Practicing Law as a Court Employee

For those of you who may have wondered what it would be like to work for the courts, we thought we’d give you some insights from legal research attorneys, who work exclusively behind the scenes, and facilitators, who work in the courtroom and at public service points in various courthouses. We asked each of them some general questions. Here’s what they had to say:

Matt Kitson, Lead Civil Research Attorney

Briefly summarize your academic and professional background.
I graduated with honors from DePaul University in Chicago with a political science degree. I then graduated cum laude from the University of Illinois College of Law. Following law school, I worked for a number of years at large, international law firms. I started at Howrey, and subsequently moved to Arent Fox. My practice touched a wide array of litigation matters, but focused primarily on insurance coverage litigation and white collar criminal defense.

Why did you want to work for the Court?
My criminal defense practice often left me wishing for better facts to serve as the foundation of my advocacy. I was intrigued by the idea of no longer having to worry about being stuck with bad facts. And the appeal of non-“big law” working hours is undeniable.

Describe your job duties.
Civil research attorneys analyze opposed law and motion matters and advise the Court on their disposition. In addition to advising the bench on particular matters, my role as Lead Civil Research Attorney requires me to manage the workflow of the Civil Research Unit.

What challenges and rewards have you encountered working for the Court?
The rewards have been innumerable. Being able to carefully analyze complex legal issues without the pressure of having a stake in the outcome has been tremendously stimulating and rewarding. Both my colleagues in the Civil Research Unit and the bench officers we serve are a joy to work with and are incredibly bright. When a difficult issue arises, it’s truly a pleasure to be able to have an in-depth discussion with such a thoughtful, capable group.

The funding situation for the superior courts in California need not be rehashed here, other than to say that it certainly presents a challenge.

Deirdre Murphy, Lead Criminal Research Attorney

Briefly summarize your academic and professional background.
I graduated from law school in Canada in 1994 and then did a two-year clerkship with the Canadian Court of Appeal. Thereafter, I practiced at a civil law firm only to realize my passion was for criminal law. I left to work as a District Attorney and then as a private criminal defense attorney until I moved to California in 2001. I have been working as a criminal research attorney for Contra Costa Superior Court since 2002.

Why did you want to work for the Court?
Working at the Superior Court felony trial division is like working in the emergency room at a large hospital. The cases are high volume and high intensity with people’s lives being impacted by the decisions of the Court. I knew that I belonged in that environment where my legal analytical skills and professional training would be harnessed for the betterment of our community. I also knew that working at the Court, I would have to rise to the intellectual challenge arising from working with such talented jurists, as well as having to adapt to the law as it dynamically changed in response to differing circumstances.

Describe your job duties.
My job duties as the Lead Criminal Research Attorney focus on providing legal analysis and research for the judges of our Criminal Trial Division. The work includes pretrial motions, trial motions, as well as all writs. This also includes drafting orders, judgments and legal memoranda.

What challenges and rewards have you encountered working for the Court?
The challenges presented in my work are varied. First, there is the great responsibility I feel I bear to ensure that the legal analysis and recommendations I provide to our jurists are legally correct and that they will withstand appellate scrutiny. Secondly, working with the judges requires the discipline of being an active listener in order to understand the individual jurists’ concerns. Working with such experienced legal minds is also one of the greatest rewards of my job. The collaborative aspect of reasoning through a difficult area of law and finding the just result continues to be the greatest privilege and inspiration.

We now transition from attorneys who function solely behind the scenes, to those attorneys in highly visible public roles.

Courtney O’Hagan, Senior Assistant Family Law Facilitator

Briefly summarize your academic and professional background.
I graduated from Colorado State University with a BA in economics, and a minor in history. I graduated from the honors program cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and I was a Division 1 swimmer. I served in AmeriCorps – Colorado Literacy Corps between undergrad and law school. I include this because my AmeriCorps experience shifted me away from wanting a JD/MBA and a career as a big firm mergers and acquisitions lawyer to wanting to work with individual clients. I graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2006. I was an associate with Whiting, Fallon, Ross & Abel, LLP (WFRA) for 6 and a half years before joining the Court in 2013.

Why did you want to work for the Court?
At WFRA, I worked with wonderful people, gained valuable experience, and found family law intellectually engaging from a legal standpoint. I had pretty good instincts in family law matters and developing case strategy – I love that family law is all different shades of gray and you can exercise a lot of creativity. Private litigation work simply wasn’t the best fit for me. Assisting families experiencing a stressful, trying time in a neutral capacity fits me much better.

