Attorney, Parent Advocates of Sacramento in Sacramento
Area of Practice: Public Interest Law
Year Graduated: 2003
Peter Perkins aspired to be an attorney even as a high school student. Ultimately, he followed through on his aspirations; however, his path to becoming a lawyer was not as direct as he originally imagined it would be. After Mr. Perkins received his undergraduate degree from University of the Pacific, he felt obligated to forgo law school in favor of a job that would allow him to pay off his student debt. For almost seventeen years, Mr. Perkins worked as an officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. When he retired from the State in 1999, his wife reminded him of his earlier goals and encouraged him to return to school for his Juris Doctor degree. The rest is history. Today, as an attorney at Parent Advocates of Sacramento (PAS), Mr. Perkins defends parental rights by representing parents in juvenile dependency proceedings.
Mr. Perkins, remaining loyal to his undergraduate alma mater, chose University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law for his legal education. "I enjoyed it immensely. Having not been in school for a while, it was good to go back and to learn things again," Mr. Perkins says. "Coming back as a much older student — a 'non-traditional student' — it was nice because a lot of stuff that the younger students assumed had been law forever was not law when I was in college or high school. It gave me a different perspective on a lot of the classes. Like, Roe v. Wade was actually an issue for me because it wasn't there when I was a kid. It was also interesting for me because I was older than some of my professors. Professor Thom Main and I used to joke about how young he was."
After he received his J.D., Mr. Perkins went on to complete a Master of Laws (LLM) degree in Government and Public Policy at McGeorge. While completing his LLM coursework, Mr. Perkins participated in a nine-month internship with a California senator. "It was both enjoyable and very eye-opening," he notes. "It certainly confirmed a lot of what I'd heard about politics." After receiving his LLM and being sworn into the State Bar of California, Mr. Perkins dedicated himself to searching for a job. "My goal was to try to do something in the political field, so I sent out a bazillion resumes to firms that do lobbying. I also sent a resume [to PAS] because I was interested in parent rights. Actually, I talked to a person my first year of law school who did what we do — except in those days they were just appointed out of a pool of lawyers — and I always thought that this was an interesting type of law." As it turned out, the experience that Mr. Perkins gained at the Department of Corrections and the knowledge of public policy that he cultivated through his LLM made Mr. Perkins a strong candidate for PAS, and he was hired for the job.
Parent Advocates of Sacramento is a for-profit public interest law firm. As Mr. Perkins explains it, "Our firm contracts out through the Administrative Office of the Courts [AOC] to provide representation for parents of children who have been taken by CPS [Child Protective Services] ... We are hired by the AOC to represent all of the parents who do not hire a private attorney, and then the county or the AOC gets reimbursed, when they can, by the people we represent. We function somewhat similar to a public defender except we're a private organization that is paid by the state." According to Mr. Perkins, most of PAS's work is statute-driven and, unlike some other areas of practice, the law is fairly constant. "Essentially sections 300 to 400 of the [California] Welfare & Institutions Code is our bible," he notes. "There's also a little bit of family law thrown in because we see paternity issues."
Mr. Perkins took a course in family law as a student at McGeorge, but he learned much of what he knows now on the job. Within a few weeks of starting at PAS, he began appearing on the record in court, and it wasn't long before he started conducting trials. "Most of our time is spent in the courtroom. We're one of the few lawyer positions that actually spends a significant amount of time in the courtroom and on the record ...," Mr. Perkins points out. "I am in court in the morning essentially from 8:30 to noon three days a week with various hearings. Then we conduct trials in the afternoon, and we may have anywhere from six to fifteen trials on our trial calendar set to take place within the next two-month period." On the two days each week when Mr. Perkins is not in court, he spends his time preparing for court. This involves reviewing reports generated by social workers, meeting with clients, returning phone calls, and, to a lesser extent, doing research and preparing motions. In his free time, Mr. Perkins makes sure that he plays an active role in his family. "I have kids, so I'm involved in everything they do," he says. "For example, my daughter plays golf and is involved in drama, so I go to her matches and performances."
