My road to judging has been a fortunate yet unexpected path. I began my legal career the traditional way. I clerked for law firms during the summer months of law school, then eventually I worked for a large law firm and practiced in the areas of employment and labor law, general litigation, and domestic relations.
Working in a Firm
While working at the law firm, I performed the typical tasks of advising clients, researching and writing documents to be filed with the various administrative agencies and courts, and handling complex legal matters. Of course, as in any firm, in addition to performing the daily tasks associated with the business of the firm, I had to formulate a marketing plan to seek opportunities to procure new clients and eventually become a partner with the firm. I found that the most enjoyable and productive way for me to meet these goals was to join and assume leadership positions within bar organizations, do community service for programs in which I had a sincere interest, and speak at seminars to develop expertise in my practice areas. These activities resulted in business referrals, highlighted the importance of networking, enhanced my legal skills, and contributed to my personal development and ability to foster meaningful relationships.
Shifting from Private Practice to Public Service
Shortly after becoming a partner, I received calls from the governor’s office offering me a significant position within state government. Initially, I declined the offer because, after all, I had just become the first black female in the State of South Carolina to become a partner in a large law firm.
South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation
After several discussions with colleagues and mentors, I finally realized that an excellent opportunity had been presented to me and that I could resume work with a law firm or “bill hours” at any firm. I accepted an appointment to deputy director for the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s Division of Labor. In that position, I had responsibility for six programs: wages and child labor, occupational safety and health, occupational safety and voluntary health programs, labor-management mediation, elevators and amusement rides, and migrant labor.
This position allowed me to further develop my leadership skills, collaborate with business and industry to enhance governmental relations, and appreciate the political savvy and diplomacy necessary to succeed in any profession.
South Carolina Worker’s Compensation Commission
Near the conclusion of my term at the Division of Labor, I received various offers for other opportunities within the legal profession. I was contemplating my choices when I received another call from the governor’s office. This time I was asked to consider an appointment as a commissioner for the South Carolina Worker’s Compensation Commission, which I graciously accepted.
During my tenure with the Commission, I served in a quasi-judicial capacity and heard workers’ compensation claims, ruled on evidentiary matters, wrote orders disseminating my findings of facts and conclusions of law, and served in an appellate capacity to review rulings of other commissioners.
Then came more calls. There was soon to be an opening for a state trial judge position. I aspired to become a judge at some point in my legal career but did not expect to pursue this goal so early. But, given that these positions become available so infrequently, I decided to run in order to fare well enough to be considered for a position in the future.
The Road to the Circuit Court
South Carolina, unlike most states, elects its judges through the general assembly. While I was elated that I did not have to raise money, give speeches, or attend various civic or community functions to attain name recognition, the election process was still a daunting task. Candidates were required to file an extensive application regarding their qualifications and other credentials; attend interviews before a judicial merit selection panel, the South Carolina Bar, a citizens review panel, and sometimes individual legislators; and take an exam on evidence, criminal and civil procedure, the judicial canons, and the latest South Carolina appellate decisions. To be successful, the candidates also had to spend a substantial amount of time with legislators to “present their case” on their qualifications to become a judge, attend various caucus meetings and receptions, and garner support for their candidacy from friends and community members who were willing to call upon legislators to cast the appropriate vote.
After weeks of campaigning, my fellow candidates pulled out of the race, and I was elected circuit court judge by acclamation. I learned from this experience that you must devise and implement a personal strategy for your particular situation and adapt to the politics (which are always part of the equation) associated with the situation.
Serving as a State Circuit Court Judge
I served as a state circuit court judge for four years. In that capacity, I served as chief administrative judge for general sessions (criminal court) and business court. The state court volume of cases is immense and continually constrained by budgetary deficits. My work in that court was extremely rewarding. I always respected and honored my judicial oath and was humbly aware of the rights, liberties, and responsibilities of individuals, businesses, and governmental entities that I affected daily. Despite the tremendous caseload, I approached my job with vigor, deliberateness, and conscious awareness that I was placed in this position to administer justice fairly and impartially to all litigants.
Becoming a Federal Judge
Then came more calls. When President Obama assumed office, a few district court judges advanced to senior status, and their seats became available. I had not considered the possibility of becoming a federal judge because I assumed that it was a very arduous political process—and, of course, it was. One must be nominated by the president of the United States and be confirmed by the United States Senate. After extensive vetting, two members of the United States House of Representatives submitted my name to the president to consider for the position of United States district judge. During this process, I had to fill out extensive application materials and questionnaires, submit to an FBI background check, and interview with various attorneys in the White House, the United States Department of Justice, and the American Bar Association. I was required to attend a Senate Judiciary Panel hearing and wait patiently until I was finally confirmed.
Building Meaningful Relationships
I have enjoyed the paths along the road to judging. With each position, I have built upon my strengths and met new challenges. Each of my life experiences and relationships has prepared and nurtured me for the next experiences. While navigating through each phase of my legal career, I have learned that having great mentors from various backgrounds and experiences is an invaluable asset. Do not be shy about seeking out advice or direction from your mentors, particularly in areas in which they may be more knowledgeable or at times when you need confidential guidance in any situation. My success at any point in life has also been dependent on balancing my home and work life and other relationships. You must remember to take the time to build and foster meaningful relationships, treasure your friendships, and value your time.
My road to judging has been characterized by an appreciation of the discipline and preparation required to master the necessary skills for the task at hand, the need to be ready and competitive for all opportunities (particularly, the unexpected), the desire to conquer the challenges of any position, and the willingness to recruit and mentor others to prepare and guide them for such opportunities.
Have you ever considered serving in the judiciary? In the program "En Route to the Bench—Demystifying Pathways to the Judiciary," Hon. J. Michelle Childs joins a diverse panel of judges to discuss pathways to the judiciary, including the judicial election and appointment processes, the required fundamental skills, and the value and importance of diversity and inclusion in the judiciary. This non-CLE webinar replay is only available to ABA members.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Woman Advocate newsletter, volume 16, number 3, published by the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Woman Advocate Committee. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
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