Reflections on an intense and rewarding journey
I work as a judicial officer in family law in Santa Clara, California. I grew up on the Columbia Law School campus, and so I know more people around here than they know me, from the time I was a little baby running around campus in diapers to an almost-50-year old.
My parents came to Columbia in 1972, when I was two years old. My father, Kellis E. Parker, was the first black professor at the Law School. He taught here until he passed away in 2000. A teaching fellowship was created in his name to inspire new law graduates, who want to go into the teaching profession, to spend a year or two at Columbia Law School. It subsidizes part of their pay.
I didn’t really want to be a lawyer at all, but when I graduated from college, I was working with nonprofits for a couple of years and my parents were like “Okay, so what are you going to do?” They were not satisfied with a college degree, and so I had to pick which graduate school I was going to go to. My interests were so scattered that I applied to a school of journalism, I applied to a PhD program in anthropology, and I applied to the Columbia law school, and I figured: whichever I get first, I’ll just cancel the other applications. Columbia won.
The experience I had here was second only to my experience in undergrad. I went to Barnard College, across the campus, and, you know, I don’t think I could be where I am today without the guidance of my father, my mom, and the Columbia experience. It carries a lot of weight, just having Columbia on your resume.
Three years is a very short period of time, you really have to explore all of the areas of law that there are to offer so you can figure out which one fits you best. You only have two summers. Use them as a time to get your feet wet, experience as many areas as you can—and there are so many different areas of law that you can practice in. There are the ones that everybody knows about—mergers and acquisitions, trust and estate, corporate, but there are also other areas such as human rights, international trade, there’s politics. Law touches on so many different subjects, and three years is so short that it makes sense to experience different areas before you go out into the world to practice.
I started at a major news station in business and corporate media TV. I worked in-house which fresh law graduates don’t usually do coming out of law school. After a while, it was no longer a challenge. It became mundane, and so I transitioned to a law firm in California, which is also unconventional because usually you go straight to the law firm. I worked in intellectual property transactions in California, but it was in the late 90’s when the wave of digital technology was just starting. We were just starting to get MP3s on the market, and we were just starting to get websites that needed privacy policies and that sort of thing. But then my father passed away, and it felt like it was time for me to move towards more of what I wanted to do in the first place—which is to help people manage their lives in such a way that allows them to grow and allows their families to flourish.
I went into private practice for a while, and after going through a divorce, I didn’t want to worry about where my next paycheck was going to come from. So I applied for a job at the superior court in Santa Clara County as a settlement officer. I had no idea what a settlement officer was, but it was available. It was the most grueling interview I’ve ever had—three panels, mock interviews, and I had no idea what the job was about. Santa Clara County is the only county in California that has such a role carved out for family law divorces. There used to be a separation between trial courts and municipal courts. The municipal courts used to do small claims, misdemeanors, arraignments. They take care of the high-volume cases, domestic violence among them. When municipal courts joined in with the trial courts, all of this is now part of the superior court. Judges still don’t want to do that other stuff, and so they hire judicial officers to take care of it for them. If you have any property dispute, any at all, they are sent to the settlement officer. The settlement officer then will have ADR mediations and arbitrations to try to help determine who gets what.
I looked up the local rules to figure out this position was. I had never really practiced in Santa Clara County. I had practiced in the counties around it, but Santa Clara County is the only one with the program, and so there was no one really to ask. I looked at the profiles of the previous settlement officers to see what their backgrounds had been, and I had been working in mediation as well as private practice, so I knew what went into arbitration and mediation. I had also taken Janice Tudy-Jackson’s course on negotiations skills. It was the first year that she was offering it at the Law School. The course’s main book, Getting to Yes, has been my baseline tool for mediation ever since 1996 or so. So, I knew what mediation was about, I knew what settlement meant, and I did some research on my own. It was a very intense process, but if you really want something, and you put in 150% effort, you will get to the next step. It’s a certainty. You just have to put in the work.
Thankfully, I passed the interview stage and they hired me. It was a great program. I got to know a lot of people and the court really liked my work. When a spot opened up for a court commissioner in family law, they asked me to consider it. I applied and they hired me. That’s what I’ve been doing for about a year and a half as a subordinate judicial officer. Now they’d like me to put in an application for a full-time judge, so right now I’m trying to figure out what the next steps will be. My specific court is in child support establishment and enforcement, and so my position is federally funded. It’s not state-trial court funded. So there’s 100% job security in what I’m doing. As a judge, someone could run against you, and then all of a sudden you’re looking for another job. It can take a while as a judge to be settled and not have to worry about your career future. One bad decision can get you in the press and then the next thing you know, people are throwing stuff at you when you’re in the grocery store or calling you names. My current position as a court commissioner is low-profile and has job security, which none of the others have—and I like that. I’m not just playing it safe, but it’s absolutely rewarding. I have my own courtroom, I have my own staff; it’s the exactly the same as being an appointed or elected judge without the insecurity and that other parts of it that make it less appealing.