Interview with the Honorable Carolyn Kuhl
On February 13, 2013, WLALA Board member Julie R. F. Gerchik interviewed the Honorable Carolyn B. Kuhl, Assistant Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, in her chambers. Assuming the current tradition continues, Judge Kuhl will serve as Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court in the 2013-2014 term.
Julie R.F. Gerchik Hon. Carolyn B. Kuhl
“I Grew Up Learning That Education Was Everything.”
A St. Louis native, Judge Kuhl grew up watching her father attend college at night in order to obtain his undergraduate degree because he could not advance in his career with the railroads otherwise. That, of course, had a big impact on the Judge. Although the Judge’s mother also would have loved to have attended college, in those days, that just was not done. However, the Judge remembers well how her mother loved to read and was “interested in all kinds of things” from archeology to ballet. “So from both ends,” when it came time for the Judge to go to college, as the Judge said, “there was no question about it!”
When Judge Kuhl was admitted to Princeton University, she was part of only the second class of female undergraduates at Princeton. Originally, the Judge wanted to be a chemist. At that time, there was only one other undergraduate woman beside herself in the chemistry department. But, the Judge said smilingly, “it was a wonderful experience.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Judge recalls that “speaking up [and] participating on an equal level was just normal” for her. Far from holding any resentment about the lack of women at the University, the Judge and her fellow female classmates simply felt very lucky to be attending Princeton. The Judge recalls that some of the banter that may have been discriminatory, off-color, or questionable, “we just totally overlooked because it was so small compared to the opportunity to be there.” As the Judge notes, other than the fact that it was a male-dominated culture, the experience overall went very smoothly. And, as the Judge also notes, it prepared her very well for the male-dominated culture of the practice of law at that time.
The Judge’s journey from chemistry to law was instigated by another female undergraduate at Princeton who was a year ahead of her and had decided to attend law school. Although a number of the Judge’s male friends were going to law school, there was something about the conversation she had with this female friend that had a significant impact on her and influenced her to change paths and go to law school. Upon arriving at Duke Law School, the Judge found that “a whole other world opened up that [she] was so excited about.” “There was just a new way of thinking about logic, about the role of prior decisions and common law. That was exciting.”
Judge Kuhl Goes To Washington.
Upon graduating from law school in 1977, Judge Kuhl clerked for future Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who at that time was an appellate judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “That was a wonderful experience,” the Judge remembers, “in particular because [then-Judge Kennedy] had withdrawn from public life as a result of his Ninth Circuit appointment and therefore frequently went to lunch with his law clerks and spent considerable time with them.”
Following her clerkship, the Judge moved to Los Angeles and joined the firm that soon would become Munger, Tolles & Olson. Three years later, however, Judge Kuhl reached a real milestone in her career: she went to Washington and served as Special Assistant to Attorney General William French Smith under President Reagan. After having been in Washington for just one week, the Judge was charged with the task of helping to prepare then-Supreme Court Nominee Sandra Day O’Connor for her Senate Confirmation Hearings. This meant reading the Justice’s prior opinions and preparing briefing books, and trying to imagine the questions that would be asked of the Justice. It was a very interesting process, the Judge recalls. She had to think about the kinds of answers that were appropriate for a confirmation hearing – in other words, the line a nominee must walk between, on the one hand, not committing to a position on a legal question that may arise in the future, and on the other hand, not giving the Senators a feeling they were being stonewalled. Judge Kuhl notes, the Justice “was just consuming everything as quickly as we could prepare it.” As a staff member, the Judge recalls, “I sat through the entire hearing with her … I was even in the car with [the Justice and her family] as they went to the hearing.” In short, “it was fantastic.” Later, as Deputy Solicitor General, Judge Kuhl argued to the Supreme Court, and there was a moment in her first argument when Justice O’Connor leaned over to Chief Justice Rehnquist and appeared to tell him about their prior connection.
