Get to Know Judge Wendy Coats
On December 7, 2019, former Governor Jerry Brown announced 13 new judges appointed to the Superior Court of California. The Contra Costa County Bar Association’s own President-Elect, Wendy McGuire Coats was tapped to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Barry Goode. Currently, Judge Coats serves from Department 17 in Pittsburg. While I am happy for Judge Coats, I also know she would have been an outstanding CCCBA President. And, in true CCCBA spirit, Judge Coats generously shared more about her personal background and professional insight.
Wu: You grew up in Missouri but were born in New York, right?
Judge Coats: Yes. My family moved to Columbia, Missouri when I was 10 because my father became the Head Track & Field Coach at the University of Missouri. But I was born on a dairy farm in Upstate New York about 30 minutes from the Vermont border. My grandfather still lives there on the farm and I try and take Hermione back there once a year.
Wu: Did the cold winters bring you out to California?
Judge Coats: After graduating from Mizzou in 1996, I taught for four years (English, World Literature, Acting, Speech, Debate, and Movement) while Dan (my husband) finished up his degrees in engineering. While teaching, I was also coaching, play directing, studying with an acting coach in Kansas City, and bartending. We moved to California in 2000 so I could attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles.
Wu: So, you didn’t meet Dan in law school?
Judge Coats: No. But we both attended Pepperdine School of Law. I graduated in 2005. He graduated in 2008. We spent over a decade taking turns going back to school. When he finished, we had spent six of the 12 years of our marriage consecutively in law school. Fun fact: I was sworn in as a judge on our 22nd anniversary.
Wu: It was an honor to be present for your swearing in! When did you move to Contra Costa County?
Judge Coats: We moved in the fall of 2010. Our daughter had just turned one and we were looking for a place to put down roots and build a life together in California. So, I left “big law” in LA to dedicate my practice to doing appeals but there was a wrinkle. I had never said my name out loud in an appellate court. Dan and I opened McGuire Coats LLP at the height of the recession, a time when taking the safer path would have moved me farther away from my goals instead of toward them. That bet paid off. With a mix of civil, criminal, amicus, and pro bono appellate cases, we built the firm and I amassed the appellate experience required for legal specialization. The last few years, I lead Fisher Phillips LLP’s California Appellate Practice from their San Francisco office, which provided me the rare opportunity to practice law with one of my closest friends, Todd Scherwin. My time at Fisher Phillips brought me some crazy fun appellate experiences and some lifelong friendships.
Wu: Turning to your “CCCBA life”: How and why did you get involved with the CCCBA?
Judge Coats: All of my legal mentors have been big proponents of active bar association and legal organization membership. I stress the word active because it is not about joining and paying dues but rather it is about showing up and building relationships.
I think my first contact was an email to Audrey Gee when she was wrapping up her presidency of the Women’s Section. I got more involved with the Women’s Section, which is where I met Denae Budde, during her presidency of the Section. A few years later Denae was instrumental in encouraging me to apply for the CCCBA’s Board of Directors.
Because of the CCCBA, Contra Costa is my legal home.
Wu: What is one of your favorite things about the CCCBA?
Judge Coats: For me, CCCBA membership and service is all about building community. The Board of Directors annual retreat is one of my favorite things and I’m grateful to have been a part of it for several years.
Wu: You certainly ran an excellent retreat last December! With about four months on the bench, what’s your favorite part of being a judge so far?
Judge Coats: First the learning curve doesn’t curve. It goes straight up. And second, the job doesn’t come with training wheels. Big questions whose answers immediately impact the lives of those in front of me showed up on day one. I cannot describe how thankful I am for the collegial support that is a hallmark of the Contra Costa Superior Court bench.
But my favorite part so far? The lawyers. It is an absolute pleasure watching lawyers valiantly commit to the task of zealous advocacy. And my next favorite? Jury selection. I am grateful on a daily basis for the men and women who answer the summons to serve as a juror. Our jurors are the unsung heroes of our justice system.
Wu: What do you wish you’d known when you were younger?
Judge Coats: The advice I would give myself as a law student starting out or someone thinking they may want to be a judge is largely the same: (1) Who you are every day matters but you have to decide who you are; (2) Know who your friends are and keep them close; (3) Don’t let fear of failure derail you or even slow you down.
If I could tuck a note to myself on the first day of law school, it would say this:
“Every person you hold in high esteem has failed dramatically and profoundly. If you’re trying to do anything hard and challenging and worthwhile on a regular basis, you too are going to fail and falter and crash and burn. These grit-growing experiences are part of the process upon which maturity is built and wisdom is gathered. They’re coming whether you like it or not. Remember, a lawyer’s job requires “counseling” clients. Everyone is scared. Everyone is unsure. In addition to advice on the law, you will be called upon to bring comfort, guidance, and strength as you help navigate challenging legal landscapes. This line of work is not for the faint of heart. That’s ok. Yours is strong.”
Wu: Thank you, Judge Coats! You are such an asset to the County.