This interview with Rosailda Perez, Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice, San Francisco, who participated in the UC Hastings Legislation Clinic, was conducted and condensed by Rachel Goodman.
What does it mean to you now to be a government lawyer?
Here at the Attorney General’s office I feel like I get paid to do the right thing, to help make California a better place. It is very rewarding. But along with that I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do good work. And that is pretty easy to do working here.
The Attorney General’s office is comprised of three divisions: civil, criminal and public rights. I am in the civil division, in the licensing section. In this section we provide legal services to regulatory agencies that were created to protect consumers from harm from licensed businesses and professionals operating in California. There is a whole spectrum of service providers that require a license to operate and/or practice in California. We have well over 30 clients.
They range from entities that regulate nurses, accountants, engineers, etc. The cool thing about this section is that it is a litigation section. This is my first job out of law school, so there has been a real learning curve working in this section. At Hastings I had zero interest in being a litigator or being, what you would consider “a traditional attorney” but I was hired through the honors program and this is where I was placed.
My clients are the people at the state regulatory agencies who are in charge of enforcement actions. I litigate the cases when an agency wants to discipline the licensee for misconduct.
The way it works is when a client wants to seek administrative discipline against a licensee, they conduct an investigation and they forward the investigative file to the Attorney General’s Office. It is assigned to one of the various attorneys in the section and we build a case. It is up to us to draft the pleading, which is equivalent to a complaint, serve it, communicate with the licensee or his/her attorney, and figure out how to resolve the matter. Normally the cases go to hearing. But we can also settle them. If it does go to hearing, that means we put on a mini trial in an administrative setting. We engage in the discovery process, identify witnesses, prepare witnesses, do direct and cross examination of witnesses, and do opening and closing arguments. From there, if a decision is appealed, we handle the appeal up the chain: Superior Court, Court of Appeal.
I have many clients. My caseload right now is extremely diverse. Every day is different. I get to learn about different areas of law and I love it.
What was your impression of government lawyers back when you were a student at UC Hastings?
I did not know any government attorneys. I did not really know what they did. I had been a social worker for the City and County of San Francisco prior to going to law school and I had seen the City Attorneys in court because they represented the social workers. That was my only point of reference for government attorneys, at the city level in San Francisco.
To be perfectly honest, while I was at UC Hastings, I did not know that there was an option of interning or externing at the Attorney General’s office or the City Attorney’s office. I went to law school knowing that I wanted to go into public service, working for a non-profit or some government entity. I just did not know that those externships where available during the school year. My first summer I worked for the County Counsel’s office in Santa Clara County.
How is your social work background related to the work you do now?
I worked for Child Protective Services (CPS), for the City and County of San Francisco. I worked in the sex trauma unit, investigating cases of sexual abuse, primarily with monolingual Spanish speaking clients in the Mission district. The unit was an emergency response and court dependency unit. My role was to investigate sex abuse allegations. I would go out and interview family members and the minor and try to figure out what was going on. If I substantiated the claims, then I would write a court report that would get filed. I would go into court a couple of days later, and hopefully get a judge to grant jurisdiction over the minors.
I am not working with the same population now, but the skills I developed as a social worker are definitely beneficial to the work I do now: investigating, working in a fast paced environment, learning to deal with stress, working with other attorneys, having to write court reports to explain what my investigation yielded.
My social work background provides me with perspective. As a social worker I was dealing with, sometimes gruesome, cases of sexual abuse that directly affected an individual’s life and well-being. This is not the case now. Being an attorney working with regulatory agencies can be stressful. There are definitely some difficult days. But I am able to look back on my experiences as a social worker to keep things in perspective. Knowing that some people have real life issues that are extremely challenging helps keep me grounded. My experience as a social worker has been invaluable, in that sense.
It sounds like you are speaking to the humanity side of the work you do. There is something about getting up close with things that can be quite horrific, but understanding that there are real people involved and be able to stay grounded in that.
Yes. Having my social work background helps me understand where licensees are coming from and helps shed light on why they engaged in misconduct. Maybe something difficult was going on in their life? That has also helped in trying to resolve these cases outside of the hearing process. Maybe this is a person who does not really have a drug problem? Maybe these other things were going on and it may not make sense to revoke their license entirely, but perhaps probation would be more appropriate? Most agencies have their own disciplinary guidelines. So, in that sense there is not too much leeway regarding the ultimate resolution of a matter, but sometimes my recommendation can make a difference.
