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Stellar Women: Mentoring Junior Lawyers with Judge Kimberly Johnson

Mary Rechtoris

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Often, our careers don’t follow a linear path. Opportunities may arise that may be completely different than what we expected but may serve us and our goals well. This was true for Judge Kimberly Johnson, who went to graduate school to study psychology. Her path led her to law school, ultimately becoming a trial attorney and a judge.

In this episode, Mila and I chatted with Judge Johnson on the importance of giving junior attorneys opportunities to argue a case in the courtroom, and why diversity in trial teams is imperative.

Judge Kimberly Johnson

Hon. Kimberly C. Johnson

Eastern District of Texas
U.S. District Court


Mary Rechtoris: Hey, Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Mila Taylor: And I’m your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Mila and I are so excited because we're welcoming Judge Kimberly Johnson to the podcast.

MT: Hello and welcome.

Judge Kimberly Johnson: Thank you so much for having me.

MR: We're excited to have you and we have a lot of questions to get to. But before that, Judge Johnson, for Stellar Women, we're trying this new section called “Highlight of the Week.” It’s a way to start on a fun, positive, light note if you want to rack your brain for anything fun or exciting that has happened. I can go first. I finished a fun new book that I found in my building's laundry room, so you know it’s a prize. It’s called Conviction by Denise Mina. It talks about podcasting, true crime, and celebrities, which are three of my absolute favorite things. If anyone needs a very light read, I recommend Conviction. All right, Judge Johnson, let's go to you.

JKJ: What's great about my week is I am headed out to Orlando in the morning. I’m the mother of five and my youngest is into competitive gymnastics cheerleading. Their team made it to Worlds, so we are on our way to the great state of Florida tomorrow morning.

MR: Did you watch the documentary Cheer?

MT: I was just about to ask that.

JKJ: My daughter did, but I did not. All of the drama in that show is real.

MR: It’s intense.

JKJ: It is so intense. I think people don't realize it. I did a similar thing when I was younger, so I actually get it.

MT: Well, best of luck to your daughter. That's exciting.

JKJ: Thank you.

MT I will go. The highlight of my week is that I have been feeling a little homesick and I found this cookbook online that has pretty much every Australian recipe that I've ever known plus a thousand more. It’s this huge book and it arrived yesterday. I went through and put little Post-It notes on all the pages of the things that I want to cook but probably will never get to actually cooking.

MR: What's the first one you're going to do?

MT: So, in Australia, obviously meat pies are a big thing. In the book, there are these different kinds of meat pies that they have, like party pies or mini meat pies.

MR: You have to get cooking.

MT: You can be my taste taster.

MR: Always down. So why don't we jump into Qs? Judge Johnson, tell us a little about yourself and why you went into the law. What interested you?

JKJ: I went to regular graduate school. I got a business degree and then went on to graduate school for psychology. During that graduate program, I really became interested in psychology in the law. I don't have any lawyers in my family. I didn't really know any lawyers at the time. It definitely wasn't that [I knew someone in the profession]. It was through the study of psychology and particularly, I was really interested in juries, both jury selection as well as criminal profiling. That's why I went to law school. My plan was to get a law degree as well as a PhD in psychology and go that route. That all changed when I got to law school. I fell in love with the study of the law, analytical thinking, learning both sides, and being able to get on either side of the issue and argue it. That was it. I wanted to practice law from that point forward and that's what I've done.

MR: That's interesting. Psychology in the law. You wouldn't think those would intersect, but they do so much.

JKJ: They do so much. As I've gotten older, I've really learned that our paths may take us to different places than we originally planned. [I’ve learned] the importance of being flexible. You may shift from what you think you're going to do or where you were. The things you learn from that experience continue to help and add to your own experience. It is beneficial in whatever you go on to do. The study of psychology and working with the clients that I did through that practice are so helpful every day in what I do now.

MT: That's a really good point on being open-minded to the shifts and turns that your career can take you down.

JKJ: It sounds so simple. If you're a structured, type-A person like I am, it's not so easy. It becomes easier as you get older because change becomes not quite so scary. You realize that sometimes really great things happen from change. It can be scary and you have to acknowledge that, but at the same time be willing to go with it.

MT: Speaking of changing and going with it, can you tell us a bit about your move from trial attorney to judge?

