March 26, 2014 Articles

The Path to the Bench: Interviews with Women Appellate Judges

By M.C. Sungaila

State and federal appellate judges offer their advice for women considering a career on the bench.

Margaret McKeown, Judge, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (1998–present)

Q: What was your path to the bench? And what was the most unexpected aspect of being a judge, once you were appointed?

There has to be this confluence of serendipity and professional excellence and timing for an appointment to happen. Lucky is the best way to describe it. I was the first woman partner, first woman on the executive committee, and first woman managing director at Perkins Coie in Seattle and Washington, D.C., where I specialized in high technology and antitrust work. I had an international and national practice that I loved. I served the community in diverse ways, through national board service on the Girl Scouts of the USA, the White House Fellows Foundation, and work with national and local bar associations. I was the first co-president of the statewide Washington Women Lawyers and one of the founders. I was not contemplating the bench. But then a judge in Washington asked whether I might consider applying for an opening on the Ninth Circuit, which made me consider whether I would enjoy serving as a judge. I threw my hat in the ring for what turned out to be a long and arduous process. It took three and a half years to go through the appointment process, which was a politically tumultuous time. While some would say that there is a script for a professional life leading to the federal bench, I did not follow any script and did what I felt passionate about; had I followed a script, I might never have done the pro bono women’s rights and civil rights cases I did in my career and that I was grilled about during the confirmation process.

I learned a few things during the confirmation process. First, the appointment process is a political one, and therefore more organic than the legal process we engage in as lawyers in court. Second, it gave me the opportunity to put into practice a saying that I kept on my desk: “When you are out on a limb, the world is at your feet.” There is some reluctance to reach for the stars when you might find yourself out on a limb like I was during the appointment process, but I took the risks needed to move forward. Third, relationships and reputation are critical. I so appreciated the bar, women’s groups, clients, opposing counsel, and those I had served over the years rallying behind me in support of my nomination.

One of the exciting things about being a judge is that I no longer have to do timesheets. I can spend as much time as is necessary on a case; the time spent on a case is not related to the dollar value or stakes of the case. There is a luxury in being able to focus on the development of the law, no matter what package it comes in.

Q: What advice would you give to a woman lawyer interested in joining the appellate bench?

Be an outstanding lawyer with a good reputation. Being involved in the community is important for a rich and balanced legal life, but it also is valued in the appointment process. It is important to have writing experience as well. Consider pro bono work not only for its element of service, but as a way of developing your career and gaining experience. My first appellate arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington Supreme Court were pro bono cases.

Finally, be aware that the judicial appointment process is a political process and is required by the Constitution—appointment by the president with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. “Politics is a contact sport,” as one senator told me.


Jacqueline Nguyen, Judge, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (2012–present)

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