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Interview with the Honorable Lee Smalley Edmon

 by Comm. Nicole C. Bershon and Jessica Kronstadt


Comm. Nicole C. Bershon                                           Jessica Kronstadt


On January 4, 2013, WLALA Board members Jessica Kronstadt and Nicole Bershon interviewed the Honorable Lee Smalley Edmon, who recently completed her term as the first woman Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, in her new chambers at the Central Civil West Courthouse.  


Judge Edmon was raised outside Pekin, near Peoria, Illinois.  Her maternal grandparents owned an adjacent farm.  It was a “fluke” that she became a lawyer.   In college, a friend grabbed her hand on the way to a debate competition, imploring her to join.  The two friends won their initial round, and went on to win the entire competition.  

Judge Edmon’s college speech and debate coach encouraged her to go to law school.  After a year spent teaching fifth and sixth grade, she applied to only one law school to which she was later accepted -- the University of Illinois College of Law, just “down the road.”  A law school professor from Los Angeles encouraged her to interview with firms in Southern California.  She came out to Los Angeles in December, when there was three feet of snow on the ground in Illinois, and instantly fell in love with the city.

After graduating law school, she joined the law firm of Adams, Duque and Hazeltine.  One of her colleagues there encouraged her to become involved in local bar activities.  She began with the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s (“LACBA’s”) Barristers, eventually rising to Barristers President.  In 1997, she joined the law firm then known as Dewey Ballantine LLP, where she met her future husband, Dick Burdge (who currently serves as LACBA President).  They have four daughters together. 

In 1998, she was sworn in as LACBA President.  After completing her term as President, she realized she wanted to remain in public service in some manner.  At the urging of a number of friends who were already judges, she began to consider joining their ranks.  In August of 2000, she was appointed to the bench by then Governor Gray Davis.  She began her judicial career in family law, later moving on to criminal, and then civil assignments.  Returning to a full calendar after six years in administration, she is currently handling complex civil litigation matters.

During her tenure as Presiding Judge, Judge Edmon presided over arguably the biggest budget crisis the court, as well as the state, have ever faced, resulting in an overall reduction to the California judicial system’s budget of $652 million.  Los Angeles’s share of this reduction reached upwards of $100 million during Judge Edmon’s term as Presiding Judge.  It is understandable, then, that when WLALA sat down with Judge Edmon in her sunlit chambers with a view of the Hollywood sign, the issue of the court’s ongoing budget crisis dominated much of the conversation.

“So, what’s harder?  Working on a farm or serving as the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court?”

In the interest of being candid, I didn’t work hard on the farm.  My grandfather was the family farmer for our adjacent farms, so I had all the benefits of living on a farm without having to work on it.   No question, Presiding Judge was harder than any job I have ever had.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as Presiding Judge?

The budget.  The budget.  I ran for Assistant Presiding Judge in September of 2008, a month before the economy tanked.  I had no idea that I’d literally be spending the next four years dealing with the budget.  I had no idea that the budget problems would so decimate our court.

Because 85% of our budget is spent on people, because we are a service organization, the only way to achieve significant savings and to cut expenditures is through layoffs and attrition.  Losing dedicated court employees was one of the most difficult things about the budget cuts.  I will never forget the days we had to lay off employees – people who have given so much of themselves to our court and who have lives and families to support.  It was devastating to me personally and to the court.

These cuts have damaged a great court system that has been devoted to providing access to justice, and this next round of cuts will result in closing courthouses around the County.  Making police officers and people of Los Angeles County travel further to get to court disadvantages everyone and will cause huge access to justice problems.   

What was the accomplishment of which you were most proud?

Hands down, my proudest accomplishment is my kids.  They have become amazing young women.  There was no way I could have survived these past six years without them.

As Presiding Judge, one of the things I am most proud of is that, through all the budget cuts, we worked hard to keep all case types going.  We tried to make our cuts across the board, and tried to become as efficient as we could by doing more with less.  By doing that, we managed to keep all case types going.

