President's Message - JUNE
WLALA President 2014-2015
Women lawyers in Los Angeles lost one of our trailblazers last month. The Honorable Mariana R. Pfaelzer passed away on May 14, 2015. I had the pleasure of clerking for Judge Pfaelzer in the Central District of California in 1997 and 1998. She was well known for her long career on the bench (almost 40 years), her status as the first female judge in the Central District of California, and her orders striking down Proposition 187, which barred public benefits to undocumented immigrants in California. But, what I hear said about Judge Pfaelzer most, and what I remember most, is her unwavering commitment to legal excellence.
Judge Pfaelzer’s focus was on getting each decision right. It sometimes meant spending weeks on a particular order. It meant conducting extensive research in a pro per case to make sure both sides’ positions were fully analyzed. It also meant not worrying about potential reversal, political repercussions or even threats from the community. Careful thought, analysis and hard work took precedence. She did not expect us to work hard for the sake of it. Instead, we were expected to work hard until we were confident in the quality of our work. And, the fact that Judge Pfaelzer was truly brilliant meant that excellence was attained her courtroom.
Judge Pfaelzer also expected excellent legal work from counsel in her courtroom. More than once I saw her scold counsel when she knew the facts of their case or the relevant case law better than they did. She had no tolerance for counsel who would not extend professional courtesies. Judge Pfaelzer also expected counsel to observe the formalities of courtroom conduct and to take their case and their client with the utmost seriousness. Arriving late to a hearing was unacceptable. Lack of respect to courtroom staff was not tolerated. Even professional attire was something she recognized as important.
I worry sometimes that we don’t emphasize these qualities and practices as much as we should. We tell our young attorneys to work more and more hours and get out there and network. This is important to be a successful lawyer in private practice, but first must come excellence. That means really thinking about the legal issues and arguments; taking the time to research until you are confident with the results; editing a brief until it sings; and presenting in the courtroom with knowledge, confidence and professionalism. That means a true commitment to high quality legal work.
In writing this message, I came across an interview with Judge Pfaelzer published by the Los Angeles Times on December 1, 1985, during which she was asked if she ever thought about slowing down. Her response: “I've always associated with people who work hard. I believe in work. I think work defines you. It makes a lot of difference in the way you view your life. And this is one of the most exciting jobs in the world. One wonderful contribution on this court is from the senior judges who could go into retirement but who keep on working, and I look forward to doing that too.” True to her word, Judge Pfaelzer served as a senior judge for 18 years. I was honored to work with her, learn from her and be a part of her true excellence.