California Young Lawyers Association

Tips From the Bench: Interview of the Honorable Amy Yerkey with Neyleen Ortiz Beljajev

Q: WHAT TYPES OF CASES DO ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGES (ALJS) TYPICALLY HEAR?

A: A wide variety, depending on if the matter is state or federal. Some states, like California, have a central panel of administrative law judges with general jurisdiction over many agencies. The cases they hear include professional license discipline, disability appeals and teacher dismissals. Federal administrative law judges are employed by one agency and preside over matters for that agency only; like the Social Security Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Merit Systems Protection Board, and the National Labor Relations Board.

Q: WHAT ENTICED YOU TO BECOME AN ALJ? 

A: The combination of holding hearings regularly and writing decisions. I enjoy analyzing the law from a neutral perspective.  I had a lot of experience writing and working with judges before I became an ALJ.  I’m also committed to public service. It seemed like a natural fit. 

Q: IF A YOUNG LAWYER WANTS TO BECOME AN ALJ, HOW DO YOU RECOMMEND THEY GO ABOUT IT?

A: Any litigation experience is a good foundation; it’s important to have a demonstrated record of writing and courtroom experience. Demeanor and temperament are also critical.  The path to becoming a federal administrative law judges is competitive; it typically requires scoring well in an exam and interview process. The exam is only offered about once every five years. State administrative law judges also have exams and interviews, although they may be hired more often. Either way, plan ahead by learning what the requirements are and having your application materials in order. 

Q: WHAT TIPS CAN A YOUNG LAWYER LEARN FROM YOU REGARDING THE PRESENTATION OF EVIDENCE TO AN ALJ?

A: Use your controlling document [the complaint or accusation, or whatever the initial filing is] as a map and checklist. Make sure that you’ve elicited testimony or admitted exhibits that relate to each paragraph of that controlling document. It’s what the judge will use to determine whether you’ve adequately proven or defended your case. Also address any adverse facts or law in a straightforward manner. Aim for consistency in your documentary and testimonial evidence. It will affect the credibility of your presentation otherwise. 

Q: WHAT LESSON SHOULD YOUNG LAWYERS TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE?

A: I’ve found administrative law to be the ultimate form of public service. Most of the time someone who appears before me is in a courtroom for the first time. I directly influence how that person views our entire legal system, for better or for worse. It’s challenging to consistently maintain impartiality, patience, and good listening skills. But my decisions have profound impact on the lives of the people who are in my courtroom.  It’s important work deciding whether someone should receive disability benefits, or keep their professional license. That can be incredibly gratifying; knowing that I’m making a difference in one person’s life, or in protecting the public. For me, it’s the reason why I went to law school in the first place.   

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