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November 05, 2016 Articles

From Nigeria to the California Department of Justice: The Story of Joy Utomi

The deputy attorney general shares the story of her journey.

By Brittney R. Dobbins

Joy Utomi is a deputy attorney general in the California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. She works in the Criminal Appeals, Writs, and Trials unit where she prosecutes felony cases. As a deputy attorney general, Joy has argued before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and all three divisions of the Fourth District of the California Court of Appeal, and has filed briefing in the California Supreme Court. Joy prosecutes both violent and nonviolent felony offenses ranging from theft to murder. In recent years, she has worked with a statewide team of top-notch appellate advocates who prosecute sexually violent predators. Despite the difficult nature of her cases, Joy takes pride in the fact that her work helps to keep the most violent of offenders off the streets and protect victims. Joy loves many aspects of her job, but she said the most important benefit is her ability to influence the law. “Appellate prosecutors are often on the frontlines of interpreting new law and arguing for how it should be applied.” That is when Joy feels she is “truly answering the call to advocacy.” “That is when I get to advocate for the people of California and ensure the law is applied in a just manner.”

Joy’s path to the Department of Justice was somewhat atypical. She was born in Benin, Nigeria, to two loving parents. Joy and her family came to the United States in the late 1980s because, as Joy explained, her parents “wanted to give their children better opportunities, better resources, better education, more stability, and a brighter future.” Joy has exceeded her parents’ dreams by graduating from two fine universities in California—Loyola Marymount University as well as the University of San Diego School of Law. In undergrad, Joy earned degrees in political science and communications. In law school, Joy did everything but sit idly by on the sidelines. Joy was involved in a number of student organizations, such as the Student Bar Association, Appellate Moot Court Board, and the Dean’s Advisory Committee. It is through her participation with Moot Court that Joy discovered her passion for appellate advocacy. In fact, participating in the school’s moot court competitions is her greatest memory of law school.

When not at work, Joy volunteers much of her time to organizations that help disadvantaged youth, such as the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where she is a “big sister.” As a big sister, Joy has been mentoring a teenage girl for the past four years. Joy says her “little sister” is amazing. “She’s carefree, adventurous, and a very talented artist.” Joy and her little sister have formed what Joy describes as “a lifelong friendship,” thanks to their many adventures together, like swing dancing classes, ice skating, and go-kart racing.

Joy is also the current president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting diversity in the legal profession. Joy has been involved with the foundation for several years, working to provide scholarships to deserving minority law students in need and to give underrepresented communities greater access to justice. As president of the foundation, Joy strives to improve the San Diego legal community, and she achieves this by organizing various career development events throughout the year. This past August, the foundation presented a judicial luncheon, “Building a Bridge to the Bench,” which featured a panel of judges who offered concrete tips and advice on what attorneys in every stage of their career should do to prepare for a judicial appointment. Last month, the foundation presented a free career panel and networking event designed to inform law students and new attorneys about the benefits of a career in public service.

Joy has an unparalleled passion for the law and helping youth gain access to the profession. When asked what advice she would offer law students from underrepresented communities, Joy’s response was “[b]e confident and work hard!” “Being the only person that looks like you in a classroom, interview, or internship can be intimidating, but your uniqueness is your best asset!” Joy advises, “Make sure your voice and perspective is heard.” “Striving to blend in may result in a loss of identity and confidence.” Joy says, “Understand the value of your background and experience [and] learn how to show it in a professional manner,” because that is when employers will see your diversity as its gain. Most importantly, Joy advises, “recognize your weaknesses, work hard to improve them, and know when to ask for assistance.” 

Joy’s story reminds us that (to steal a phrase from President Obama) “in America, it’s the promise of a good education for all that makes it possible for any child to transcend the barriers of race or class or background and achieve their potential.”

Keywords: litigation, diversity, inclusion, California Department of Justice, Joy Utomi, advice for lawyers, Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation

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