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Ever since Oakland resident, Angelina Austin was a young girl, she has had a reverence for the law. She recalls the gravity she felt when she would hold the weighty ceremonial gavel that a judge presented to her grandfather upon his retirement as a court clerk.
And while many of her early experiences with the court were not positive ones — eviction proceedings when her single mother struggled to pay rent; restraining order hearings to prevent violence in her home; and hours upon hours spent waiting and reading while her mother attended traffic court — they were powerful. The court was a place of ceremony, and Austin was in awe of the long marble hallways that led to courtrooms as grand as any stage and the robed judges who presided over them. Courts, to Austin, seemed like sacred spaces.
“From a very, very young age, I have been attracted to the courtroom,” said Austin.
That feeling has only grown as Austin, the newest associate attorney at Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, has come to understand how evolving legal interpretations have molded society and contributed to social change.
Austin wasn’t always certain she wanted to be a lawyer. It was not until she took a college class on the history of Supreme Court decisions that Austin gave real thought to a legal career. So after graduating from Mills College in Oakland with a major in political, legal, and economic analysis, she went to nearby Merritt College to get an A.A. degree in paralegal studies. That led to a six-month internship at Oakland attorney John Burris’ law office, which specializes in civil rights law with an emphasis on police misconduct. The firm then employed Austin for the next five years, as a paralegal and clerk.
In 2017 Austin enrolled in Golden Gate University Law School, and she graduated in May 2020. She was very active in extracurricular activities at Golden Gate, including serving as president of the Black Law Students Association, and as a member of the Student Bar Association and of Pride Law, the LGBTQI student association. She also participated in the school’s mock trial competitions and, during breaks, continued working at the Burris firm.
Austin took the bar exam in October of 2020 and joined Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer in December as a paralegal while she awaited the results. She was thrilled to pass the bar on her first try and then to be named an associate attorney with Gwilliam.
So far, Austin has focused on employment-related claims and some personal injury cases. She was very pleased recently to help five women settle a wrongful termination case against Kaiser Foundation Hospitals alleging racial discrimination in the labor and delivery department. All of the women had worked for Kaiser for more than a decade. Most stopped nursing as a result of their dispute, and the money they received will help them move on, said Austin. She hopes the case will spur improvement of conditions for minority employees at Kaiser. Austin feels strongly motivated to help individuals fight back against powerful entities that have wronged them.
“As an attorney, I really value championing the rights of the vulnerable in our society,” Austin said.
In the near future, Austin will be taking on other types of cases that have been led by Partner Jayme Walker, who is presently out on maternity leave. One of those cases harkens back to Austin’s days with the Burris firm because it alleges malicious prosecution and misconduct by several police agencies in Stanislaus County. The complaint involves a prominent criminal defense attorney, his wife, and daughter, among others, who were charged with murder and other crimes but either found innocent or released for lack of evidence.
“It really is an egregious case. It’s horrific when you get into the nitty-gritty,” Austin said.
Walker has been a good mentor, Austin said, as has firm founder Gary Gwilliam, who has been educating Austin on the intricacies of employment law. Austin praised the collaborative environment at the Oakland firm, where the attorneys regularly hold roundtables to discuss each other’s cases and strategize on tactics.
“At some firms, everybody is an island, everybody writes their own show,” Austin said. “It’s not like that here.”