By Andrew Cohen
One lives on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast. One works in a federal court, the other in a state court. One got her formative legal experience as a prosecutor, the other as a public defender.
Yet when it came to sharing insights with Berkeley Law students about becoming a judge, their favorite part of the job, and what stands out on clerkship applications, federal district court judges Sarala Nagala ’08 (Connecticut) and Adrienne Nelson (Oregon) sounded similar notes during Berkeley Law’s annual Judges-in-Residence Program.
Valuing impartiality and approaching every fact pattern with an open mind. Treating defendants humanely. Seeking clerks who are well-rounded and can work well with all kinds of people.
“I enjoy problem-solving, working to find the right answer, talking directly to the litigants, and explaining how you reached your decision,” said Nelson, an Oregon Supreme Court associate justice for five years before her recent Senate confirmation to the federal bench. “You have to be able to express that in a way that’s understandable as well as respectful and helps people understand the outcome.”
During the Judges-in-Residence Program — which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October — the judges spent two days connecting with students and faculty, participating in a lunch discussion moderated by Berkeley Law Director of Judicial Clerkships Anna Han, visiting classes, and describing their daily tasks.
“As law students, it’s pretty difficult to meet judges outside the context of an interview or a panel,” said 3L Alison Luna. “This program allows students to interact with judges in a more intimate and relaxed setting, and it’s helpful to get to know judges and what their preferences are for hiring … Diversity on the bench is extremely important, and helping students to see that a path to that career is possible makes it less likely for them to self-select out of trying.”
Fueled by foul play
Nelson’s pursuit of justice was honed at a young age. Raised in Gurdon, Arkansas, she earned the right to be her high school valedictorian. When the school initially granted the honor to a white student with a lower grade point average, Nelson’s mother considered bringing a lawsuit against the school to make her valedictorian.
“The lawyer who represented us offered me an opportunity to work at his firm,” Nelson said. “I did that for a number of summers after college, and it changed my trajectory. I really wanted to do something to give voice to the voiceless.”
In Portland, Nelson worked as a contract analyst, public defender, private practice lawyer, and educational institution lawyer. Named an Oregon circuit court judge in 2006 and reelected in 2012, she was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2018 — the first African American to serve on any appellate court in the state.
1L Theo Galvan, who met Nelson during a Defenders @ Berkeley/Law Students of African Descent event, said her visit reaffirmed that Berkeley Law students are more than capable of aspiring to lofty judicial chambers. “Additionally, as a Black man and person of color, meeting the first Black woman to serve on an appellate court in Oregon was inspiring to know that members within my community are being served by people who look like them,” he said.
Nagala externed at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before clerking for Judge Susan Graber of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Before becoming a judge herself, she also worked in private practice and as a federal prosecutor.
“On any given day, there can be so many topics in your courtroom,” Nagala said. “If you like learning about many different aspects of the law, if you’re willing to work hard and allow yourself to be educated and accept that you don’t have the most expertise in the room, it’s very rewarding. A judicial decision is not a place to advance any personal agenda or personal politics. This job is never boring. There hasn’t been a single boring day.”
The judges also offered similar advice for students considering coveted judicial clerkships. They encouraged them to pursue externships as well as clerkships, not confine themselves to a single court or region, ask a professor to contact a judge on their behalf, learn about the judges they’re applying to clerk with, and attend court arguments while in law school.
“I look for people who have an interest in civil litigation because that’s 85% of my docket,” Nagala said. “For aspiring clerks, it’s good to provide concrete detail in your application showing a real understanding of the judge, the court, and the region.”
Nelson noted that while grades are a factor in clerkship applications, “You don’t always need to lead with them.” She added that judges want to gain a broader perspective of the candidates, and urged first generation professional students to apply.
“I also want someone who can work both independently and collaboratively,” Nelson said. “People who are intellectually curious, want to write, and have good editing skills. I also don’t want someone who’s going to pre-dispose an issue. It’s important to come in with an open mind. Sometimes you’ll hear the legislative history of a statue and it wasn’t what you thought.”
Nelson and Nagala both emphasized elevating humanity in the courtroom, making sure both sides have ample room to present their case and character witnesses. Nagala said she never references anyone as “the defendant,” adding that “you’re dealing with a real human being for whom your decision will have incredible consequences.”
“At sentencing, often all they hear is how bad they’ve been,” she said. “If a judge offers a little bit of hope and points to something positive in the defendant, a criminal defendant may come away thinking, ‘The judge saw some promise in me,’ and that may lead to less recidivism.”