May 01, 2021 Women in Criminal Justice

An Awakening and More: How Being Part of the Women in Criminal Justice Task Force Has Provided Me with a Judicial Awareness

Hon. Rachel L. Pickering

So often in life we begin a project with one perspective, only to have our viewpoint change. And if we are lucky, the new perspective that emerges guides us in our future actions. The first two words of this column’s title—an awakening—convey the product of my experience on the Women in Criminal Justice Task Force.

As a bit of background, in late 2018, the Task Force was formed in part to address and discuss the many challenges that women attorneys have in criminal justice practice. We set out to investigate the specific issues that affect the employment, retention, and advancement of women with criminal justice careers.

When I initially joined the Task Force, I thought my contributions would only stem from my prosecution and criminal defense background in trial and appellate work. I was eager to join the project but presumed my role would remain narrow: to assist in preparation of the Task Force’s reported findings with limited adjustments to my own thinking. That would soon change.

In 2019 and early 2020, our Task Force visited several locations throughout the country to hold listening sessions and conduct in-depth reviews of women attorneys’ experiences. To facilitate this, the Task Force invited women practicing in different areas of criminal justice to come and speak about the challenges they encounter in workplaces and in courtrooms.

With support from the ABA, the Task Force was able to provide the ideal setting for effective listening sessions: a safe place for women attorneys to tell their stories and to be heard. For many, this was the first time they were able to speak about their experiences in the criminal justice field. And more importantly, they were able to talk to an audience that cared about what they shared. Without judgment or disagreement, the Task Force listened and focused on their stories.

We heard of the many challenges that women criminal justice practitioners face in the practice of law. The testimonials provided firsthand information on the numerous obstacles that can hamper or delay a successful career. Many discussed the difficult experience of seeking work/life balance while striving for career advancement. For some, they told of struggles of being new mothers and ongoing challenges with childcare while practicing criminal law. For others, it was recalling past experiences in the courtroom that had presented hardships unique to women. At times, the testimonials were hard to hear. Further, these stories were similar throughout our cross-county listening sessions. While there were some experiences that were different across rural and urban areas, many of the same themes emerged.

Specifically, the stories underscored the fact that women practitioners will likely encounter microaggressions, both intentional and unintentional, as they practice law. The more I listened, the more it became clear that all must be afforded respect and support from our legal community.

With my fall 2019 appointment to the bench, I was determined to apply this new awareness. As a new appointee, I sought to consciously and purposely create an environment that respects all in the courtroom. Of course, like all of us, I have stumbled in this effort, but I continue to work towards this goal.

Importantly, I have come to learn that it is the little things that a judge can do that make an impact. For example, given the pandemic, it is helpful to be understanding when attorneys are only able to appear virtually from their homes. Many are facilitating online learning for children, and thus they may not always be able to make it to the courthouse. Some may need to drop children off at school or take parents or other relatives to doctor’s appointments, and they may be unable to attend early morning or late afternoon hearings.

In other words, by recognizing that many skilled attorneys are juggling a lot right now, given family and other personal responsibilities, we can create a productive setting that supports a person’s dual roles as both an attorney and caretaker. I believe that much of the flexibility that the pandemic has required should remain after the virus has run its course. Additionally, we have all become more attentive and considerate as we have learned to adapt to the stresses associated with the pandemic, and it would be a benefit to all if such consideration were to continue.

By no means am I advocating a lowering of judicial and legal standards. Consideration and thoughtfulness, and supportive courthouse environments, should improve the legal process. Attorneys who are allowed some flexibility to meet work/life demands and are consistently treated with respect should be able to thrive and provide better advocacy for their clients. When they are valued and treated with consideration, they are better able to focus on substance over form. Clients benefit because they see that their representation is held in high regard, giving confidence that the best case is being made on their behalf. All of this bolsters public perceptions of the local courthouse and the legal system. In a sense, when attorneys do not have to sweat the small stuff, they may flourish and the legal process as a whole may benefit.

And yes, as noted above, I have been far from perfect in my efforts to create a considerate and flexible courtroom. For example, I have had to work on being more accommodating when scheduling hearings, learning to have patience with attorneys as they have difficulty appearing virtually, and correcting myself when I have not been as courteous as I would prefer.

But our listening sessions have made it clear that judges have an important role to play in fostering support and improving the legal process. I approach the small part that I can play in this process with a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in mind. She observed that “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” A small step towards real change can be made by providing a supportive setting where all are heard and valued.

As the Task Force has completed its listening sessions and its second year, my initial perspective has indeed changed. These experiences have widened my once-narrow views. The listening sessions bestowed an awareness upon me: As attorneys and judges, we all have a vital role to play. And thus, going forward both individually and collectively, we can take steps to have a positive impact on the practice of law.

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Hon. Rachel L. Pickering

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Honorable Rachel L. Pickering is a District Court Judge for the Third Judicial District in Shawnee County, Kansas, and an Adjunct Professor at Washburn University School of Law.