ACBA Member Spotlight

ACBA Member Spotlight: Judge Stephanie Sato

Stephanie SatoACBA Past President Stephanie Sato recently became an Administrative Law Judge in Oakland at the CA Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. Before her assignment, Stephanie was the owner of  the Law Offices of Stephanie K. Sato in Oakland, specializing in family law. Stephanie was selected for inclusion in the Northern California Super Lawyers Rising Stars List since 2013 . In 2009, she received the ACBA Distinguished Service Award for a Young Lawyer and in 2011-2012 she served as Chair of the ACBA Barristers Section Executive Committee.

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

After I worked as a pathology and trial paralegal. I enjoyed it, and decided to apply to law school.

What will your assignment be?

I am an Administrative Law Judge for the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.  I hear appeals regarding unemployment benefits, disability, and tax issues, and I draft decisions.

If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what would you be doing instead?

I have always enjoyed writing, talking to people, and learning new things, so I was on a journalism path for a while.  I was an editor for my high school newspaper, wrote for my college newspaper, was an editor for my college yearbook, and had my own column in a community newspaper after college.  Later in life, I realized I might enjoy creating sports videos such as the introduction videos played before every Golden State Warriors home game which get the fans hyped up for the game.  I imagine it involves a good combination of vision, creativity, and being detail oriented (such as planning the music to crest right at the point of a slam dunk), and you end up with a finished product which you’re so proud of and which people love.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were first admitted to practice?

Take more control over your career.  When you’re an associate attorney, your schedule will be filled with assignments your boss needs you to do.  While you need to get these things done, you should also consider what other skills you’d like to acquire or sharpen, and specifically ask for those assignments as well.  If you want to be a pro with prenuptial agreements, ask to be assigned the next few prenuptial agreements.  If you want to get more experience with depositions, ask to take and defend some depositions.  Don’t assume your boss already knows, and don’t just get caught up on what needs to be done at the moment.  Even when you have your own firm, it’s easy to keep busy with whatever cases come through the door.  But it’s a good idea to step back now and then and consider what skills you’d like to acquire or sharpen, and make it a point to create opportunities to do those things.  Be proactive; take control of your career and what you want to learn and what kind of attorney you want to be.

What is the biggest challenge facing you as a judicial officer today?

The Appeals Board is swamped.  There are so many people who need unemployment assistance due to the pandemic, who need to know if they will get benefits or not, who have to wait for months to have their cases heard.  The number of claims has increased immensely due to the pandemic and we have a lot of cases to catch up on.

What is your dream vacation?

I would love to go to Japan.  I lived there for a year after college, and also had a summer internship there during law school.  I love the food (especially desserts) and shopping, the attention to detail, the efficiency of the trains, the busy cities, the beautiful scenery, how things are mostly clean and very organized.  I haven’t been to Japan since our daughter was born, and really miss it.

What are your reading now?

Animal books. Lots of them.  Lately, my daughter is obsessed with animals. She is always drawing animals, pretending to be animals, talking about animals, and reading about animals, so I try and participate in those activities with her.  Every day she asks me “what animal do you want to be?”  Today, I was a fishing cat.

What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina.  Growing up, I took years of ballet lessons with the San Francisco Ballet.  The teachers were strict and at one point I had lessons three times a week, in addition to rehearsals and performances.  My first paid job was performing in The Nutcracker. I still remember all the old dance steps and know every song, and remember the joy of performing.  I also performed in Papillon and Showcase. 

What person, living or dead, real or fictional, would you like to have dinner with?

This is a tough one.  If I could choose one living and one dead – I’d choose Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors coach (living) and my grandpa, Eiichi Sato (who passed away).  I would love to talk to Coach Kerr about what it was like playing with Michael Jordan, how he coaches and manages different personalities, and how he achieves the balance of playing with joy while being extremely competitive.  I would love to talk to my Grandpa Sato, who passed away when I was five.  He was a community leader in San Francisco’s Japantown, a president of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, and I have a handful of memories of him.  I would love to get to know him more, ask him about his experience living in the internment camps during World War II, and find out more about our family history. 

Why do you choose to be a member of the ACBA? What is the greatest benefit you have enjoyed as a member?

When I was a family law attorney, I worked for two other employers before opening my own practice, both of whom believed in the importance of being involved in a local bar organization.   Both are former presidents of their respective bar associations (Greg Silva for ACBA and Peter Loewenstein for CCCBA).  Greg had me join ACBA as soon as I started working for him as a new attorney, and I’ve been a member ever since, starting out on the Barristers Executive Committee, and then onto the ACBA Board and serving as President in 2016. 

I believe in its mission. I appreciate the variety of MCLEs that are offered. The staff are kind, and enjoyable to work with.  Being involved helped me grow personally and professionally.  The greatest benefit has been meeting terrific people, many of whom I consider lifelong friends, not to mention meeting my husband at a Barristers event.  I enjoy being part of the legal community. 

Learn more about becoming an ACBA member here