Demystifying the Justice System and Finding Balance

Until you’ve had a run-in with the justice system, it can feel like an unknown and mystifying institution.

We know there are implicit and explicit biases and a need for reform. 

But within it, there are professionals who aim to make every experience in the system one that is fair, clear, and direct—even if it doesn’t go the way you want. 

One person fighting to do this every day is Honorable Monica F. Wiley, who’s served on the San Francisco Supreme Court Bench since 2009 when she was appointed. At that time, she was just 39 years old and only the 2nd African American woman to ever be appointed in California. 

After navigating the assumption she was a “diversity hire,” Monica has found her place in family law where she works to provide each person a fair experience in the justice system. 

In episode 6 of Unlocking the Club podcast, we learned key insights into the system as well as Monica’s take on social capital, mentorship, and wellness at work. 

The Burden to Be Exceptional

A professional black woman in her office

Many black women carry the burden to be exceptional. 

We come from a lineage and legacy of strong, powerful women who, through trials and troubles, held their heads high and operated with grace. 

And while we have our own challenges to navigate, we owe where we are to the legacies and shoulders we sit on. 

But that burden is still there—the burden to always be exceptional. So, remember the legacy you come from and fight against a system that says you are not capable, not good enough… because you are. 

You can put down your cape sometimes, and sit in the fact that you are enough. 

It’s also important to bring around people in your life who will lift you up. In those days when you don’t feel exceptional or like you belong, remember both the legacy of women before you as well as the people around you. 

Your mentors, friends, colleagues, and anyone else in your corner can lift you up when you’re feeling like you don’t belong somewhere. 

For Monica, it was her mother. As an educator, Monica’s mom pushed her through undergrad and law school, always calling her to a high standard for herself and to achieve. Who’s that person for you? 

Insights into the Justice System

Two women standing in front of a courthouse

Monica was appointed to the bench, she didn’t necessarily “earn it.” And because she was young and black, many saw it as just a “diversity hire.” 

But Monica was more qualified at that time than many others and worked hard to show that she was meant to be there. By volunteering for trials, talking to police officers, and just always being ready to help, she quickly proved herself an asset to the organization after her first year. 

The lesson here is to look at people for their qualifications and experience, not just the first layer of their visible identities.

As a judge, Monica sees the good and bad of the justice system. Many people believe that judges have all the power in the system. But it’s actually the district attorney (DA) that places charges and, therefore, sets the parameters for what is possible in the courtroom. If the DA never places charges, there’s no opportunity for a trial. 

So Monica sees the DA office as a place for serious legal reform. And, because of this, people need to be involved in their local politics and pay attention to who is being elected and how they will enact positive change in the legal system. 

Social Capital for Career Growth

One professional woman mentoring another

Social capital is the relationships you leverage in your career. They can be informal ties and networks, mentors, or even colleagues and friends who encourage you along. 

And it’s important for everyone to find those people who are in your corner and just as invested in your success as you are. 

Monica points out something simple here: you don’t need to find a mentor who looks like you. In fact, one of her most influential mentors was an older white man who was 100% invested in her career success. 

Representation matters, absolutely. But you don’t need to find people exactly like you who will be in your corner and root for you. 

What you do need to do, however, is be proactive in seeking out a mentor or any other type of social capital. You typically don’t just stumble into it but need to seek it out. 

So, stay open, connect with people, offer and receive help, and build your social capital to help you advance in your career. 

Wellness at Work

A professional black woman writing at a desk

From the outside in, Monica’s job is stressful. And for a long time, she felt that stress, too. 

In family law, it’s easy to take home each case and agonize over decisions. There are a lot of nuances and situations that make it hard to just rule a decision and move on. 

But after some time in criminal litigation, Monica’s mindset changed. Criminal law was more straightforward—the process was simpler and based just on the facts. 

So returning to family law, she was able to let go and just let the facts rule her decisions. And in doing so, she was confident that she made the right decision and did not take it home every night. 

And Monica is thriving in family law. 

So what’s the secret to wellness and balance at work? Finding something you love, doing it with excellence, and leaving it at work. 

Perhaps one more secret—getting out and moving your body! As a former athlete, Monica believes in the importance of exercise and movement for mental health. She now bikes regularly and is preparing to go on a weeks-long bike ride through the country shortly. 

So in addition to finding work you love, find hobbies and passions you love to bring wellness to work. 

If you’re interested in hearing more from Monica, check out her full interview on episode 6 of Unlocking the Club podcast