally mandated health care for workers. It is a stellar record. Municipal attorney’s offices in the United States usually operate by a “don’t rock the boat” mentality, and seldom carry out progressive legal actions. Herrera’s City Attorney’s Office is an exception, and here are four reasons why he has been so successful.

San Franciscans know about City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s accomplishments, but its good to see the New York Times confirm how special his office is. At a time when faith in the legal system as a vehicle for progressive change is at its lowest mark in five decades, it is great to see the San Francisco City Attorney’s office pursue a social justice path.

I think there are four reasons why Dennis Herrera’s office has been so successful.

Herrera’s Legal Skills

Unlike many politically ambitious attorneys who seek to become city attorneys, Dennis Herrera is a highly-skilled lawyer. This means that he attracts top-notch deputy city attorneys, can distinguish quality from mediocre lawyers in the hiring process, and is not threatened by super smart subordinates.

Most attorneys with Herrera’s legal skills do not enter the public sector because, as he no doubt knows, he would be earning five times his current salary in the private sector. But when public legal jobs attract the best talent---and a great example is Thomas E. Perez, who made a huge difference heading the Civil Rights Division at the Obama Justice Department and was nominated this week to be the new Labor Secretary--- great accomplishments can result.

Proactive Approach

Herrera is also successful because he takes a proactive approach.

The City Attorney’s Office is not required to use nuisance lawsuits to close down neighborhood-damaging businesses, or to vigorously enforce laws against wage theft. In other cities, municipal attorneys feel leave such actions to the private parties impacted.

But Herrera understands that private parties often lack the resources to bring such cases, and that the City Attorney’s office brings greater weight to such actions because it represents the public interest. Judges are also far more sympathetic to such cases when brought by the City Attorney.

Non-Ideological Legal Agenda

Although Herrera’s support for marriage equality and other issues clearly reflects a political perspective, the City Attorney’s office has a deserved reputation for respecting the law. This approach has its downsides, as it means that Herrera can disappoint political allies who thought they could “count” on him to bring a case that lacks legal merit.

But landlord and tenant groups both have a high opinion of Herrera’s work, which is remarkable given their conflicts over many issues. And the same is true of developers and critics of projects---both feel Herrera’s legal judgment rather than politics governs his approach.

San Francisco’s Legal Climate

Herrera has also achieved great success because he is operating in a legal environment in which cutting edge legal cases are encouraged. San Francisco attorneys have long been in the vanguard of using the legal system to bring social change, and its City Attorney runs little political risk in pursuing such a course.

But while Herrera benefits from San Francisco’s legal legacy, the fact is that the City Attorney’s Office has been a backwater of mediocrity for much of its history. The pattern began to change under City Attorney Louise Renne, but it was Herrera who has made a complete break from the past in putting together the most highly skilled group of deputy city attorneys San Francisco has ever seen.

With fewer job opportunities for lawyers seeking to make a difference in the world, positions in Herrera’s City Attorney’s Office have become highly desirable. This too is a far cry from the history of that office.

Given his office's success, it’s understandable that Herrera faces no serious challenger in the November 2013 election.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which has co-counseled cases with the City Attorney’s Office.