ACBA member Roger Chan was appointed to the San Francisco County Superior Court on June 28th. Roger has been the Executive Director at the East Bay Children’s Law Offices since 2009. He served as a deputy public defender at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office from 2003 to 2009 and from 1999 to 2000. Roger served as an attorney at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office from 2000 to 2003 and in 1999. He earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Please join us in sending Roger our congratulations and best wishes!
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I’ve always been committed to public service, but originally, I was interested in land use and city planning. That obviously didn’t stick with me, and I changed directions in my second year of law school. Through an internship at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Juvenile Division, I discovered that I wanted to be an attorney for children and youth. Working at juvenile court helped me see how the law can impact a person’s daily life.
I have spent my entire career representing children and youth in child welfare, juvenile justice, and probate guardianship cases. Juvenile cases are so interesting because the clients have needs that intersect with multiple systems, such as education and mental health. As the youth’s lawyer, I was able to break down barriers to services and help my clients get on the right track. Being client-centered is very important to me. I wanted to make sure that my clients understood their rights and the choices available, and that they understood what was happening in court. My goal was to always make sure that my clients felt like the judge had listened to them.
There’s this concept called procedural justice, which is the idea that people’s perception that the system is fair is as important as the system being fair. I believe that my appointment is also a recognition of the important work that juvenile lawyers do every day, and it is a great honor to come from this community.
Who are the people who have had the greatest influence upon your legal career?
My mentor is Patti Lee, the managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Juvenile Division. I was Patti’s law clerk when I was a 3L, and soon after became a colleague as a deputy public defender in San Francisco. Patti has influenced me with her courage and compassion. Every day, she stands true to her convictions and is strong when dealing with difficult situations or taking unpopular positions because it’s the right thing to do. As a lawyer, Patti also makes a “heart connection” with her clients and treats everyone with respect and dignity.
Kathy Siegel, who recently retired from the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, had the original vision for Alameda County’s children’s practice, and encouraged me to start EBCLO.
I also want to acknowledge the Juvenile Presiding Judges that I have worked with in Alameda County for the past 7 years – Judges Gail Bereola, Trina Thompson, Rhonda Burgess and Charles Smiley. Their leadership made an impact on the juvenile court and constantly worked with the stakeholders to make the court system work best for the people who matter most – the children and families. Each of them treat the youth and families with great respect, and take the time necessary to understand the issues in the case (which could be complicated when you’re talking about the lives of children). I also appreciate how each of them made a point of talking to, and with, the young person, not about or around him or her.
What are you most proud of so far in your legal career?
I am most proud of the cases where I was able to help my young clients get on the right track. I tried to always take the time get to know the youth and their families and to understand his or her goals and dreams. Winning a case in court was extremely satisfying, but even more so when it also led to a positive change for the youth.
Along these lines, I am also proud to have co-founded a children’s law firm that fights for kids, East Bay Children’s Law Offices (EBCLO), which assumed responsibility for representing nearly all of Alameda County’s foster youth in 2009. My goal was to build a model children’s law firm that partnered lawyers with social workers and advocated for youth both inside and outside the courtroom. One of the biggest needs was advocating for the educational needs of foster youth. By doing so, EBCLO has been able to help create educational equity for foster youth and reduce excessive or unnecessary school discipline. I am also proud of the reforms we were able to make to the juvenile court system and for the opportunities to collaborate with the system and community partners. I co-sponsored three new laws that reduced incarceration of youth, disparate treatment of foster youth, and established training requirements for juvenile defenders.
What tips can you give other lawyers interested in becoming a judge?
Focus on making a career that you are proud of and doing work that is meaningful to you. Everyone also says to network, but that’s really true. Someone advised me that it’s not enough to just be a hard worker. It’s important to make connections, help people that you can help, and ask for help when you need it. I have found that everyone I reached out to was supportive and generous with their time and advice.
Do you know what your assignment will be?
No, I have not received my assignment yet. I will be sworn-in on July 22nd at the San Francisco Juvenile Court, in the courtroom where I did my summer law internship, and where I first took my oath as an attorney.
What are you looking forward to the most about your new appointment?
Getting back to handling cases after seven years of being a CEO and dealing with financial spreadsheets and budgets! I’m also excited about learning how to become a good judge and working with my new colleagues on the San Francisco bench. I am fortunate to have spent roughly equal parts of my career in San Francisco and Alameda, and to have so many mentors on both courts that I can turn to.