Jumping from one female Supreme Court Justice to another, at the mention of Elena Kagan, Judge Kuhl exclaimed, “She is amazing!” Although they never worked together, the Judge met Justice Kagan at a dinner organized in honor of Justice Kagan by the few women attorneys who had the privilege of working in the Solicitor General’s Office. Justice Kagan was the first woman Solicitor General. In total, there were only 26 such women invited to the dinner – meaning that only 26 female attorneys had ever worked in the Solicitor General’s Office, and this was as recently as four years ago. Judge Kuhl recalls that when she first arrived at the Solicitor General’s Office in the 1980s, there were just two other women there. And, that was the first time that there were “noticeable numbers” of women. “There just had not been much of a tradition of women in that office,” the Judge remarked. When asked why there historically have been so few women in the Solicitor General’s Office, the Judge thought for a moment and suggested that perhaps it was because it was a small office, and one that thought of itself as somewhat elite – and it was in many ways. Interestingly, the Judge noted that she and Solicitor General Charles Fried talked about the lack of women in the Solicitor General’s Office, and the Solicitor General then made a conscious effort to start hiring more women. But, the Judge recalls, “what really shocked me was that as of just four years ago, there were still only 26 women in total that had been in the Solicitor General’s Office.”
Access To The Larger Community Of Women Attorneys Through Big Firm Life And Organizations Such As WLALA Is A Huge Benefit To Women Attorneys.
After her government service in Washington, Judge Kuhl returned to Los Angeles in 1986 and became a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. Although she was happy with Munger itself, the Judge was “disappointed” with some aspects of the practice of litigation at big firms. “There just seemed to be a lot of effort that went into what was non-productive activity.” The Judge recalled, “I remember a case settling on the eve of trial after all the work had been done, and I was just so discouraged by that.” However, the Judge noted, one of the big benefits of firm life is that it “does not just provide you with access to the other women attorneys in your firm, but with other women attorneys in the community at large. Which is, of course, what Women Lawyers (WLALA) is all about.” “This is a huge benefit,” the Judge states. The Judge recalls that “on that particular case that settled, Jill Slater from Latham & Watkins was representing a co-defendant, and so I got to watch her question witnesses, see what her style was, and that was great.” As a side-note, the Judge remarked, “In those days though, smoking was allowed. And so the partner I worked with from Munger smoked cigars, and Jill smoked cigarettes – and she chain-smoked. She just lit one from the other. So you can just imagine what that deposition room was like!” Other than the chain-smoking, however, Ms. Slater served as a great role model, and access to other such women in the legal community proved to be an enormous benefit for the Judge.
The Role Of Female Mentors.
When asked specifically about the role of female mentors in her career, the Judge provided two examples of women mentors that had been uniquely helpful to her and would still be relevant to young women today. The first time that the Judge practiced at Munger (as a junior associate), the one female partner at that time passed on some advice to her: “You might look around at the way young male associates are operating and think that (a) they know exactly what they are doing, and (b) they are not afraid. That is actually not true. They don’t necessarily know what they are doing, and they probably are afraid. But, they have been culturally trained to not show it.” The partner reassured her, it was completely normal, as a junior associate just starting out in her legal career, to feel a bit insecure or not know exactly what she was doing, and she was not the only one feeling that way. The Judge has remembered these words, and continues to pass them along. “That was very important for me,” she notes.
The other example of female mentoring that was significant for the Judge happened when she returned to Munger after being in Washington and having the first of her two daughters. There was another female partner at Munger who also had children. “Having another professional woman who also had the experience of having another life at home was very useful to me,” the Judge recalls. For both of these reasons – with respect to certain observations as to how things work in the workplace and balancing one’s home life – the Judge believes that women mentors still serve a very useful purpose for young women attorneys today.
The Answer To Work-Life Balance… Marry A Feminist ???
“Work-life balance is very difficult,” Judge Kuhl states. When the Judge came out of college, it was the era of feminist thought and she thought that by the time she entered the workforce, all of these issues would be worked out and there would be models to choose from for how to do “this work-life thing.” “Then, you would just have to follow the model – understand it and follow it, and it will all work out. And to think that all these many years later there still is not a model; it is pretty remarkable, and daunting, to still be struggling,” the Judge commented. As for her own experience, the Judge said, she feels “tremendously assisted, and blessed, by having a husband that – as he says – is more of a feminist than I am – and he is probably right.” The Judge’s husband, fellow Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger, was previously a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Yet despite having his own demanding career, the Judge comments, “We really were equal partners in the child-rearing and everything around the home, and in the decision-making about the child care. That was just an amazing benefit to me. I couldn’t have done it without having had that kind of partnership relationship, although I know there are women who do.” To sum up, the Judge laughingly suggested, “if you can find a feminist husband, that is a big help!”
The Current Crisis In The Courts.
