Volunteering with the Court
It’s a “Win-Win”
Have you ever noticed that helping others can have the added benefit of helping ourselves? It’s true. Sometimes what benefits others, also benefits us – it’s the ultimate “win-win.”
Working with our courts and volunteering my time is one area that I have found to be a true “win-win.” Not only have I been able to help the courts in ways that have reduced their trial load and allowed judges to have much-needed time to recharge, but it has come back to benefit both me and my practice. It is something that can work to help build a new practice or solidify an established practice.
One way I have done this is by serving as a temporary judge (also referred to as a pro tem judge). Over the past 20 years I have done so over 200 times; at least half of those have been for the Contra Costa County Superior Court. I highly recommend it. Last November our current Presiding Judge, Jill Fannin, wrote an article for this magazine on being a temporary judge, and she highlighted the benefits not just to the courts and the litigants, but to the volunteers as well:
“the attorneys who volunteer their time to serve as temporary judges help to cover calendars when our bench officers are unavailable… Without the service of the temporary judges, cases would be continued and litigants throughout the county would experience delay and inconvenience.” She went on to point out that serving as a temporary judge “offers practical experience to attorneys interested in pursuing a career as a judicial officer.” In other words… it’s a “win-win.” The nice part is that it is not difficult to qualify and there are many options for service to choose from. Presiding Judge Fannin concluded her article by stating: “to the attorneys who have and continue to serve as temporary judges in this county… thank you! Your commitment and hard work is greatly valued by the court and the parties who appear before you.”
Serving as a pro tem judge is not the only way to help the courts (and yourself). There are many other opportunities available, depending on your training and availability. For example, being a Small Claims or Traffic Court judge is also interesting and fulfilling. The best part for me is helping people get over their fears. I do this by speaking softly and kindly to them. When they get the chance to tell their story I can see and feel the burden of their dispute being lifted. When someone is able to show that the traffic ticket was not properly issued it makes their day and helps them feel that the justice system works for them. Helping youth understand the need to drive safely also feels right. To serve as a Small Claims or Traffic Court judge, you need to be in practice ten years and you are required to take 12 hours of training every three years.
Another opportunity is serving as a discovery facilitator. Almost everyone can see the need for the discovery facilitator and it is easy and rewarding. You get to hear each side explain their position in a discovery dispute during a conference call that you set up. You then listen as they soften up and reach a compromise. As with many of the other opportunities, it does require that you be in practice at least ten years, but otherwise, it takes minimal training. Here are the requirements. Each assignment only takes about one or two hours and you can do it as often or as little as you like.
My favorite opportunity is being a mediator. There is nothing better, in my view, than seeing both sides reach an agreement, especially when it looked hopeless in the beginning. Letting the two sides sit across a table and respectfully share their stories has a magical effect. Knowing each side trusts you – and then honoring that trust – is very satisfying.
One of the main drawbacks for most attorneys in serving as a mediator is that you need 40 hours of mediation training and there are ongoing MCLE requirements, but if you have this training, serving as a panel mediator can be a great way to build your business and help people in the process. On a side note, although taking this training is a big time commitment, it is invaluable to understanding the mediation process and it only makes you a better advocate for your own clients when you take them into mediation. Unlike the 40 hour training requirements to be a mediator, to be a Settlement Mentor at the court house you only need to demonstrate that you are an experienced trial attorney in that field of practice. Although you are not conducting a formal mediation, you do get to help people negotiate to avoid trial – sometimes literally minutes before their trial is called. It is rewarding to get to know the Superior Court judges you are helping and they appreciate your efforts in freeing up their dockets for other cases.
There is a real partnership in Contra Costa County between our courts and our bar, and it is only strengthened when we offer our time, our expertise and our skills to the courts. The icing on the cake is that it strengthens us as well.
Philip M. Andersen is the Managing Attorney of the State Farm Insurance Company In-House Litigation Department in Pleasanton. (Philip M. Andersen & Associates). He has extensive litigation and trial experience defending policy holders in personal injury lawsuits. He has been managing in-house insurance litigation offices since 1994. Contact Phil at (925) 225-6838 or [email protected]
 The views expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer State Farm.