Having been a social worker helps me understand where people are coming from, and reminds me that there different life circumstances that could have played a role in a licensee’s behavior. Just because a licensee engaged in misconduct does not necessarily mean he or she is a bad person. It is important to recognize this, especially as a government attorney for the state.
So, tell me about a day in the life of you.
I live in the East Bay and take public transportation into the city, where the office is. I am usually in the office around 8:30 or 9:00. The first thing I do is check email to see what I need to respond to and then I start managing my caseload. I have about fifty or sixty cases that I am responsible for at any given time. And because it is a litigation section it is my responsibility to move them through the process. My cases are at various stages. So, I have to do a little triage to figure out what needs to be addressed first and then I make a “to do” list and try to work my way down the list. But obviously, like today (the phone rang several times during the interview), things just come up and my list gets ignored and I deal with whatever phone calls or emails I get from clients and go from there. No day is the same. On a quiet day I can just focus on my cases and get things done in the office. I am normally in the office, unless I am in a hearing or have a court appearance or I am out in the field preparing witnesses for hearings. I would say eighty percent of my time I spend in the office working on my computer or on the phone. And, if I am not preparing for a hearing, I am usually out of the office by 5:30.
There is always lunch. My section is really great. We try to do group lunches on a regular basis at least once a week. Other times I just eat at my desk, or with other colleagues from the honors program.
Your work sounds somewhat solitary. Are you often working with other people from your section?
It is actually a very collaborative and welcoming environment, particularly because I am the youngest and newest member of the section (I graduated in May of 2012 and started working in September of 2012), everybody else is aware that I need guidance. I go downstairs to my colleagues’ offices and pick their brains because there are many things I do not know. I have been here two years now and everybody else has been here five years or more. And they have all come to the Attorney General’s office with several years of experience.
It sounds very supportive.
It is extremely supportive! Early on my colleagues would come with me to hearings or they would accompany me to witness preparation sessions or court appearances and that was extremely helpful to ease the nervousness of appearing before a judge for the first time and being scared of messing something up.
What surprises you about your work?
The most surprising thing about the work I do is the variety of cases I have had the opportunity to work on. We work with over thirty state regulatory agencies. I had no idea I would have an opportunity to work with all of these matters and learn about the different state agencies, what they do, and the way they do things. Every day I learn something new.
Also the amount of responsibility I had upon arrival blew me away. It was a little scary but also gratifying that people trusted me to handle these cases. It was sink or swim. I think there is an inherent lack of resources working for the government, which to me means, you are given significant responsibility right away and you have to carry your own weight.
Can you say a little bit about your work/life balance and how it might compare to some of your colleagues who work in other areas of law?
I think I am spoiled being at the Attorney General’s office because the work/life balance is great. I get to set my own schedule. As long as I get my work done, that is really all that matters. Sometimes I can get in late and stay late, or come in early and leave early. For the most part it is a nine to five job. I also get set my own calendar, meaning I request certain dates for my trials. If I know that I want to plan a vacation in a certain month I will not schedule a trial during that time. I am very lucky in that sense. I know that that is not the case for people working at firms two years into their profession.
You were in our Legislation Clinic, taught by Professor Michael Salerno, and I am wondering how that experience paved the way for what you are doing now?
The Legislation Clinic was one of the most valuable things I did while at UC Hastings. I enrolled in it right around the time I was offered this position at the Attorney General’s Office for after graduation. For a brief moment I considered not doing the Clinic, because it is full-time commitment in Sacramento. I thought about whether my time would be better spent taking classes at UC Hastings. In the end I decided that the Legislation Clinic was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that if I did not do it then I would probably never experience what it was like to work in Sacramento and the State Capitol. And that has always been an interest of mine. So I decided to do it. It was great, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
I was placed in the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. I had no background in taxation, but that really did not matter. The point of the Clinic is to expose future attorneys to the legislative process and how statutory law is made, and I think that this exposure is incredibly important for any attorney practicing in California. Before that I was completely ignorant of the political or legislative process in California, aside from what you learn in school, which is not much. It was great. It was such an eye opening experience. I learned a lot, especially about bill drafting, how bills are passed, negotiations, and what role lobbyists play in the legislative process.
I also got to see the interaction of the executive and judicial branches with the legislative branch and that was great.
In my day to day work my Legislation Clinic experience has helped me with interpreting statutes and understanding the difference between a regulation and a statutory provision, and the rule making process with the state agencies. Also, sometimes clients call and want to make changes to one of the statutory provisions and they ask for our input. While I have not yet done that, I can see how my experience in Sacramento will be beneficial when that happens.
