U.S. District Judge Gerald Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia, speaking today at the annual National Black Law Students Association convention, said state and federal judges across the country want diversity in their chambers, but it's up to law students of color to take the first step.
"The majority of our judges are open to students who look like you," he told the room of at least 50 students.
Lee was one of four judges to take part in a panel discussion on "Demystifying the Judiciary," one of several events aimed at helping law students understand their career options. More than 1,000 law students and lawyers are expected to attend this year’s convention in Arlington, Va., which ends Sunday.
The panel also featured U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia, retired District of Columbia Superior Court Senior Judge Cheryl Long, and Capt. Frederick Mitchell of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Lee encouraged the first- and second-year law students to consider unpaid internships with state or federal judges. Judges like to hire clerks with some experience already working for a judge, he said, noting that his office had to recently sift through 1,000 applications to fill a single clerkship.
“We’re very focused on trying to get minorities in the door to compete for clerkships,” Lee said, “but if you don’t apply, you can’t be considered.”
Jackson encouraged law students to consider clerkships over going straight into practice after graduation, saying that while it may not pay as much at first – a big issue for students graduating with crushing debt, he acknowledged – the experience pays dividends in the long-term.
“You will have the kind of skills you will not get in a lifetime,” he said.
As a final word of wisdom, Long urged students to clean up, or even take down, their social media profiles if they were serious about working for the judiciary. “If you think you want to be a judge, take everything down now,” she said.
National Law Journal photo by Zoe Tillman. From left, Capt. Frederick Mitchell, Judge Cheryl Long, Judge Gerald Lee, Judge Raymond Jackson and moderator Jamar Walker.