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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Lessons from an Accidental Jurist: Judith Kaye

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of New York, is stepping down after reaching teh mandatory retirement age. In an interview with the WSJ Law Blog, Trees and the Law: Judge Kaye’s Last Legal Issue, she made an all-too-familiar point about her path to the law (emphasis mine):

It’s a clichéd question. But did you always want to be a lawyer?

No, no. I was the editor of my high school paper and then of my college paper, the Barnard Bulletin. In college I appeared with Bernie Nussbaum, the editor of the Columbia Spectator, on a Mike Wallace show about academic freedom. [Nussbaum, a former White House Counsel under President Clinton, is now a partner at Wachtell Lipton. He represents Judge Kaye in her judicial pay lawsuit.] So after college I wanted to be a journalist.

I worked for the Hudson Dispatch of Union City, New Jersey. In 1958 that was the only place I could find work as a woman. But it was so dismal to be reporting weddings, church socials and women’s club meetings. So I started going to law school at night, thinking that it could advance my journalism career – that I could acquire a credential that would enable me to get off the social page and onto the news side of journalism.

But, after the first exam period, I had done really well and thought I could be a lawyer. A large part of my success in law school was my ability to write a simple sentence. And to know what’s important, to know what should go first and what should go last. I attribute those skills to my journalism career.

Judge Kaye is widely admired for her tenure on the New York bench; Bryan Garner reportedly lists her among 18 legal writers who are worth emulating in a forthcoming book. Was her path to law school and to the bench inevitable? I doubt it. Judge Kaye’s career path exhibits an under-appreciated aspect of evening or part-time legal education – it gives those with other opportunities and abilities a chance to explore the law without the opportunity costs. I wonder how many other ‘accidental’ judges and lawyers began their careers this way?

It’s worth noting that Judge Kaye graduated from NYU School of Law at a time when they still had an evening program. It was discontinued later in the 60′s, a victim of a now century-old fight in legal education of which NYU was an early leader. At the turn of the century, then Dean Clarence Ashley, who founded Metropolitan, an evening-only law school subsequently merged with NYU, and championed expanded access to legal education through the admission of women and African Americans, would fight the exclusion of schools with evening programs from the Association of American Law Schools. FIGHTS EXCLUSION OF EVENING SCHOOLS; Dean of New York University’s Law Department Calls Association’s Action Unjust. Had Judge Kaye thought about law school just a few years later, after NYU had already ended their evening program, would things have turned out differently?

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Category: advice to law students, Evening and Part-Time Law Students


One Response

  1. lukegilman says:

    Lawrence Cunningham has more on Concurring Opinions in A Humble Tribute to Chief Judge Judith Kaye

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