JKJ: There's definitely no prep course on how to go from being a lawyer to a judge. You're just nominated or appointed or whatever the process is. From the start, on my own in time, I was reading rules and making sure I knew everything that I thought I knew. Probably the biggest benefit that I did on my own was reach out to my mentor, who is the judge that I clerked for out of law school. She's now the chief judge of the northern district of Texas. She is a huge mentor for me. I spent about a month sitting in her courtroom, watching her handle trials and different types of hearings on the federal bench. On the federal side, we handle both criminal cases and civil cases, so there's a wide variety of cases that we handle. I watched her and took her to lunch as many times as she'd go with me. I would talk to her and get outlines. I also reached out to other judges that I knew and had practiced before. I asked to take them to lunch to pick their brains. I asked lots and lots of questions. And then, of course, there were some that sent me various materials to read. I did all of that on my own. And what I did as a young lawyer was, I watched the great litigators. Then, you can pick and choose what things you think would work for you. I did the same thing as a baby judge. As much prep as I did on my own, putting on that robe for the first time and walking to the courtroom was pretty scary and surreal. It didn't seem like I should be wearing it. It took a while, but it's absolutely a wonderful opportunity. I really love serving in this position.

MT: I have so many follow up questions and I’m excited to get to what I'm going to ask next. We had the opportunity to speak to Judge Johnson before this recording, and I just found out the coolest initiative that she does. But before that, I wanted to say that I feel like I've heard so many times people say that you should be a sponge early in your career. What you just described is the best example I've heard of being a sponge by talking to as many people as you can and going to lunch with people as many times as they’ll go with you. That’s great tactical advice for people listening.

JKJ: You've got lots and lots of people that have gone before you and have all this great experience. Why not take advantage of all of that and then combine it with what you bring to the table? You're just that much better for it, right?

MT: I’m really excited about the next topic. When we spoke before, you mentioned that you're a big advocate of having associate attorneys argue cases in front of you in the courtroom. Can you tell us about that and why that initiative is so important to you?

JKJ: Another reason why I really love this position is that it's a platform. It's a platform to do good things that are important to you. One of the things that's important to me is mentoring young lawyers and giving them opportunities. Oftentimes, the term “young lawyer” means women because we have so many young ladies getting in to the profession. And so one of the things that I do is, I have a standing order in my courtroom. In federal court, for those that don't know this, you often don't get oral argument. Most of the time you submit briefings and the court makes decisions on the briefing. You don't actually get to argue before the court. One of the things that I offer, and I tell parties in every single case—I will let a young lawyer argue the motion. I define young lawyer as having seven years or less of experience. I will set any motion for hearing no matter what it is, whether I would typically set it for a hearing or not. They informally let the court know that I set it for hearing and I also tell them that I expect the other side to reciprocate and also put a young lawyer for argument. From my own experience as a litigator, I know that clients are often hesitant to let a younger lawyer argue in court. So I have different incentives and ways to address that. So I think you asked, why is it important to me? The practice of law has really changed in that there are not the same opportunities available for young lawyers to get into a courtroom and argue. Most of us didn't go to law school because we just wanted to sit in the back of a courtroom and watch. Most of us went to law school because we wanted to be up there before the judge making arguments. That is a skill that you don't learn by watching others. At some point, you have to get up and you have to do it. You have to make mistakes and do it again. And it's just really difficult right now for younger lawyers to get those opportunities. That’s one way that I try to help with that. It's really caught on in that a lot of people that have cases before me take advantage of it.

MR: Digging deeper there: I’m sure that some clients will say, “I want the greatest attorney arguing this,” and that's usually the most seasoned professionals at the partner level or whatever. What are the incentives or what's your talk track for law firms when they're talking to clients to give this opportunity to more junior attorneys?

JKJ: I'll say a couple of things on that. I built in a safety valve for clients because I know how they think. I always let the seasoned lawyer be present and stand up if he or she thinks that something needs to be added or something's been said that was mistaken. Typically when a lawyer makes an argument on a motion, it's one lawyer per motion. That's it. So this blanket, if you will, gives the client assurance that no mistakes are going to be made. It very rarely is needed. Lawyers like to talk so sometimes the senior person will stand up just because they want to get their two cents in. But it's very rarely needed. In my experience doing this for five years, the young lawyers that come in are overprepared. They know their case. Younger lawyers oftentimes are giving the sticky notes to the senior lawyers that are making the case. I've also asked if the senior lawyer could please sit down, and if I could just hear from the younger lawyer, because it gets distracting. It's not helpful. I can tell that the younger lawyer is the one that knows the case. So I've done that before, too. It gets back to incentives for the client. In addition to the safety valve, it's a win-win for the client, at least in my courtroom. Number one, you're doing something that is important to the judge that you're in front of and is making decisions on your case. They're making the judge happy by taking advantage of that opportunity. The other is you get a hearing when you might not otherwise get a hearing on a motion. You get to get in front of me and tell me why your motion should be granted. I look at the incentives that I've put in place and wait for people to take advantage of them.

MR: Why do you think it's important for firms to grow their junior employees or junior attorneys? What's in it for them?