Describe your job duties.
Anything and everything needed to move a case toward resolution. I say that only partially in jest. I work in a variety of roles in any given week, including working with litigants and judges in the courtroom on dedicated double pro per calendars, quick triage and referral at the self-help desk, holding drop-in hours, as well as running workshops to help litigants properly complete their court forms, researching issues, and providing input to court procedure and local rules.

At the end of the day, I think our job in the Facilitator’s Office is to educate people, set and adjust their expectations about what they can achieve in court, and help them identify and use the tools they need to navigate their current issues to move forward in their lives.

What challenges and rewards have you encountered working for the Court?
At the Court, I am in a position to see a direct impact of how my work helps the people who come through our doors, which is incredibly rewarding.

One of my bigger challenges is making sure I avoid advocacy on behalf of any individual pro per; however, I love that I am a voice for the collective pro per group, ensuring the experience of the pro per litigant is considered and weighed in developing local rules and court procedures.
Another challenge is the enormous disparity between the volume of people who need assistance, the variety and complexity of their issues, combined with our limited resources. We help as many people as we can with as many issues as we can. But we can’t do it all. Talking to someone who is desperate for help, without means to pay for private assistance, and telling them I cannot help is incredibly difficult. I always try to provide some resource referral but some people are just in a tough spot.

Were you surprised by any aspects of your job?
I use each and every skill I honed in private practice, plus other skills I’ve developed while working here, every day.
Are there any experiences related to your assignment that other lawyers might find interesting?

The upside and the downside is that I do not have ongoing relationships with the people I assist. Also – I get to leave at 4:30 pm on Friday and not think about work until Monday morning!

Nicolás Vaca, Senior Self-Help Attorney

Nick is another attorney who spends his day in the courtroom, working with the judge behind the scenes and helping the public.
Briefly summarize your academic and professional background.

I received my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. I received my J.D. from Harvard Law School. I was in private practice for over 25 years. My practice includes immigration law and civil litigation. I represented clients in immigration bond hearings, cancellation of removal hearings, asylum, withholding of removal hearings, and relief under Convention Against Torture hearings as well as numerous appeals. My civil case experience includes representing municipalities, school districts, and other institutional clients in a variety of business, tort and employment matters.

Why did you want to work for the Court?
I came to work for the court system because the position, Senior Self-Help Facilitator, allowed me to assist individuals in the court system who could not afford an attorney. I believed that my litigation experience provided me with the type of background that could assist individuals as they worked their way through the type of cases with which I was familiar.

Describe your job duties.
Currently I have two responsibilities. As a Small Claims Advisor I answer email inquiries regarding the procedural aspects of the small claims process. Additionally, I hold monthly small claims presentations in the Martinez, Pittsburg and Richmond Courthouses. The presentations cover all aspects of filing and serving a small claims action. As the court’s Probate Facilitator, I assist individuals with filing petitions for guardianship of a person only. This assistance is provided in several ways. First, I respond to telephone inquiries regarding guardianship. Second, I hold guardianship workshops where I assist individuals in completing their petitions for guardianship. Finally, I sit in Department 14 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the guardianship calendar. In that capacity, based on the judge’s instructions, I assist petitioners with completing their petitions and/or correcting any defects identified by the probate examiners.

What challenges and rewards have you encountered working for the Court?
The greatest challenge presented by my position is organizing and prioritizing my duties. On any given month, I receive in excess of 150 telephone calls for guardianship, and over 150 emails for small claims matters, am in attendance in Dept. 14 and conduct small claims presentations and guardianship workshops. I have found that I have to be extremely organized. The greatest reward is, without a doubt, the enthusiastic expressions of thanks and appreciation that I receive from the individuals that I assist. The expressions are genuine and deeply heartfelt.

Were you surprised by any aspects of your job?
I have been surprised by the complexity of some of the questions that I receive as the Small Claims Advisor; small claims does not equate to easy questions. I was also surprised by the number of pro per litigants that utilize the court system. As a private attorney, I had no understanding of the tremendous services provided by the court to pro per litigants.

Are there any experiences related to your assignment that other lawyers might find interesting?
It is said that an army marches on its stomach. I have no doubt that the court functions because of the clerks. Working in the court system has made me realize that the justice meted out in the courtroom, which is noble and reassuring, could not happen without the work and hard effort of the clerks.

So now you know – and we hope you will consider working with us here at the Court at some point during your legal career. It’s always interesting to peek behind the curtain at how justice is made.


Magda LopezMagda Lopez joined the Contra Costa Superior Court after 20+ years in civil practice. As the Director of Family Law Programs and Professional Services, her responsibilities include supervision of all aspects of family law, the legal research attorneys, alternative dispute resolution programs and the interpreters.

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