When officials from the Superior Court of Alameda County in California began to notice growing vacancies in its courtroom clerk and legal processing assistant (LPA) roles, they believed it would be an ideal situation to look to the area’s community colleges to address gaps in public service employees.
Left to right: Hon. Tara Desautels (asst. presiding judge), Chad Finke (court executive officer), Kasha Clarke (chapter president, SEIU Local 1021), Merritt College President Marie-Elaine Burns, Linnea Willis (program director, Paralegal Studies), Marie Amboy (director, Strong Workforce, PCCD)
Now, a strategic partnership between the court and the Peralta Community College District (PCCD) – the first of its kind with the support from the local court union – will provide students in the district with an opportunity to earn certifications as LPAs or courtroom clerks. The online structure of the stackable certificates aim to attract learners interested in attaining a job while in school, and also those who are already working in low-wage jobs but looking to earn higher wages and advance their careers, PCCD leaders said.
“The new partnership will make training for legal processing assistant and courtroom clerk positions more accessible to the local community and equip graduates to participate in the workforce and earn a living wage,” said Marie Amboy, strong workforce director for PCCD. “In turn, the court will have access to a more diverse local talent pool with the skills needed to be competitive in today’s marketplace.”
PCCD’s LPA and courtroom clerk certificate programs will be open to students starting this fall – applications will be due by July 31. The programs fall under the district’s Paralegal Studies Program at Merritt College and include a series of courses for students to successfully enter the workforce in a court or legal setting.
Students on the LPA track take Introduction to Law and the Legal Profession, Law Office Management, Legal Research and Seminar in Paralegal Studies Internship. Because the LPA position is a “stepping stone” to a courtroom clerk position, Amboy said, students on the courtroom clerk track take the same courses as LPAs as well as four additional units – the course Intro to Civil Procedure and Litigation Practice.
A one-unit externship or internship component for students to gain work-based learning experience is embedded in the certificate programs.
“We heard this from the Superior Court and from the actual employees that do the job that that piece is oh so critical with their success,” Amboy said. “We wanted to give the students who will be going through this program as much confidence going into the interview in terms of understanding the job as much as possible.”
In the initial stages of the partnership, Amboy and other paralegal program leaders worked with the court to assess its application and hiring process.
“The hiring process for them, because they’re a public entity, has an exam,” she said. “All prospective employees or applicants are required to take an exam first. That sort of whittles the pool down.”
From there, selected applicants move on to an interview phase and then the court creates an eligibility list.
“What we noticed was that the diversity and sheer numbers gets whittled away at the exam piece,” Amboy said. “We in education were well aware of the drawbacks of looking at placement exams or tests of being the only factor to determine placement or completion because we know that there are certain groups that are really at a disadvantage when it comes to test-taking.”
For this reason, PCCD leaders worked with the executive directors and union officials at the court to revise and update its curriculum in the existing paralegal program.
“They actually reviewed our course content and made recommendations, made edits and requested that additional information be updated,” Amboy said, adding, “What we’re really saying is, when [students] complete the certification, they’re actually guaranteeing an interview. The union has actually said that they would give a certificate from Peralta a little bit of a higher weight in terms of points over somebody who is coming in that has passed the exam and has not had a certificate from Peralta.
“That’s part of what makes this sort of unprecedented. There are many partnerships with different public agencies [but] this is the first time the union has sort of left an alternative route to an employment placement test,” Amboy said.
“The Court appreciates being a part of this unprecedented partnership with Peralta,” said Chad Finke, court executive officer at the Superior Court of Alameda County. “We view this as a ‘win-win-win’ situation for our employees, job seekers and, most importantly, the public.”
When establishing the partnership, Amboy said the court acknowledged existing sentiments that they may be “out of touch” with the community.
“Partnering with Peralta, with a community college, really shows that they acknowledge that that may be the message and that they’re looking to shift that message,” she said.
And because Peralta Community College District serves a diverse pool of students, leaders hope that underrepresented groups entering the legal system will have a significant impact.
“What’s particularly important is that this is with the court, so it’s the justice system that many of our students or many of the people in our community might not have the best experience with,” Amboy said. “It sort of opens the doors to saying here’s an opportunity for you to work in the legal system to understand it, and even make inroads and make a difference inside it. People that look like the community now serving in that system, we hope will make positive inroads within the system itself in terms of being able to actively serve the community.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.