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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: July 2023 | Health

Member Spotlight: Judith Droz Keyes

Judith Droz Keyes


  • Judith Droz Keyes, a distinguished labor and employment lawyer, shares her career journey from unexpected beginnings at the UC Berkeley Law School to her ongoing impactful work in the legal profession.
Member Spotlight: Judith Droz Keyes Sadowski

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Tell us a little bit about your career.

I graduated from UC Berkeley Law School – then known as Boalt Hall -- and was admitted to the California bar in 1975. When I started law school, I had no intention of being a lawyer. I went because I and many of my friends were being arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War. My husband had died in the war (he was a Naval Academy grad who fought alongside John Kerry), and I felt I had to protest as I knew he would have done had he returned. Despite having a Master’s Degree (in Linguistics), I had no idea how the criminal law (trespassing) related to Constitutional protection (free speech), and I wanted to learn. I imagined I would return to teaching high school. It was halfway through my first year when it occurred to me that I could be a lawyer! It wasn’t that hard: just thinking, reading, writing, orating -- all things I knew how to do and had taught others how to do.

I fell into labor and employment law quite by accident. I spent the summer of 1974 as an intern with the United Farmworkers Union (mostly defending trespassers). I learned how important having fair labor laws are because the farmworkers had no such protection at the time. I spent the first semester of my third year of law school externing at the federal district court in San Francisco and found myself commuting on BART with the Regional Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. We got to talking about the farmworkers, and he encouraged me to apply for a job as an NLRB field attorney – which I did. I loved that job but was recruited away by a small labor law firm that I had come to know and admire. Forty-seven years later, I’m still practicing labor and employment law, albeit at a much larger firm, and still finding it engaging and rewarding.

What has been the highlight of your career?

The single biggest highlight was being named a Fellow in the College of Labor & Employment Lawyers, an organization that emphasizes civility in the legal profession. An ongoing highlight is the special privilege of practicing employment law, especially in California. My practice has afforded me the opportunity to see first-hand the evolution, and the value of, legal protections for people in the workplace – people who are pregnant, transgender, parents, disabled, older, and so on. Societal needs are played out in the workplace and having that window into what’s going on, and having the opportunity to spread the word about it, is an on-going highlight.

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

No. Not a thing.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

If being a lawyer is calling to you, do it. And join your local bar association and the ABA. Join while you’re in law school and participate actively no matter how busy you are with other things. Having friends and professional connections outside of your immediate circle is both rejuvenating and professionally rewarding. It absolutely helps keep things in perspective. It will advance your career.

What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

Technology tops the list of the changes I’ve seen over the course of my career. I had taken typing in high school because that’s what girls did in the 60’s. I typed the bar exam on an electric typewriter. (1975 was the year the California bar began allowing a typewriter option as an experiment.) When I joined my law firm in 1976, I wanted to have a typewriter in my office but the partners were worried I’d be mistaken for a secretary, so they initially declined. We compromised that I’d have a typewriter on a rolling cart and if a client was in the office, it would be rolled into the supply room. We didn’t even have voicemail in those days. Or a fax machine. The way things are today was literally unimaginable.

When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?

I think I joined the ABA while I was in law school, or at least immediately afterwards. It seemed the natural thing to do.

Are there any member benefits that SLD or the ABA provided to you that helped you decide to become a member of the ABA and/or SLD?

Just the intangible ones.

What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

I have loved being an active member of the ABA Labor & Employment Law Section for the last 40 years or so. Active participation in the Senior Lawyers Division in the last couple of years has opened new doors for me. I loved being a panelist on the SLD-sponsored webinar “Getting Inclusive About Inclusion: Adding Age to the DEI Conversation” in May. The newest highlight, and a big one, is being appointed by the Chair-Elect to be a member of the SLD’s Women of Excellence Committee for the 2023-2024 bar year. I am so looking forward to that.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

I would have been a teacher. No doubt in my mind about that.