As you walk into Judge Kuhl’s chambers, one of the first things that pops out is the framed “We Can Do It!” print hanging on her wall. It was given to her when she left the Solicitor General’s office by her male colleagues. “It spoke to me,” she says smiling, “and I was proud of it, very proud of it.” The Judge adds, “It probably spoke to what the colleague that gave it to me thought too.” Interestingly, the Judge has not always had it up in her Chambers, but she brought it out recently in light of the current situation with the Courts. Over to the right of her coffee table, the Judge has an area rug that has the imprint of the poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s for “those moments,” she says. The rug actually belonged to the Judge’s husband, however, when Judge Kuhl moved to her present position as Assistant Presiding Judge, he gave it to her and said that it was she who needed it now.
Although the crisis in the courts has been coming for a number of years, it really is here now. “The governor, the legislator, the bar, the public, everyone around us have not recognized yet what a change it’s going to be and what it’s going to mean when, effectively what we’re planning to do, is dismantle important parts of what we’ve built.” The Judge notes, that this year the Courts are relying on their fiscal reserves in order to avoid making any changes in this fiscal year “so that we can use this year to plan for what we will need to do next year. . . we have had to prepare for what is now a fiscal cliff.” As of June 30th, the end of the fiscal year for the Courts, “we will be operating at a much reduced level,” the Judge commented. To illustrate this, the Judge says, “We have had about $195 million in cuts for Los Angeles Superior Courts since 2008. We have found a ‘solution’ for about $110 million of that; that leaves us $85 million that we need to find ‘solutions’ for by July.”
By way of example of proposed “solutions,” the Judge explained that 10 courthouses will be closed, which means that local police that have cited for traffic or misdemeanors, witnesses, and victims will now have to travel further distances. Also, those courthouses that currently house many types of civil cases, probate in some instances, small claims, and unlawful detainer – which ideally should be close to the populous – now will disappear. Additionally, all of the referees – who primarily sit in juvenile – have or will be terminated, meaning that judges will now have to fill those positions as well. Some of what has been done is to put judges in settlement courts with no staff. In some instances, judges will be working in tandem with each other: one judge will do the morning calendar and will then spend his/her afternoon preparing for the next day’s calendar, while the other judge will conduct trial and probate matters that afternoon.
There is no longer the staff to have every type of case in every location – even for those courthouses which will remain open. For example, small claims cases will only be heard in 6 locations across the county now – as opposed to the twenty-six locations where small claims previously have been heard. The Judge acknowledges that this is “truly an access to justice question,” but there is no other choice with the present budget cuts. In response to the budget cuts, the Judge points out that San Joaquin County decided they were not going to hear small claims cases at all. However, the Judge notes, “judication is the core of what we do. We are going to keep adjudicating cases. We cannot offer the convenience of adjudication in all of the locations we used to provide, but we will have somewhere people can go to have their case heard.” The Judge notes that they are considering public transportation and other related issues in conjunction with their analysis.
In general, the Judge comments, “We are completely re-engineering how we do civil.” There is a master calendar system being put in place for all of the personal injury, including medical malpractice cases, as they require less intensive judicial management. The Judge says matter-of-factly, “we are even obtaining a change in the rules of court so that we do not have to have case management conferences” in these matters. However, Judge Kuhl cautions, “This is not because we believe it’s a good idea, but because if given a choice, we believe it is more important to hear the motions and get a trial for those cases rather than try and help the lawyers organize their cases.” Will we pull through? The Judge responds, “As Judge Wesley, the current Presiding Judge, has been saying in his speeches to the Bar, ‘we will not thrive, but we will survive.’”
One of the biggest positives, however, to come out of this current crisis, is the tremendous response by the staff. The other biggest positive, the Judge notes, is witnessing the sheer determination exemplified by everyone in the judiciary. “We really have quite a sense of determination around what we are doing. We are going to continue to adjudicate cases, we are going to do the best we can. These plans we have made have really come from . . . what we have learned about case management over the years, and what we can do with minimal staffing to keep deciding cases.” In keeping with this, patience has always been an important quality for a judge as part of judicial temperament, and this will be true now more than ever. In fact, the Judge notes, patience will be an important quality for everyone to have – from judges to lawyers to the general public. At the thought of patience for us A-type lawyers, we both burst out laughing. In all seriousness though, case management techniques have been the biggest thing that the Judge says she has learned – both generally as a judge, and specifically in her present position as Assistant Presiding Judge. Sounds like that’s what we will all need to learn. However, at the end of the day, “we will not thrive, but we will survive.”
Julie Gerchik is a the Co-Chair of the Appointive Office Committee and is an Associate at Latham & Watkins LLP.