California State Bar Court Hearing Judge Patrice McElroy ’78 has lived in the Bay Area nearly all her life. She went to high school in Belmont, attended UC Berkeley, and graduated from UC Hastings.
The daughter of a Peace Corps director, she grew up interested in civil rights and legal aid, and while at UC Hastings, she interned at the Employment Law Center and the State Public Defender’s Office. After she graduated, a friend from law school told her that the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office was hiring. She got a job there and found her calling working in the juvenile courts.
“At the Public Defender’s Office, nobody wanted to go to the juvenile courts. I was like, ‘Oh no, I have to defend parents who do awful things to their kids.’ But once I got working with the dependency system and seeing how it all begins with childhood, I knew I wanted to make a difference there.”
While at the office, she second-chaired a death penalty case, and the research she did for the penalty phase of her client’s trial taught her firsthand how childhood experiences impact behavior.
She went on to private practice and then, through another UC Hastings friend, learned about a job at the National Center for Youth Law. While working there, she was involved in a number of high-profile cases, including a class action lawsuit that resulted in the reform of Utah’s child welfare system.
McElroy admits that she eventually burned out practicing juvenile dependency and juvenile delinquency law. One day, flipping through The Recorder, she saw that the California State Bar Court had an opening for a hearing judge.
“I asked a friend, and she said, ‘I think you’d be bored,’” McElroy recalls. Now, nearing the end of her second six-year term, she says she finds the court, which deals with attorney misconduct and other State Bar regulatory and disciplinary matters, to be thoroughly fascinating.
“I had no idea how hard it is to be a judge,” says McElroy. “But if I give myself some distance, I think my decisions get better because then I’m not dealing with the soap opera of the court. With distance, I can look clearly at the facts.”
What advice can you give attorneys to help them stay out of trouble?
First, lawyers need to understand the difference between true retainers, nonrefundable retainers, and an advance fee agreement. They should maintain adequate records and never commingle personal funds with client funds. They should not represent multiple clients in the same matter or accept compensation from anyone other than the client. Finally, they should never ignore a letter from the State Bar.