Courtside Conversation Cherie Garofalo

Interview Conducted and Edited by Matthew Kleiman

Cherie Garofalo

A Season of Firsts

Cherie Garofalo is the deputy court executive officer in the Superior Court of California in San Bernardino. San Bernardino County has a population of 2.1 million people and is the largest county by geographic area in the United States. San Bernardino Superior Court has 88 judicial officers, working in 13 courthouse locations in the county.

How did you get involved in working in the courts?

November 2017 marked my 30th year working in the court system, where I began as an extra-help employee at the Orange County Superior Court. After spending 29 years working in Orange County, I have now been here, at the San Bernardino Superior Court, for just over six months. Over my career, I’ve held just about every job in the operational areas of the court, including in case processing, courtroom clerk, and supervision and management. And outside of operations, I spent time in budget and finance, facilities, human resources, and about three years working in the technology department. For the last 15 years, I’ve worked at the executive-management level.

How have these experiences shaped your management style?

My experience has given me a broad understanding of what makes a court successful. Because I have hands-on experience as to what our staff does every day, as a manager, I can be on the floor and relate to our staff, understand what they’re doing and the pressures that they experience. It helps me build an environment of camaraderie and trust; a place where staff hopefully thinks that: “She does kind of get it, she gets what I do, and when she is asking me for my ideas she really means it.”

Can you describe your experience of making the transition to a new court?

When you grow up in one court for almost three decades, you have longstanding relationships that give you a very solid network; you know who to call and what to do to expedite things. Coming to a new organization, as I did about six months ago, there’s what I call a “season of firsts.” You know no one. It takes time to learn how things are done and who our resources are.

As similar as courts are, they vary in terms of size, funding, skill sets, opportunities for change, and, especially, culture. These are all things to learn during the season of firsts. Orange County is a very large county in terms of population, at 3.2 million people. By contrast, San Bernardino County has more than a million fewer people, but occupies over 20,000 square miles, well over 20 times the geographic area of Orange County. This simple reality forced me to contemplate a whole set of issues that I had never considered. For example, how do we provide access to justice to people who have to come to a single courthouse for a single service (e.g., probate) who live two and-a-half or three hours away, and don’t have access to a car?

What are some other differences?

Resources are another difference. San Bernardino is drastically under-resourced, particularly in terms of the number of sitting judges, in comparison to what our state judicial council has determined we actually need. This poses new and different case management challenges for me to address.

Despite the differences, my transition to the San Bernardino court has been a very positive experience because of the culture here. As one of our senior judges, Judge Gregory Tavill, recently observed about our court: “Everyone is bound together by the shared burden of doing their best under massive caseloads.” This culture of pulling together and making it happen under trying budgetary, staffing, and workload burdens has made my transition exciting and invigorating.

What advice do you have for a court manager who is moving to a new court? What can make that transition easier?

First and foremost, get to know your team, every one of them. You have to know your people in order to lead them, to learn from them even as you teach them, and to honor their greatness. I have been with this court for about six months and I have individually met with over 425 of the 500 people for whom I am responsible. Everybody has a story and everybody has a strength, and I don’t think a manager can build a good team when your people are strangers.

Second, listen, observe, and ask questions far far more than you offer opinions, give direction, or take action. You need to understand where the court and your team have been and where they are going. When you know where a court has been it helps determine how you can become a contributing member of the team and be part of moving it forward. Just because something is done differently, don’t conclude that it is being done wrong.

How would you describe your management style?

The first thing I believe is that relationships are the key to everything. This is why it’s so important to take the time to get to know your people. I also believe in trust and transparency as the means for tapping into the brainpower of people at every level in the organization. I believe that the more people that are engaged, the more likely they will stay and exercise their creativity. It is my job to create an environment where people are engaged and contributing and fulfilled. I want them to always be learning, stretching, and exceeding their own expectations. These things organically lead to managers being able to push autonomy and decision making to the lowest levels in the organization, resulting in greater effectiveness and efficiency, and better service delivery.

How do you think the court workforce has changed over the years?

