On February 12, 2020, the Center for Judicial Events & Clerkships (CJEC) launched its first generation initiative with “First to the Bench: A Discussion with First Generation Judges on the Federal and State Courts”. Judge Denny Chin ’78 of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Justice Maria Araujo Kahn ’89 of the Connecticut Supreme Court shared their unique perspective as immigrants.
The CJEC partnered with the First Generation Law student group (F1Gs) to host this event and two student board members—Kevin Lopez ’21 and Gregory Toma ’21—facilitated the discussion with the judges.
Judge Chin and Justice Kahn spoke about their experiences as immigrants, first generation lawyers, judicial clerks, and now judges. Both talked about the language barrier they and their families experienced after immigrating to America (in the late 1950s from Hong Kong and mid-1970s from Angola, respectively). They also spoke about the lack of guidance they received from their parents while attending law school and pursuing legal careers, which sometimes made them feel like they had a disadvantage compared to their classmates.
However, Judge Chin recollected that interning for Hon. Henry F. Werker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), during his first summer as a law student, significantly impacted his career trajectory. He said he had an affinity for the experience of being in the courthouse, and he distinctly remembered watching a bank robbery trial proceed, thinking what a great job it would be to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney. It was at that time that Judge Chin decided he wanted to clerk, and he later became a judge in that courthouse. He believes that the courthouse where he now sits as a circuit judge was the same one where his grandfather was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 1946.
The audience, largely current law students who are first generation, also received valuable advice on pursuing judicial law clerkships. Judge Chin, who clerked for two years in the SDNY, reflected on his career and said that it was one of his favorite experiences. Unlike appellate court clerkships, which are more academic in nature, trial court clerkships provide a wider range of responsibilities and an opportunity to engage with lawyers, litigants, and others in different settings.
In the same vein, Judge Chin—who has been teaching legal writing at Fordham Law since 1986—gave the students practical advice. “If you’re handing in a draft brief, don’t think of it as a draft that the partner is going to edit and give back to you. I don’t want to spend my time correcting typos and cleaning up awkward sentences; I would like to focus on more important things like what is the opinion saying and is the reasoning good?” Judge Chin advised. “Get a sample of something that the judge has written in the past, follow that format, and make it as strong as possible, knowing that it is going to be edited and you’re going to go back and forth.”
Reflecting on her own professional journey, Justice Kahn thanked Professor Daniel J. Capra (now CJEC’s faculty director) and Professor Andrew Sims for encouraging her to apply for a clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. “I had professors who thought I did well enough in their classes and were looking out for me,” she recalled. Justice Kahn, who was the first recipient of the Noreen E. McNamara Memorial Scholarship, also said the Law School’s commitment to academic excellence shaped her to be the person she is today.
“Our goal is to create a vibrant clerk network. Moreover, as we do so we want to ensure we are building communities of support. Developing a community for our first generation students, alumni and judges is paramount,” said Assistant Dean Suzanne M. Endrizzi ’96.
A true reflection of the enduring Fordham spirit of inclusion the CJEC arranged in collaboration with Student Affairs to host an informal chat with the Judges and F1G leaders with the IDEAL student. The IDEAL students are a cohort of 10 first generation pre-law students whom Fordham Law is mentoring and supporting throughout the year. (see story)
The evening concluded with a reception welcoming current and former judicial clerks who also self-identify as first generation attorneys. “This initiative is important, at times it isn’t always obvious the support structure that has existed. This first generation initiative creates a community that is vibrant, visible and welcoming,” said Professor Capra.