March 08, 2016 Articles

JIOP Alumni Spotlight: The Honorable Zuberi Bakari Williams '02

Maryland's youngest judge shares his experience with JIOP and advice to future applicants.

By Aaron Clay

The ABA’s Judicial Intern Opportunity Program (JIOP) is proud to honor Judge Zuberi Williams—JIOP’s first alumnus in the nation to reach either the state or federal bench. Judge Williams was appointed to the District Court of Maryland by Governor Martin O’Malley and was invested on January 6, 2015, in Montgomery County (District 6). At the age of 36, he became one of the youngest judges in the history of the Maryland judiciary.


Judge Williams earned his Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from Texas Christian University (TCU) in 2000, and received his J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law (WCL) in 2003. Judge Williams also attended American University’s Kogod School of Business, where he earned his M.B.A. in Management and Entrepreneurship in 2005. While in law school, Judge Williams participated in JIOP’s 2002 summer program, interning for the Honorable Allen S. Goldberg at the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, Illinois.

After graduating from WCL, Judge Williams served as law clerk to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court. After his clerkship, he joined Venable LLP’s D.C. office in its white collar crime practice group. He left Venable and pursued a federal clerkship with United States District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, Eastern District of Virginia (the Rocket Docket), where he worked on high-profile cases involving terrorism, bank robbery, illegal drugs, illicit gang activity, corporate fraud, employment discrimination, and securities violations.

Later, Judge Williams served as an Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia, where he tried cases involving employment discrimination, personal injury, false arrest, police assault, inmate assaults, and whistleblower claims in both federal and state courts.

In 2010, Judge Williams was appointed as an Administrative Law Judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings. There, he presided over hundreds of cases including those concerning DUIs, child abuse and neglect, conditional release, involuntary admission to mental facilities, and wrongful employment termination.

Judge Williams is a great example of JIOP’s mission to provide internship opportunities to diverse law students in state and federal chambers with the prospect that such experience will further the students’ professional careers. Judge Williams also exemplifies the reasons that JIOP continues to succeed, as he remains committed to JIOP as an alumnus and continues to volunteer his time to give back to the program each year. Illustrative of his commitment, Judge Williams will begin accepting internship applications for the 2016 summer program.

As the National Alumni Cochair, I asked Judge Williams a few questions that I thought would benefit our alumni as well as the students participating in this year’s program. Here is what he had to say:

What was your most memorable experience while interning with JIOP?
I will never forget sitting in my judge’s chamber and having private, unguarded conversations in the middle of the workday. Judge Allen S. Goldberg was older, Jewish, and the quintessential Chicagoan. Although we were demographically worlds apart, we found comfort talking about the law, social change, race, family, faith, and of course, the Cubs. 

Judge Goldberg was incredibly thoughtful but pragmatic. He showed more patience than anyone I had ever met in the legal world. Through our talks, he taught me that listening was the most important function of a judge. I learned the importance of hearing past the noise of sometimes inartful, spiteful, or hateful arguments, and of finding the heart of the issues. He planted the seed of my belief that I don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room, but I have to strive to be the most careful listener.

What advice can you give today to students to make the most of their JIOP internship?
Strive for excellence every day that you walk into chambers, because justice demands it. Don’t treat your internship as a part-time job or “just to do something legal over the summer.” Do more than is asked of you. Stay late. Arrive early. Work hard. The work you do in the judiciary matters to everyday people, and your judge is relying on you to help him or her get it right. There is no task too small or too insignificant. 

In order to be a real asset to your judge, and more importantly to the judicial system, you have to throw your full heart into the experience. Anything less will shortchange your learning experience, limit the judge’s ability to be thoughtful, and diminish folks’ view of the judicial system. It is an awesome responsibility that requires excellence every day. 

As a JIOP participating judge this year, what qualities do you seek in an intern?
While every judge is different, I look for three main things. First, I look for interns who have an interest in being a trial attorney. Trial courts are the bedrock of fairness and opportunity in our communities. It’s where most of the public gets their view of the judiciary. That’s why I love sitting on a trial court, and I think it is the best experience for folks who want to do trial work after graduation. 

Second, I look for interns with excellent research and writing skills because, at the end of the day, my rulings have to be grounded in the law, as well as clear, concise, and conveyed in plain language to the parties. Convoluted reasoning, even if correct, is not clever or helpful. 

Third, I look for interns who play well with others. Courthouses are filled with lots of good folks with different personalities. Justice is not found in a vacuum. Cooperation is key and people skills are important. I need to be able to send my intern to the clerk’s office or to speak with a prosecutor, attorney, bailiff, or law clerks, without any concern the intern will be rude or show a lack of “home training.” It is more than professional manners, it is authenticity of character.

What role has JIOP played in your professional development and career?
First, JIOP showed me the importance of a pragmatic approach to decision making. The concepts I learned as a 1L were made real and practical on a daily basis. It helped me to understand the inner workings of the judicial system and focus more on legal strategy as opposed to rote memorization. I don’t think a lot of law students make that mental shift until after they start practicing law.

Second, my JIOP experience solidified for me the truth that excellence comes in all colors, genders, and ages. I was exposed to people of color and women in leading roles within the judiciary demonstrating excellence on a daily basis—specifically, young and incredibly motivated judges passionate about fairness and getting it right. It left me with audacity to believe I could become one of the youngest judges in Maryland history, if I worked hard and was given the opportunity. It also left me with the humility to understand the awesome responsibility of public service.

What advice can you give today to JIOP alumni seeking clerkships and employment?
There is no magic answer. Getting a job is tough, especially depending on the year you graduate. However, you can increase your chances of getting the job you want (or think you want) by showing you are interested in that job while in law school. Not just a little bit, but go all out for it.

If you are seeking a clerkship, take time while you are in school to intern in a judge’s chambers. In between classes, or during school breaks, go sit in the courtroom where you want to clerk. It’s free. It will cost you nothing, but you will learn practical stuff that you can write about in your cover letter or talk about in an interview. It will set you apart from your competition.

If you are seeking a job at a firm, agency, or nonprofit, you should be an expert about the group in which you want to work. Google Alert (or WestClip) the employer and especially the individuals with whom you want to work. Meet with them. Go to their events. Show them that you are interested well before you graduate. Your interview will go better if you are not meeting your panel of interviewers for the first time the day of your interview. 

Keywords: litigation, Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, JIOP

Aaron Clay – March 8, 2016