I would posit that the nature of the work we are asking of our workforce and the nature of our workforce itself has changed, and continues to change. The work we are asking our staff to perform requires that they be more thoughtful, capable of exercising discretion, and interactive. Courts used to hire people that were good at specific tasks: data entry, repetitive transactions over the counter, and routine transactions in the courtroom. We have or soon will replace many of those tasks in most courts with some form of technology. Now our people need to be able to interface with the public or with other members of the justice system in a much more thoughtful way. As we continue to automate the things that are routine and repetitive, we are now asking people to do things that require the ability to take discretionary action on complex transactions.

These new work demands match well with the current generation in the workforce, that, like it or not, has exhibited a shorter attention span and seek to experience different things in their professional journey. Gone are the days when employees are satisfied doing the same job, at the same work station, until retirement. Courts that have built jobs with an expectation that people will come and stay in the same job need to rethink their whole approach. In today’s world, when you have created a thoughtful, discretionary, and interactive workforce, retention becomes even more important. You want to have an environment that’s vibrant and that people feel and appreciate being part of, as opposed to simply showing up for work to get a paycheck. Designing work that fires their imagination, engages their thinking, generates a sense of passion and commitment, challenges and stretches their abilities is the way to retain and nurture this generation’s workforce.

What strategies have you found to be effective for promoting change?

First, it’s important to recognize that there are two kinds of changes. One kind is mandated change. For courts this is often caused by changes in the law. For example, California’s recent reclassification of dozens of crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, by legislative enactment, is an example of mandated change. The second kind of change are innovations in how business is accomplished.

For mandated change, buy-in is not optional or discretionary; it is truly a case of “it is what it is,” whether we like or agree with it. Nevertheless, the challenge for the team should be to implement the mandated change as efficiently and effectively as possible. For a manager, the task is to frame implementation as the challenge in order to engage the team. The challenge should be posed as: “How do we make this happen as cleanly, painlessly and efficiently as possible?” And this is where a thoughtful team, comfortable working flexibly in a changing environment, becomes the key to making such change happen.

The second type of change (innovating) is an exciting thing. Identify a problem, a process, an idealized operational goal. Then include everybody at every level in the organization in the discussion. People can do wild brainstorming sessions. Go big and narrow down. Everything should be considered, no matter how crazy, because that leads to other interesting potential solutions. Once you have all of your ideas, whittle them down to a general course of action. Next make sure that you have alignment of all the people who are going to be affected. It is not hard to get people excited if they can paint themselves into a better tomorrow. When people have a say in designing what tomorrow’s landscape looks like and see where they fit in, and why it’s better for the organization, they are more likely to be supportive.

Where do courts need to improve?

I do not think that courts are good at keeping up with the demands of society as they relate to service delivery. I think that the public wants us to value their time more, and I think we are not responding well to that demand. We continue to employ traditional means of service delivery, instead of innovating how we respond to the changes and demands of society. For example, nationally many courts continue to require people to come to court at 8:30 a.m., even though the public (and we) know we cannot call 100 cases at 8:30. This is frustrating for the public because their experience, even at our Department of Motor Vehicles, is that they can make an appointment and not wait and watch other people before their case is called.

We are frequently behind the curve on technological solutions for providing alternative means of service delivery. While there will probably always be a certain segment of the population that will want to come to court and transact business across the counter with a live person, courts must provide alternatives in the same way traditional brick and mortar retail stores are being forced to face new business models to survive. In this century, access to justice is not simply about keeping the physical courthouse doors open, it’s going to be about opening other virtual portals to justice.

How you would describe a great day at work?

I thrive when my day gets a little bit hijacked. I like disarray and problem solving and working with my team on the unexpected. A lot of the time, possibilities that we might not ever see come out of those challenges that are presented on the fly. For me a great day is not full of meetings that are formal and structured; that’s a real drain on me. I like to be in environments where I can be thinking with others and getting them to think

At the end of the day, I ask myself: Did I help somebody be better today? Did I help in delivering better justice? Did I establish a foundation so that the person can independently be better in the future? And did I give them an opportunity to feel like they contributed in a meaningful way? If I can walk away and feel like at least one person experienced that because of something that I contributed, then that’s a good day for me.

About the Editor

Matthew Kleiman, Ph.D. is a principal court research consultant with the National Center for State Courts. Contact him at