JKJ: Having diversity on your trial team is important because there are different perspectives that are brought to the table on how issues are viewed and how they can be portrayed that are really important to take into consideration. I think a lot of people have figured this out. Not everybody has yet. That's one reason there. Another is that we're not getting any younger. Clients are going to need fresh talent and ideas. To the extent that our younger lawyers are not getting the stand-up experience in court, they're not going to be as prepared as the lawyers that were trained back in the day where you could take a little case to court and get that experience.

MT: There are so many examples of that across other life experiences, like driving a car. You can take the test and you can think that you know everything about driving a car. But, until you’re behind the wheel, you don't actually know how to do it. How many times have people had a conversation in their head in the shower like, this is how the conversation is going to go? But they're not verbally saying it. It's just like, okay, I'm preparing now.

JKJ: I also teach a law school class at SMU. It’s another way to give back to younger lawyers and it's one of the things that I tell them. You have to practice your argument out loud. At some point, you must transition from saying it in your head to saying it out loud. Watch yourself in the mirror and say it to another person because it's just completely different, right?

MT: One hundred percent. I also think what a nice notion of your superior saying, “I trust you. You got this.” That instills so much confidence. It’s a great retention plan. Obviously I'm not a lawyer, but for companies where I've worked, I've had different kinds of managers. In my experience, a manager who says, “You got this. I'm here if you need me,” versus someone over my shoulder the whole time—I'd much prefer that autonomy and trust.

JKJ: Management style is a completely different topic that we could probably talk about for an entire podcast. But in my opinion, micromanaging someone is not helpful. You're not helping them grow. You're not pushing them to be their best. Confidence is key in any profession, but certainly for a litigator. It takes one time sometimes for a person to stand up and successfully make one argument to the court and say, “Okay, I just did that. That was really fun. I want to do it again.” They start seeking out those opportunities and getting those opportunities. I mentioned that in the law school class that I teach, I bring students into the courtroom during their last couple of weeks. They get to stand at the podium and make an argument on a motion for summary judgment that they draft in class. That is always interesting for me and I've taught the class for years. Watching the students go through that, it's hard. It's really difficult for them. It's usually the first time for them and it's very different doing it in a classroom versus doing it in a real federal courtroom. It’s important. The way that you facilitate someone having the confidence to do something like that is at the beginning of the class, I tell people a lot about myself. I'll share with them. I'm open with them about my imperfections and what I do well. This creates a confidence between the mentee and the mentor. Convey the notion that you're going to be taking risks and you're going to make mistakes and that's okay. This is the safe place to make mistakes and to try new things out. That's the environment that is necessary, I think, for people to grow and ultimately be the best they can be.

MR: You mentioned that you always advise younger attorneys or anyone looking to improve their presentation skills to speak out loud. Are there any other pieces of advice for individuals to bolster those skills?

JKJ: Seek out opportunities to tell people what you're interested in doing. Be that person that really tries to make their own path and success happen. Don't wait for someone else to do it. It likely will not just fall into your lap if you're not seeking it out. If you are seeking it out, there's lots of people like doing what I'm talking about that want to help if they know there’s someone that's really interested in taking advantage of those things. In terms of oral speaking, particularly before court, many lawyers are uncomfortable with questions from a judge. I always tell lawyers, if I can, “Don't be afraid of questions.” You never really know what's behind a question. It could be a total softball where the judge needs you to make this particular argument because you're going to win. It could be not good for you, but you don't really ever know. Expect questions, welcome questions, and answer the questions. That sounds easier than it is, but that's really important. The other is to not be so wedded to an outline. That's probably my number one tip for younger lawyers. I totally understand writing out your argument at the beginning when you're preparing. But at some point you want to get to a comfort level where you can have a conversation with the court as opposed to reading your outline or being wedded to a PowerPoint. That’s really important. And then the third thing I would say is confidence. Confidence is key. I tell my law students this. I tell my children this. Fake it till you make it. That’s my motto, because sometimes things are scary. If you're constantly challenging yourself like we all should be, then you're going to be putting yourself into situations that are scary and you just have to fake it. And then eventually your confidence catches up to you. It’s really important to exude that confidence when you're in a court, having a conversation with the boss, or whatever it is.  Nurture yourself so that you can have the confidence in yourself that you need.

MT: One hundred percent. Thank you so much for everything that you've shared with us. It's honestly been such a pleasure to talk to you and so insightful. I'm so excited by all the things that you're doing. It's been such a pleasure, so thank you.

JKJ: Thank you. It's been really nice to meet you. I appreciate the opportunity.

MR: For Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.

MT: And I’m Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.

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Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the brand team at Relativity, where she's always collaborating and looking for new ways to develop and socialize stories.