Interview with Retiring Judge Emilie Elias
Interview by Hon. Nicole Bershon
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias, the keynote speaker at WLALA’s 2013 Holiday Reception, will be retiring on April 29,2016, after 26 years of distinguished service on the bench. Judge Elias was appointed in 2000 to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (“LASC’) after serving as a court commissioner for 11 years. As a commissioner, she handled a civil calendar, which assignment she continued after her judicial appointment. Her final assignment with the LASC has been as the Supervising Judge of the Complex Civil Litigation Panel, where she was the Coordination Trial Judge for the asbestos cases in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego County.
Judge Elias has served the state’s Judicial Council (“Council”), the policymaking body of the California courts, in a number of different capacities. From 2002-2008, she served on the Governing Committee of the Council’s Center for Judicial Education and Research. From 2008-2012, she was a member of the Council’s Civil and Small Claims Advisory Committee. She was also appointed by the Chief Justice to the Trial Court Funding Workgroup. At the local level, since 2005 Judge Elias has been actively involved in the LASC’s Judicial Education Program, serving as chair since 2010. She has served on the boards of the California Judges Association, the Los Angeles Chapter of the Association of Business Trial Advocates (“ABTL”), and the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Litigation Section. She is a prior recipient of the Trial Judge of the Year Award from the Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles and of ABTL’s William J. Rea Jurist of the Year Award.
Judge Elias is an avid traveler, and she enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren. She is also a voracious reader, and is a founding member of a South Bay judges’ book club, to which WLALA Foundation Board member Nicole Bershon also belongs.
On March 25, 2016, Judge Bershon interviewed Judge Elias about her years as a lawyer, her judicial career, and what the future holds for her.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO BECOME A LAWER?
I was telling my father at the dinner table that all of the guys I knew were applying to law school. He pushed me by telling me that “if you think you can do it, you should apply.” So I did.
WHY DID YOU BECOME A JUDGE?
I had been a family law practitioner in Palos Verdes. I originally applied to be a court commissioner. There was a court commissioner in Torrance who I thought would be retiring. I thought I would get his spot. Ironically, though I became a court commissioner, I never stepped foot in Torrance. Also, since being on the Court, I have never handled a family law case.
HOW DID YOU MAINTAIN A WORK-LIFE BALANCE?
I got married during my second year of law school. I then had a federal clerkship for Judge Charles Carr. I was pregnant during my clerkship. My husband and I bought a house, and I wanted to keep active in law. So I just knocked on doors. I finally got a call from an attorney, Jack Esensten, who offered me a time for space arrangement, where I did work for him in exchange for which he gave me office space. Big firms didn’t really have women attorneys at that time. I wasn’t working full time. But, it keep me involved.
WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU THINK MAKE SOMEONE A GOOD JUDGE?
Not having preconceived ideas about the cases or the parties. You have to listen. Also, you have to like lawyers.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG WOMEN LAYWERS WHO ARE CONSIDERING BECOMING A JUDGE?
I never sat as a temporary judge, but I think they should sit as a temporary judge before deciding to become a judge to see if they like it.
WHAT QUALITIES SEPARATE GREAT LAWYERS FROM AVERAGE ONES?
The ability to communicate with clients, judges, and co-counsel. You can know all the law in the world but if you can’t communicate, it doesn’t do you any good.
DURING YOUR TIME ON THE BENCH WHAT CHANGES HAVE YOU SEEN AMONG THE LAWYERS APPEARING BEFORE YOU?
They are more diverse. There are more women and people of color. They are more reflective of our society. On the negative side, many of the lawyers are more informal in the courtroom, in how they address each other and the bench.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THE FUTURE OF THE COURT HOLDS?
Change always comes. There will always be an opportunity for change, and the court will survive this [most recent financial crisis].
WHAT ADVICE, IF ANY, DO YOU HAVE FOR LAWYERS TRYING TO MAKE THINGS EASIER ON THE JUDGES BEFORE WHOM THEY APPEAR?
They should be prepared. They should be able to answer the judge’s questions, and not allow themselves to be sent into court “as a warm body” and without knowing anything about the case. In addition, they should meet and confer with counsel on the other side and see how many things they can work out between themselves. Judges love this.
Also, as it relates to motions, judges know most of the main points and authorities. What they really want to do is learn the facts of the case. So, the attorneys should put more information in the supporting declarations.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU FACED AS A JUDGE?
I really haven’t faced that many. I have been treated very well.
WHAT DID YOU FIND MOST REWARDING AND/OR WHAT WAS THE ACCOMPLISHMENT OF WHICH YOU WERE MOST PROUD?
The fact that I’ve [been a judge] for 26 years now, all in civil, and I still like it. Also, I believe I have helped the court along the way.
LOOKING BACK ON YOUR CAREER, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU MIGHT HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?
I wouldn’t have pushed through my education so quickly. I was admitted to the bar at 25. In retrospect, I should have taken some time off. What was the rush?
WHAT WILL YOU MISS MOST ABOUT BEING A JUDGE?
The adventure of it. Coming into work and never knowing what’s going to happen.
FINALLY, HOW DO YOU ANTICIPATE SPENDING YOUR NEWFOUND FREE TIME?
Travel. Visiting my kids. Reading. Playing golf. I really have no set plans at this point.