By Sarah Galer
Photo by Jason Smith

Clerkships are a fabulous post-doctorate: there is nothing else like it in our system.”
—Diane Wood
Senior Lecturer in Law and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

William J. Martínez spent years providing legal assistance to the poor. Now Martinez, JD’80, is taking his public service to another level as one of the country’s newest federal judges.

Born in Mexico City and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Martínez worked at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago for his first seven years out of law school, determined to protect the rights of his working class and disadvantaged clients in housing disputes and employment issues.

With his appointment last December as a federal district judge for Colorado, Martínez added another layer to the University of Chicago Law School’s tradition of intellectual and judicial leadership. Like many law alumni who have gone on to federal clerkships or judicial posts, Martínez says he relishes the chance to serve the public interest at the highest levels.

“I'm pleased I now have the honor and privilege of continuing that career orientation with service to the nation as a federal judge," he says. He credits his work as a student attorney at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic for having propelled his career path, which also included four years as Regional Attorney at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver, in addition to his extensive private practice work.

Many alumni who hold judgeships say the Law School offered practical and scholarly preparation for the demands of their future posts, especially the need to understand many complex and conflicting viewpoints. Students also benefit from the first-hand experience of teachers such as Diane Wood, Senior Lecturer in Law and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit along with her Law School colleagues Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, JD’73.

“The Law School does a great deal to help prepare its students for both clerkships and the judiciary through its broad-based education, which allows our graduates to go out and tackle any problem,” says Wood, who joined the Law School faculty in 1981 and has served as a federal appeals judge since 1995.

Several Law School professors also have gone on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, including current Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens lectured at the Law School in the 1950s.

Cultivating future judges

For Rebecca Pallmeyer, JD’79, and now a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois, the Law School’s atmosphere of encouraging the open exchange of ideas and beliefs provided the most lasting influence.

“My years at the Law School trained me to listen to and understand views very different from my own, sometimes standing firm with my original conclusions and other times recognizing the merit in an alternative position,” says Pallmeyer. “A good judge does precisely this: maintain an open mind about both straightforward matters and difficult or controversial ones.”

The intellectual training that helped prepare judges like Martínez and Pallmeyer also has inspired a strong tradition of judicial service through clerkships among Law School alumni.

“Clerkships introduce students to the technique, breadth, and practice in issues of consequence and a whole amalgam of perspectives that cannot be trained in an artificial scholastic environment,” says Dennis Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in Law and the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, who runs the Law School’s clerkship committee. He says that 40-50 alumni fill clerkships around the country each year.

UChicago a leader in clerkships

According to Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, who tracks Supreme Court clerkship placement on his Law School Rankings website, UChicago has sent more law clerks to the highest court since 1991 than all law schools, bar Harvard and Yale.

“From what I’ve heard, most people find their clerkship year to be one of the best of their professional lives,” says Matthew Tokson, JD’08 and Bigelow Teaching Fellow, who clerked for Judge A. Raymond Randolph of the U.S. Court of Appeals after graduation.

Tokson, who will clerk next year for former Supreme Court Justice David Souter in retirement, credited Hutchinson as an integral part of the clerkship process.

To help encourage more graduates to pursue public interest careers, including judicial clerkships, the Law School has recently redesigned its Loan Repayment Assistance Program, giving the opportunity for graduates staying in public interest for 10 years to go to law school for free.

“Clerkships are a fabulous post-doctorate: there is nothing else like it in our system,” says Wood.

And when it comes to life on the bench, “the greatest part of it is the ability to be involved in that critical point where you have to make the law mean something,” she says. “It requires you to think very hard about future consequences.”