I also appointed many women into leadership positions - more supervising judges, chairs of committees and assisting supervising judges than ever before.  I was the first female Presiding Judge in 134 years, and I am very proud that there are lots more women in line now to take over as Presiding Judge, including current Assistant Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl.

I am also proud that we forged alliances with other courts around the state, who were feeling the pain of budget cuts, too.  We were able to join forces and form alliances with these other courts which I believe increased our effectiveness with the legislature and with the Administrative Office of the Courts.  Joining together with the Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, Katherine Feinstein, and the Presiding Judge of the Sacramento Superior Court, Laurie Earl – all women – we traveled to Sacramento where all three of us talked about the budget crisis impact and how it was felt all across the state.  I was also in constant communication with former Presiding Judges of our court.  We were able to bring years of experience to bear on the issues facing the courts.

We also strengthened our relationships with local bar associations, working with them to keep them apprised of the impact of the budget cuts and working on the front-end to evaluate how we could do things to increase efficiencies.

Is there any advice you wish you had been given before stepping into the role of Presiding Judge?

I wish I had had a crystal ball to know what I was getting into!

I followed Tim McCoy, who was my predecessor as Presiding Judge.  He did a great job of showing me the ropes and giving me advice.  That way, I didn’t need much by way of advice when I became Presiding Judge.  I felt far better prepared because of the guidance Tim provided, and Tim and I both felt it was important to make sure that the Presiding Judge and Assistant Presiding Judge were working very closely, hand in hand.  He brought me along to meetings when I was the Assistant Presiding Judge.  I did the same thing with current Presiding Judge David Wesley.  For two years, we went to meetings together, which is good training and gave us both an intimate knowledge of what was going on.  David is fully prepared to step into the role of Presiding Judge and will do a fabulous job.

Did growing up near a farm help prepare you for becoming a litigator?

A lot of what was ingrained in me was that you had to work very hard.  I’m not sure if that was because my mother was a farm girl or something else.

How did you balance a successful legal career with raising a family?

It is always a struggle, and always difficult to do justice to all fronts.  My husband was a huge help.  We have always shared the load.  Having a dedicated spouse or significant other surely helps.  Fortunately we found terrific and talented nannies, who we still treat as family members many years after they left.  I certainly cannot imagine going it alone.  What gets you through is that you have to work very hard -- at all hours of the day and night -- and you end up having to juggle your responsibilities.

Do you have any tips for young lawyers for achieving a successful work/life balance?

You have to prioritize and to decide what is most important to you.  You can’t have it all, or at least not all at one time.  You just have to choose wisely, in terms of how to juggle everything.  At some point in your job, you may be in the middle of a trial.  During those times, your kids or family will have to sacrifice.  On the other hand, there will be times where your family takes priority.  For example if there’s a school play, or you’re in the middle of water polo playoffs, your work takes a back seat so you can make those events.

I also would encourage young lawyers to not lose track of their own future.  Plan for their career years down the road.  Get involved in bar activities.  You will create your own network of people throughout the city that you likely wouldn’t otherwise get to know.  Through various bar-related activities, I had the opportunity to improve myself as a lawyer, and work with “legal luminaries” around the city who became, and have stayed, really good friends. 

What qualities do you think make someone a good judge?

There are lots of qualities that make someone a good judge but if I had to pick one I would say having a good demeanor.  A good judge is someone who is going to be respectful, listen, and communicate to the parties that their case is important to the judge, because that case is certainly the most important to the parties.  Even more important than the outcome of the case is for the parties to know that they had a fair hearing because that way they know they’ve had their day in court. 

What challenges will the public face in terms of trying to be heard?

With all of the budget cuts, the court’s dockets are going to be heavier, which will make it harder for people to be heard by the court.  Also, judges will not be able to provide as much time to litigants during those hearings.

Do you have any advice for young women lawyers who are considering becoming a judge?

I think that being a judge is the greatest profession in the world, and I encourage those who are interested to pursue it.  It’s important to have mentors and role models along the way.  I’ve been fortunate to have both my whole life.  So, I think young women need to search out role models and mentors throughout their careers.

What qualities separate great lawyers from average ones?

