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Judicial staff attorney: What I do and how much I make

Mark Wilson, a Judicial Staff Attorney at the California Supreme Court, shares his role in reviewing criminal petitions. He discusses the importance of good writing and reading skills in law, the salary progression in state jobs, and the satisfaction he finds in learning new things every day at work.

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Video transcript

My name is Mark Wilson. I'm 33. I'm a Judicial Staff Attorney at the California Supreme Court. And I make about $80,000 a year. So the California Supreme Court is the highest court in the state of California. And I work on what's called a criminal central staff. So, we have a staff of about a dozen people that reviews criminal petitions for review. So, the way that works is you are a criminal you've been convicted at trial. Then you appeal to the intermediate court which is called the Court of Appeal, appropriately. And you win or lose there. Often you lose. So then you come to us. And you say, my case is one of state wide importance. You should hear it. And, my job and the job of the people on our staff is to sift through all those petitions and decide, is this really worthy of seven justices time. 'Cause there's only seven of them, there's only so many hours in the day. And unfortunately, the vast majority of them get denied because, it's very specific to a particular defendant what the issue is. So the people you see on TV who are making the big bucks and wear those sharp suits they're corporate lawyers. And they get paid quite a bit of money, like hundreds of thousands of dollars. First year associates straight out of law school can make $150,000 a year. But I decided that's not really for me I'd much rather work for a government or a non-profit, or something like that. So, if you want to make a lot of money you can make a lot of money. But you can also make a moderate amount of money. So I make $80,000 a year. This was not my starting salary, my starting salary was about $70,000 a year. So, the way it works, it's a state job so state jobs sometimes prioritize seniority. So as you move up in the ranks you get pay raises, you get title changes. You work in one position for one year and then you become attorney level B and you make more money. And then you work for three more years. And you become attorney C and you make even more money. Even within those ranges there's a cost of living adjustments. We just got a cost of living adjustment for the first time in years two years ago. So that was nice. That our governor did that. So a cost of living adjustment is designed to make your salary keep up with inflation. So it's not a big raise like 10%, it's a small raise like two or three percent. So that your salary has the same buying power over the years. To be any kind of lawyer, first of all you need to be good at reading and writing. On TV, again, there's a lot of talking in court but the talking part represents a process that is probably 75% writing. Like when you see people arguing motions in front of like objections. I didn't know anything about this witness. Well, really that's been taken care of long before trial started. And it was taken care of probably on paper. So you need to be very good at writing. You need to be good at writing concisely. I mean, you can't have long flowery sentences it has to be straight to the point. Judges and other attorneys, their time is valuable. And they're reading a lot of things. So, it's got to be like, here's the issue, here's the solution. And you also have to be good at reading, you have to be good at reading quickly. You have to get the point and understand what you're doing because, like I said, you have a lot of reading to do. And then for my job in particular, it's often described as a monastic lifestyle. Because we're sort of, again, we're not in trial in front of a jury. We're in our offices reading, writing, researching. It can be kind of lonely, if you're the kind of person who craves a lot of personal interaction. I mean, we interact with our office mates but largely, it's just us by ourselves in an office. So, you have to be able to tolerate that for long stretches at a time. Part of the job is you have to quickly understand new concepts. Law school only teaches you so much. For example, law school teaches you the basics of say, negligence which is when someone is accidentally does something to someone else. But of course, every state is different. California's negligence might be a little bit different from say, Wisconsin's negligence. So you have to quickly be able to understand the state's specific concepts. Things like that. So, law school gives you a general overview of the law, of what it is, how it works, how to think. That's one big thing law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer. But a lot of the learning comes on the job. What I love about going into the office is every day, I learn something new. I pick up a petition for review that has something in it that I've never seen before, you know. This particular jury instruction. Or, this particular law that I've never seen before. Medical marijuana, that's interesting. I don't know anything about that. So let's pick up this petition and learn all about medical marijuana today. I've done that before. Probably my worst days are days when I don't do my job well enough. Which, it happens I write a memo and the memos get circulated around to the justices. And then one of their staff attorneys calls me up and says, "Hey, you overlooked this thing." I'm like, "Oh, I did overlook that thing." And I feel bad about it and then I have to sometimes write another memo saying, "Oops "I forgot this thing." It kind of makes me look bad, I don't like to look bad. I don't like to be wrong, and I don't like to make myself look bad.