You mentioned you decided to take the Legislation Clinic when you already knew you would be employed at the Attorney General’s office. Tell me more about your interest in continuing governmental work.
Before going to law school I knew I wanted to do public interest work, so I was seeking out opportunities that would position me to go down that route after law school. I had zero experience in politics, but I saw how what happened in Sacramento affected the work that I was doing as a social worker for the City and County of San Francisco. It is a bureaucracy. The level of advocacy was limited. Sometimes that is frustrating. You wonder why is this rule in place? Who decided that? That is what drove me to law school. I was frustrated by the level of advocacy I was able to do as a social worker. The same was true about my experiences while in law school.
For my first summer in Law School I was at the County Counsel’s office and the second summer at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles. I was connecting the dots. There are these rules, and I wanted to find out how the rules are made. If I am going to be a lawyer I should know how laws are made. That desire is what prompted me to move forward and go to Sacramento.
Here, at my job, I am able to see that as an elected official, the Attorney General has an agenda and part of the Attorney General’s work is to move the agenda forward for the benefit of the people of California, and often times that means finding legislators in Sacramento to sponsor bills that are going to provide a change that the Attorney General thinks is necessary. A lot of people do not know what this process entails. Participating in the Legislation Clinic gave me a glimpse into this world. It was fascinating.
Now, more than ever, there is pressure on lawyers entering the workforce. Do you have any advice you would like to give the next generation of law students interested in government law?
Yes. Be sure of your commitment to public service and know what it entails. It does not mean that you are going to become rich. You have to be interested in making the world a better place and that could be on a micro level or a macro level. After that, seek out opportunities in law school that will demonstrate your commitment to public service. So, at UC Hastings I did the Legislation Clinic and also a full-time semester long judicial externship. I would also highly recommend this externship to law students.
Is working in the public service sector a financial sacrifice?
I participate in UC Hastings Public Interest Career Assistance Program (PICAP) and plan to use the Federal Government Loan Forgiveness Program, so I am not too worried about this. It is definitely feasible to do this work, but you are not going to become rich. If your goal is to make a lot of money then yes, working in the public service sector can be a financial sacrifice. But, if your goal is to do work that makes you happy, then the financial pressure is not as strong. The financial sacrifice is worth it.
Since there are more opportunities at UC Hastings with the New Government concentration and the Government Law student organization, what feedback do you have for professors and the community in general for what the next generation of government lawyers needs to know to be prepared?
The most important thing would be to stress the practical skills courses for students. I did not take Trial Advocacy. But had I known what I was going to be doing, I would have taken it because I am in front of judges all of the time. There is no downside to taking a trial advocacy course or an appellate advocacy course, settlement negotiations too. I think it is important for professors to encourage students to take skills based courses so that students will be better prepared to start working for a government entity, where you are given a lot of responsibility right away. The more time you spend trying to research something on WestLaw, you put yourself at a disadvantage.
Also participating in the Clinics and Externship opportunities. They were beneficial to me. I spent the equivalent of a year away. I do not think I would have learned as much as I did, if I had spent that time at in the classroom.
It sounds like those experiences really brought it to life for you.
They did. And they helped solidify my desire to continue in public service. They also make applicants to positions like mine stand out. It is something different and more directly related to the work than taking a class and regurgitating what you learned on an exam.
Do you think your judicial externship as well as your experiences as a social worker were important in getting you the position you have now?
I do not know how much weight it carried, but I do know that I was definitely asked about my judicial externship in my interview. And I talked about my experience as a social worker during the interview as well. Particularly about the skills I gained as a social worker and how those skills would be beneficial to my work at the Attorney General’s office. They definitely asked about those experiences. At that point I had not started the Legislation Clinic.
I think that extracurricular work experiences demonstrate maturity; that you are ready and willing to do the work.
Is there anything you would like to add before we wrap up?
Just that it is great if you can get a position working for the government either at the local, state or federal level. It is incredibly rewarding. You learn a great deal. And you end up getting a lot more responsibility and autonomy working on the cases than being a first or second year associate.
Thank you, Rosie, especially on a busy day.
Rachel Goodman, MFT, is the Academic Program Coordinator with the Center for State and Local Government Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. She is also a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, CA where she works with individuals and couples. She is working on a series of interviews of UC Hastings alumni who participated in either the Center for State and Local Government Law’s externships, seminars and programs, and have gone on to work in government or public law. Stay tuned for the next one.
For more information about the Center for State and Local Government Law at UC Hastings, please visit http://gov.uchastings.edu/