The majority of Mr. Perkins's clients face allegations of substance abuse, most commonly methamphetamine addiction, and/or domestic violence. "It's hard for clients who are addicted to drugs to hear that they will not get their children back if they don't stop using drugs," he notes. Rarer are cases that center around allegations of sexual abuse, but it does come up once in a while. Occasionally, Mr. Perkins has a case that involves a "broken baby." "As a parent, those are the worst kind for me, where there's a severely injured baby," Mr. Perkins explains. "It's hard to understand how that happens."
With his work being so emotionally charged, Mr. Perkins notes, "You have to believe in what you do. For me, most of the time, the issue is not whether they're 'innocent' or 'guilty,' but how we can take a family where there has been something wrong or dysfunctional and put it back together so that we have a family that's whole and workable again ... That's where I see my job as more of a counselor, as trying to create healthy families as opposed to defending an 'innocent' or a 'guilty' person. I really believe that families should all be together and, hopefully, be happy." Fortunately, Sacramento County provides Mr. Perkins, and other PAS attorneys, with an arsenal of tools to help reunite families, including drug and alcohol counseling, group counseling, parenting classes, and assessments.
Sometimes Mr. Perkins struggles to convey to his clients how the juvenile dependency proceedings in which he represents them are different from criminal proceedings. "We're kind of quasi-criminal in the sense that we have a county counsel and we have allegations and petitions that are put forth and everything. The big difference is that we are not criminal, so the standard of proof is not reasonable doubt; it's a preponderance of the evidence," he says. "For most things, you can have people who were exonerated in the criminal court but who will still be found to be a danger to their children in dependency court. That's a really hard concept for a lot of our clients to understand." Mr. Perkins goes on to explain, "The standard is so low that most of the time you're going to lose. You're not going to come out where the case is dismissed and everyone is happy about it. Actually, rarely is everyone happy. Even when parents do get their kids back, they're still in the system. They're still being looked at by the court."
Still, despite the challenges associated with his work, Mr. Perkins gains great personal satisfaction from the knowledge that he has helped to reunite families. "A functional family is what we work for," he notes, providing the following anecdote: "A while back we had a case — a drug case — and there was a family with three children. They ranged in age from a baby up to a seven or eight year-old. After about a year and a half or so, the parents had gotten the kids back, and we were looking at whether the court was going to terminate dependency. The referee [a judicial official who is not a judge] asked the children if they had anything to say, and the older child said, 'I just want to thank you for this because now my daddy takes time to play with me, and he doesn't yell at us anymore, and he is always there for me when I come home from school.' I think that sums up the really good part, when you can have the kid say that. For me, that's probably what is most rewarding."
Mr. Perkins also likes that his job, although lower paying than most attorney positions, allows him a good work-life balance and a considerable degree of flexibility in his schedule. "We're not driven by billable hours," he says. "We make up for the low pay by the fact that we typically work 8:30 to 5:00, and not on weekends. So if you have a family, it can be a very good job for you. We also don't have a partnership track so there's no backstabbing. Those are the trade-offs. For me, they are big trade-offs."
Mr. Perkins recommends that students who are interested in juvenile dependency take Trial Advocacy, Family Law, and Statutory Interpretation courses in law school. "I think if you're going to do any kind of work like I do, something where you're going to be in the courtroom a lot, you should take Trial Advocacy," he advises. "It is so apparent among attorneys those students who had some kind of advocacy class in law school and those who didn't. Knowing your way around the courtroom, knowing the process to enter evidence, that kind of thing — it's hugely important when you're in hearings and the courtroom." Family law helps juvenile dependency attorneys work through paternity issues, and Mr. Perkins has found knowledge of statutory interpretation useful when he has had to research and write arguments for writs.
Mr. Perkins reminds law students who are interested in careers in public interest that they should not overlook opportunities to work in the juvenile dependency system. As he points out, "It's an easy way to get into law, and it gives you a huge amount of court experience." Plus, not only can work like Mr. Perkins's be fulfilling and provide a balanced life, it can also be interesting. "If you're good at being able to think on your feet and pull the law out of the air, it can be really — I don't want to say the word fun — but it is kind of fun," he says. "It's challenging, and you get satisfaction from that challenge."