Legal professor honorably receives attorney of the year


American River College professor Asha Wilkerson received the Attorney of the Year award for her work facilitating free expungement clinics at ARC. (Photo by Ariel Caspar)

Ariel Caspar

On a recent afternoon in Davies Hall, Asha Wilkerson gazed thoughtfully at a handwritten poster in her office that read “Long Term Goals.” Poised, confident and certain, she reflected on what it means to enjoy a career that bridges her areas of expertise together.

“I always really enjoyed being able to give back to the community; it was important to me,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson is a legal assisting professor at American River College, coordinator of ARC’s free expungement clinics and an award-winning attorney. She has spent 10 years practicing law and six years teaching in legal assisting programs.

This year, the Wiley W. Manuel Bar Association named Wilkerson the 2019 Attorney of the Year. She was recognized for her service to the community by organizing and coordinating free community expungement workshops available to ARC students and residents of the Sacramento region looking to clear their names.

Wilkerson, originally from Portland, Oregon, moved to Santa Clara to attend college where she was introduced to the idea of practicing law.

It was at Santa Clara University that Wilkerson was selected to join a Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) program. The program was designed for seniors looking to begin law school the following year and only had 24 spots available. Wilkerson got in and was the youngest in the program. 

She began studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and although still unconvinced of that career path, decided to apply for University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. 

“I always say just apply and see what happens, because what is for you will come and what’s not will fall away,” she said.

Over the Thanksgiving break before entering her junior year, Wilkerson said she got a call informing her she was accepted for the following year in the fall.

Wilkerson flew through law school, studying abroad in Costa Rica, Cuba and the Netherlands, interning for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Wilkerson had fulfilled her requirements within just two and a half years, and by the spring of 2009 she was walking across the graduation stage.

Wilkerson said she always had a strong interest in international human rights and centered her academic focus around that. 

In March of 2009 she began officially practicing law at a firm and later on became a legal services coordinator in the Bay Area, running a monthly legal clinic on different subjects in Oakland and the surrounding area.

In 2013, she started working as an adjunct professor at California State University, East Bay in Hayward, Calif., Merritt Community College in Oakland, and in 2016, American River College.

Wilkerson said when she got the job at ARC, it was not common for paralegal programs to host legal service clinics because paralegals always have to be supervised by an attorney. This inspired her to begin planning a series of free expungement clinics open to the community. After bringing her idea to her colleagues, she said she was encouraged to follow through. 

According to Wilkerson, expungement workshops or criminal record clearing clinics, can assist people who have been convicted of a crime, whether that is a felony or misdemeanor, in the process to become eligible to have that crime reduced or removed from their record. 

“It’s an administrative process which means it requires paperwork to be filled out to be filed with the court,” Wilkerson said. “All misdemeanors can be removed from someone’s record; that’s not up to someone’s discretion, that’s by law.”

According to Wilkerson, wobblers are crimes that can be punished as felonies or misdemeanors. A wobbler can be reduced to a misdemeanor, after they’ve served their sentence, paid restitution fines, and have had no further dealings with the court.

Wilkerson said criminal law professor Jessie Morris was teaching criminal law students how to complete expungement paperwork at the time. They decided they could get the clinics up and running at ARC in five weeks and make them available for not just ARC students, but anyone from the surrounding area. 

“It went well enough that we wanted to make it a regular part of the paralegal program here to serve our students, but also to serve the community, give our students some practical skills and to bring outside attorneys onto campus,” Wilkerson said.

According to Wilkerson, she had the support of her dean and other professors on campus. She also had hope that her efforts would be seen as a good thing for students on campus and not a scary thing.

“Any time something is new, people are really skeptical… the stereotype is that people who have been convicted of a crime are always going to be dangerous, so people don’t want that element around them,” Wilkerson said.

Dyanne Marte, the department chair of Fashion and a friend of Wilkerson, said having the expungement clinics on campus is a big deal for people, and what she’s doing is bringing visibility to the program and ARC as a campus.

“A lot of people have issues and they may have been guilty of something, and to be able to clear someone’s name and [help them] move on with [their lives] and making that information not easily available, that makes a huge difference,” Marte said. “She’s really serving the community.”

Wilkerson said some of those that participate are young and some are more seasoned, but they are all stuck in a place where they want to get a job or get into a professional program and they can’t because of their crime history.

Wilkerson also noted her program is serving people on a regular basis, with up to 65 people coming through on a single Saturday. The clinics only run once a month, but are raking in high numbers compared to other clinics in the surrounding area.

The other firms in the area that provide similar resources have income requirements, citizen requirements and are receiving federal dollars to run their programs. There are also restrictions on who they can help. ARC expungement clinics are free and income or citizenship status do not prevent people from receiving the service.

Keith Staten, a local Sacramento lawyer and colleague of Wilkerson’s said the biggest incentive to assisting people on a college campus is the cost effectiveness and access to resources such as internet connection, desks, printers and computers to serve large groups.

“This is exactly what the Wiley Manuel Bar Association and the community needs. We need a place. An educational institution is the prime place for that to occur,” Staten said. “Our turnout and what we’ve been doing over at the school has been tremendous compared to anything I’ve ever seen.”

According to Wilkerson, some of the other groups in the area only have five people come through a month.

“I was blown away. I had no idea we were making that big of a difference … the numbers show how big of a need [there] is in the community,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said she has always naturally been a teacher and tries to be as thorough as possible with helping her students and her clients understand legal processes. Her main focus has been to teach her students a real world view of the law.

Marte, who has known Wilkerson for three years now, validates Wilkerson’s abilities to merge her two professions in a way that highlights her best attributes and benefits her students.

“She’s engaging, she’s a really good story teller; she has an ability to really connect with people easily and quickly,” Marte said. “She’s rethinking the curriculum and improving it in ways that are relevant and timely.”

Wilkerson said she encourages critical thinking and challenges her students to bring a global, social justice view to the material. Being a practitioner allows her to bring real world examples to the classroom, and helps her remain on top of new developments in the field to share with her students.

Wilkerson took a break from practicing law, but said she is now aiming to start her practice back up, but instead of doing one-on-one services, she’s offering classes for people who want to learn to start their own business and who want to read and write their own contracts. She’s using the skills she’s developed as an instructor to be able to put that into her law practice, which also allows her to offer services at a lower rate because it’s group coaching.

“It’s wonderful to think that I’m pushing the boundary on what paralegal education looks like, while also being able to give back, and meeting the needs of requirements of my students,” Wilkerson said. “I’m sort of bridging all of the worlds that I sit in.”