Judge Kirk Nakamura's journey in the legal profession began when he enrolled in law school at Duke. After graduation, he applied to various civil litigation firms and accepted a job offer at a medium-sized civil litigation firm in Los Angeles. He later moved to a firm in Orange County, where he expanded his legal experience. This experience eventually led to his appointment as a superior court judge by Governor Gray Davis in 2001, culminating in Judge Nakamura being elected as presiding judge in 2019 and 2020.
The Importance of ADR and Settlement Conferences
One of the most meaningful experiences for Judge Nakamura was being in charge of the foreclosure relief program at his court during the foreclosure crisis. This program brought together banks and homeowners in arrears with their mortgages to try to resolve their issues and keep them in their homes.
"That ultimately illustrated to me how ADR and settlement conferences can address a very serious crisis, not only at our court and locally but nationwide," he says.
This experience helped shape his interest in ADR and ultimately led him to his current role as a mediator and arbitrator at JAMS.
Involvement in Legal Organizations
Throughout his legal career, Judge Nakamura has been involved in numerous organizations. He is a self-described "bar-junkie" and has supported many programs throughout the years, including the Orange County Bar Association and California Asian-Pacific American Judges Association (CAPAJA). As president of CAPAJA, he initiated a vetting procedure for judicial candidates that is now heavily relied upon by this caucus.
"So we can vet and also recommend certain Asian candidates for judicial positions around the state," he explains. "We have a very high percentage of those candidates that we've recommended that ultimately became judges."
His involvement in these organizations allowed him to give back to the next generation of Asian legal professionals in a meaningful way.
Inspirations to His Career
One of the people who influenced Judge Nakamura's career is Judge Lance Ito, who is widely known for presiding over the O.J. Simpson trial.
"I think, in my mind, he broke the stereotype of what a judge looks like," Judge Nakamura says about Judge Ito.
Judge Ito was a consistent supporter of the Orange County Asian American Bar Association and spoke about his experiences when Judge Nakamura was president of OCAABA.
"He was the first person at OCAABA to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, and I was the second," Judge Nakamura says. “So I am honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Judge Ito.”
A Captain Through Stormy Seas
If Judge Nakamura were to name a book or movie about his life, it would be A Captain Through Stormy Seas, based on his experience as presiding judge during the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant challenges it presented. His court had 1,500 employees and 144 judicial officers.
“We were under a tremendous amount of pressure to adjust to the pandemic under the circumstances," he recalls.
Despite the challenges, his court went forward with over 200 jury trials between March and December of 2020, which was truly unprecedented.
"In terms of how it shaped my career and myself, I learned how to deal with extremely trying circumstances, and ultimately, I think we did an extraordinary job," he says.
This experience taught him the importance of resilience and adaptability, and he is proud to have been able to steer his court through such a challenging time.
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