Old People, State Judges, Trials

Confessions of a 64-Year-Old Rookie Trial Judge

As much as some people glorify being a “Jack of all trades,” the truth is that in order to succeed, most professionals have to specialize. After all, the full idiom is actually “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

At a certain point in a person’s career, if he really wants to go somewhere, he must become an expert at something specific and be able to do that one thing better than anyone else. No one wants to get complacent, but at some point work hopefully becomes comfortable.

And that’s what makes Judge Ann Pfau’s story so intriguing and unique. The 64-year-old was, until recently, the chief administrative judge for the State of New York. But late last year, after massive budget cuts, the lifelong administrator ended up as a trial judge, “in the gray courthouse that hulks next to Brooklyn Borough Hall like some weird tribute to bleak Soviet architecture.”

Talk about an unexpected career move…

An entertaining article from the New York Times explains how Judge Ann Pfau went from being New York State’s chief administrative judge to serving as a trial judge in Brooklyn:

On Dec. 1, Ann Pfau, now 64, stopped being New York State’s chief administrative judge, a bureaucratic job that is like being the queen of the courts. After stepping down and being replaced, she wound up in the grimy Supreme Court building in Brooklyn with workaday responsibilities. Among other things, she is now trying jury cases for the first time in a long career, having worked in court administration since graduation from law school. Here, every day is “Judging 101,” and Judge Pfau’s Rules are piling up.

It sounds like she sees her new job as not only challenging, but as kind of funny. And it provides an inside look at the way some judges see attorneys:

“Every other word is ‘Your Honor,’ ” Justice Pfau said. “Or, ‘We’re so honored to have you as our judge.’ I assume they think they’re being slick.”

Also, it is remarkable how some of them giggle obsequiously at ordinary things she says. “I wasn’t funny before; I’m not funny now,” she said with the steeliness familiar from her days as the Blackberry-addicted manager of the rambling court system that rarely spews out good-news stories.

Well, either “slick” or “terrified of being held in contempt.” But she’s not complaining. Who doesn’t enjoy a little flattery?

Justice Pfau has also received a crash course in reigning over her new courtroom. In the article, we see a neat sense of perspective of life on the other side of the bench, which we don’t often hear about too much at ATL (except when judges screw up):

The just-do-it rule. “ ‘Just dive in head first. It’s not like we haven’t all made mistakes,’ ” Justice Laura Jacobson said she had offered as advice.

The tough-it-out rule. “Every judge says that to me: ‘Pretend you know more than you know,’ ” Justice Pfau said. “ ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’ ”

The you-could-look-it-up rule. There are publications about an amazing selection of judicial topics, including what to do when lawyers shout, “I object!”…

The sometimes-you-just-have-to-decide rule. “I was always looking for the rule,” Justice Pfau said, “and someone said, ‘You know, there’s not always a rule.’ And that was a revelation to me.”

The poker-face rule. Judges are supposed to look alert and neutral. “I have to say to myself: ‘Sit up straight,’ ” Justice Pfau said. “And you can’t let your facial expressions show if you think it’s the stupidest question ever asked.”

The when-in-doubt rule. “The only advice I gave her,” said Justice Karen B. Rothenberg, “was, ‘If you have any trouble with anything whatsoever, it’s a good time to take a recess.’ ”

In any case, kudos to Justice Pfau for taking this significant change — so late in her career — in stride, and with a sense of humor. Who says you can’t teach an old veteran judge new tricks?

At 64, a Longtime Judge Receives a Crash Course On the Ways of the Bench
[New York Times via ABA Journal]

Earlier: Want To Work for a ‘Legal Baller’?

(hidden for your protection)

comments sponsored by

Show all comments