There are many qualities that make someone a great lawyer, but it is particularly important to have integrity.  Lawyers need to know that one of the most important things you have is your reputation and that it needs to be protected at all costs.  Great lawyers also exercise professionalism and civility, which unfortunately are often lacking.  These qualities make a big difference to a judge, and lead to better results for clients.  I think that a lawyer who is civil to his or her opponent can do a better job for his or her client.

Are you comfortable sharing some “best practices” for demurrers and/or motions for summary judgment?

As far as demurrers go, the best I can say is just don’t bring them!  Unless there are circumstances where they can be dispositive of an entire a case, they are often a waste of time and effort, particularly now when the courts are so overburdened and will continue to face financial difficulties.  Before bringing a demurrer – or any motion practice – I encourage lawyers to step back and decide what are the really important appearances and events in the case that need to be done in the courtroom where the judge is involved.  I also encourage lawyers who are thinking about bringing a demurrer to make every effort to resolve the issues informally with the other side, either through amending the complaint voluntarily, or by agreeing to deal with the issue later and in a more substantive motion, like a summary judgment motion.

As to motions for summary judgment, ask yourself whether this is an MSJ that really has a chance at succeeding, and if it does, bring it.  You also need to examine what makes the most sense for the client.  If you bring a motion for summary judgment, keep it short and simple.  I also remind lawyers to be clear about the relief they need, keeping in mind how limited the time the judge has to give to the motion will be.

What advice, if any, do you have for lawyers trying to make things easier on the judges before whom they appear in light of the court’s budget cuts?

The major problem with staff reductions is that judges do not have support.  Papers may or may not get to the courtroom.  There will be limited resources to do legal research.  Simplify.  Get to the point.  Find the controlling precedent and focus on it.  Make your papers easy to understand and digest.

During your twelve-plus years on the bench, what, if any, changes have you seen among the lawyers appearing before you, either positive or negative?

Having had a family court assignment, a criminal court assignment, a civil court assignment, and then during my time as Assistant Presiding Judge and then Presiding Judge when I wasn’t sitting in a courtroom, I haven’t so much noticed a change in the lawyers over the past years, but certainly differences between the various bars.  In my experience, lawyers in the criminal bar work with each other day after day and therefore tend to treat each other professionally and with civility. 

[Judge Edmon made sure to note that she loves lawyers, whether they belong to the family, civil, or criminal bar, and that she enjoys working with them.]

What do you think the future of the court holds?

Long term, I am confident that our judicial officers will uphold the highest traditions of the bench.  They will do everything they can to provide justice to the people of the county.  Short term, unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better.  Trying to figure out how to make more than $80 million in additional cuts in expenditures is still necessary.  Because we have already gone through several severe cuts that have cut through all of the “fat,” we are really left only with “bone” and there are no more easy cuts to make.  Now, every aspect of courtroom practice is going to be harder for court staff, for judicial officers and for litigants, jurors and the public.

I hope that, eventually things will improve, but for now, we are bracing ourselves for the worst.

What do you miss most about being Presiding Judge?

No question, I miss the people in the Presiding Judge’s office the most.  I had an amazing staff as Presiding Judge, including Gloria, Cynthia, Reza and Matt, and I got to work with David Wesley every day.  That said, I don’t necessarily miss being Presiding Judge.  I am thrilled to be at CCW working on the cases before me here.

How are you spending your newfound spare time?

It doesn’t feel much like spare time quite yet because I am one of the current edition authors of the Rutter Group's Civil Procedure Before Trial, and our deadline for edits to that is coming up.  But free time is coming soon, and I hope to travel and read books for pleasure.  I haven’t gotten to my “fun books” yet, but I’m hoping to get to one by Nora Ephron soon.   Also, my mother lives in Thailand, where she has taught grade school for the past six years, I want to visit her there this spring.

Comm. Nicole Bershon is WLALA's Power Lunch Liaison and is a Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner at the Inglewood Courthouse.  Jessica Kronstadt is co-chair of WLALA’s Financial Development Committee and is a Holocaust Services Attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services.