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July 01, 2022 Feature

The Privilege of Participating in the JCP

By Judge James G. Gilbert

When I rejoined the ABA shortly after my appointment as a judge in 2009, I began attending the ABA Annual and Midyear meetings. Getting to know my colleagues in the Judicial Division was a highlight of that return. However, it was when I stumbled across the Judicial Clerkship Program (JCP) that my personal connection to the ABA truly began. My first year participating in the JCP led to my appointment to the JCP Planning Committee several years ago. As a now longtime member of the planning committee, and as an active participant in the JCP for many years, I have grown as a person and expanded my understanding of the challenges faced by so many law students from minority and underrepresented communities.

Several years ago, we had an inquiry from a law school asking whether it was appropriate to send an LGBT student to the JCP who would not otherwise identify as an ethnic or racial minority. This sparked a debate in our planning committee about inclusiveness and the need for this program to meet the ABA’s Goal III requirements. Under the leadership of then co-chairs Judge Toni E. Clarke and Judge Marcella Holland, we updated our brochure to the law schools to make it clear that the JCP was inclusive of all persons. This also led to expanding our outreach to Native Americans and students with disabilities too.

As we expanded our outreach, we kept our eyes on the actual prize, which was to make sure that underrepresented communities and students were well represented in the program. Our most recent seminars have borne the fruit of those efforts. Today, the JCP is one of the most successful and diverse of all ABA offerings. Those of us who have worked on the planning committee take great pride in that accomplishment, but we recognize that it is the students themselves who deserve the praise. They arrive each year at the ABA Midyear Meeting, representing law schools from all across the country, with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation at the opportunity to spend three days with judges from every level of the judiciary.

By interacting with each other, they learn the benefits of networking. And by spending time with judges who care, they also learn we are just people like themselves. While many will not land a coveted clerkship, they will see that a future judicial career is no longer beyond their grasp. The vast majority of our students are often the first in their family to attend college, let alone graduate from law school. They lack the familial connections and social standing to see a logical progression to the bench. Then they hear the stories of judges who, just like themselves, faced similar challenges. Suddenly, their eyes are open. They see a different future that they may have never imagined.

The JCP is at best when we make these personal connections with the students. Over the years, I have had several students reach out to me for assistance as they track down a particular position. And while I certainly do not have all the answers, I have access to many fine judges who do, and I am grateful to be able to assist whenever I can. And in the end, I am the one who enjoys the satisfaction of knowing that we have a very talented generation of young people to take over for us. In a hectic and unpredictable world that seems to be unraveling before us, these students are stepping up to defend the institutions of our democracy.

After our annual JCP program finishes, I find myself renewed with optimism and hope for our future. Sure, these unsettling times may demand a healthy dose of skepticism among us and fear for our democratic institutions. But spend a day with the students at the JCP and you soon realize that the same motivations that brought us to the legal profession also motivate these students of today. Being part of a law student’s new journey in their legal career is a privilege. If you have not yet participated in the JCP as a judge/mentor, what are you waiting for? It is no less than a life-changing experience, and all of us need a fresh shot of youthful energy and positivity in our lives. I have yet to meet a judge who has participated in the JCP who did not have the same reaction. The JCP is one of our treasures and represents the very best of the ABA.

I hope to see you in February 2023.

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By Judge James G. Gilbert

Judge James G. Gilbert is chief administrative law judge for the U.S. Postal Service Office of Administrative Law Judges.