Deputy County Counsel, Sutter County
Area of Practice: Government
Year Graduated: 1999
Working in claims management with State Farm insurance, Janet Bender became interested in law through her interactions with various defense counsels. At the age of 32, she started law school at McGeorge — choosing the school because of its geographic location and reputation.
During, the summer after her first year at McGeorge, she worked as an intern in the Sacramento County Counsel's office. There, she made good friends while getting a glimpse at her future career. Ms. Bender participated in On-Campus Interviews during the fall of her second year and was offered a summer associate position with Downey Brand. At the end the summer, Downey Brand offered Ms. Bender an associate position. After she graduated in 1999 and took the California Bar Exam, Ms. Bender began working in the business department at Downey Brand. During her time there, Ms. Bender learned a great deal about transactional law, especially contract review. She credits her time at the firm for helping her develop the research and writing skills that are crucial to her current practice as a Deputy County Counsel.
Ms. Bender left Downey Brand in 2003 to work as a deputy county counsel for Sutter County. Although she enjoyed her time at the firm, she explained that moving to the County Counsel's office was a better fit since she was living in Sutter County and had a new baby. Her journey from working at a private firm to serving as county counsel was not unique. In fact, Ms. Bender remarked that most of the attorneys who work in her office took a similar route. She notes that, "Big, private firms are set up to train young attorneys. County counsel offices need to have attorneys who are already trained and know how to research and write on their own." In order for attorneys to be successful as county counsel, they must understand time management and have the ability to take on a project or assignment from start to finish — all skills that Ms. Bender acquired at Downey Brand.
As deputy county counsel, Ms. Bender represents Sutter County, acting through its Board of Supervisors. There are five attorneys working in the Sutter County Counsel's office, each of them working with various county departments. Ms. Bender acts as legal counsel to the Sheriff, land use, probation and several smaller departments. The bulk of her practice is spent advising these departments on their actions. She attends board and commission meetings, and sits on the planning commission. County counsel also reviews and approves actions to be taken by the Board of Supervisors at their meetings. Ms. Bender recommends that students interested in this career path review their Board of Supervisor meeting agendas and minutes — the matters that are before the board are many of the types of matters addressed by the County Counsel's office.
There is also a significant amount of time spent in the courtroom. The County Counsel's office appears on both civil and criminal matters, including those involving Child Protective Services, probate and mental health conservatorships, and other various issues. Ms. Bender explains that she has gained all of her litigation experience while working as a county counsel, including a jury trial.
Having such a diverse practice means having to be knowledgeable about various areas of law; however, Ms. Bender could not have predicted that she needed to take Land Use Planning or Environmental Law in law school to be prepared to work with the Land Use Department at Sutter County. Additionally, the attorneys in the County Counsel's Office rotate the departments with which they work; therefore, continuing education and training is essential to her job as deputy county counsel. The County Counsel's Association of California provides training through seminars and conferences that focus on a specific area of law. Ms. Bender explains that the association also provides an online network for all of the county counsels, through which they can ask their colleagues for advice about an unknown area of law or share their own expertise — essentially creating a state-wide brief bank.
Although the diverse practice makes it difficult to predict what classes to take, a student interested in potentially serving as a county counsel should take all of the basics. Additionally, Ms. Bender suggests that classes such as Business Planning, Environmental Law, and Land Use Planning would be helpful. She also stresses the importance of practical experience. Ms. Bender was on Law Review while at McGeorge, which took up a lot of her time. If Ms. Bender could go back and do it over, she would have taken advantage of one of the many opportunities at McGeorge to gain practical experience, such as a clinic or externship. Because she regularly appears in court, Ms. Bender would have liked to have clerked for a judge so that she could have learned how judges want arguments and motions presented.
In reflecting on her time as a county counsel attorney, Ms. Bender believes that the public service aspect of her practice is the most rewarding. "When I went to law school, being a public service lawyer wasn't on my radar." She remembers there being a great deal of emphasis placed on landing the high-paying firm job, but there is a huge demand for public service lawyers. It is not only rewarding, but that there is no such thing as a "typical day" when she goes to work.