James Leininger was a skillful Santa Clara County defense attorney, a crusader for social justice and a member of a family with deep roots in San Jose.

But as a recovering alcoholic, he was known just as well for helping others emerge from the shoals of substance abuse -- be they lawyers, nurses, cops or Hells Angels.

Leininger, 78, of Gilroy, died Wednesday of leukemia at Stanford Medical Center, where he had been undergoing an experimental treatment for his illness.

"He loved what he did, and what he did was to help people. And that's what made all the difference,'' said Jim Gleason, the executive director of the Santa Clara County Independent Defense Counsel Office.

As a lawyer, Leininger enjoyed taking the toughest cases, ones other lawyers shunned. In the 2010 trial of the men accused in the killing of Los Gatos restaurateur Mark Achilli, Leininger represented middleman Miguel Chaidez, who was accused of paying the triggerman.

"He was confident, but he wasn't arrogant,'' said his son, Michael Leininger. "He would dissect a jury and find the most appealing way to get to them.''

Leininger was a member of "The Other Bar,'' a confidential lawyers' recovery group. And he helped found the organization now known as We Care, which has helped more than 3,000 nurses with substance abuse problems.

For much of his 45-year career as an attorney, Leininger had to balance work with the demands of caring for his wife, Helen, who suffered from chronic illness. The two had met at the Sears store on San Carlos Street in San Jose, where both worked as clerks. Helen Leininger died in 2009.

Leininger was born at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose on January 23, 1936, the son of Carl Leininger, who became San Jose's city engineer, and Mary Leininger, a homemaker.

The third of seven children, Leininger came from a family devoted to public service and social justice. A brother, William, was a Catholic priest. Another brother, Robert, became a ranking official in San Jose's redevelopment agency.

A 1958 graduate of Santa Clara University, Leininger worked in War on Poverty programs in the mid-'60s, graduated from Lincoln Law School and served as executive director of the Catholic Council on Social Justice.

In that job, he shamed the San Jose City Council into rejecting a bid from the Elks Club, which at the time discriminated against nonwhites, to sponsor a circus at the Civic Auditorium.

Leininger pointed out to a wavering Councilman Norm Mineta, later a mayor and congressman, that he would not be able to join the Elks because of his Japanese descent.

Leininger is survived by his son, Michael, Gilroy; two daughters, Kelly Douglas, Los Gatos; and Trish Loughnane, Woodland Hills, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Center for Spiritual Living, 1195 Clark Street in San Jose. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 675 N. First Street, Suite 1100, San Jose, CA 95110