An Interview With the Honorable Helen I. Bendix
By Jessica Kronstadt
On July 28, 2013, WLALA Board Member Jessica Kronstadt interviewed her mother, the Honorable Helen I. Bendix. Judge Bendix is the supervising judge of Los Angeles Superior Court’s Mandatory Settlement Conference (MSC) courts. She also serves on several Superior Court and Judicial Council Committees.
Judge Bendix was born and raised in New York City. Her mother and father, both Holocaust refugees, came to New York, her father right before World War II and her mother, after World War II. They were introduced to each other at a party by one of the benefactors of the future Guggenheim Museum. Her father died shortly after she and her twin sister – world- renowned dermatologist and medical researcher Dr. Alice Gottlieb – were born. She was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother, who moved in to help after Judge Bendix’s father died. Judge Bendix’s grandmother supported the family by working as a sales clerk at Gimbels department store, and when the twins were older, their mother worked as a dental hygienist.
Judge Bendix is the product of New York City public schools. After attending P.S. 6, she was accepted into the Hunter College High School for Academically Gifted Girls. From there, she went to Cornell University, on a Cornell National Honors Scholarship and Regents Scholarship, where she graduated with distinction as a College Scholar. At Cornell, she also met her future husband, the Honorable John A. Kronstadt, who serves as a District Court judge in Los Angeles. After they graduated from Cornell – Judge Bendix a year early – they attended the Yale Law School, where during their second year, they were married.
After graduating from Yale, Judge Bendix clerked on the Ninth Circuit for the Honorable Shirley M. Hufstedler who was, for at least part of her tenure as a federal Court of Appeals judge, the only woman federal appellate judge. After working in private practice for over 20 years in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, in 1996, she served as the Vice President and General Counsel of KCET. A year later, she was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court.
What made you decide to become a lawyer?
I went to college in the early 1970s, which was a time of great social change, particularly with respect to civil rights and consumer rights. I realized that lawyers where the instruments of this social change and wanted to change the world in much the same way I observed lawyers contributing to social change in the early 70’s.
There were no lawyers in my family. The first lawyers I met were law students at Cornell, who were the Resident Advisors in the dorms and I thought what they were doing was very interesting. During college, I also took a course at the Cornell Law School, where we discussed solving social problems peacefully through the law. For example, during that class, we talked about the plight of labor in the early 1900s and how creating a legal system that protected the right of labor to organize and stopped violence and riots between company owners and employees. I also took a course in the government department on Constitutional Law; it was my first introduction to legal reasoning and the central role of law in United States history. I have never lost the appreciation for a society under the rule of law that I learned at Cornell. I am proud to be part of that rule of law as a judge.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a lawyer?
When I entered law school and into practice, I did not have any role models. I arrived at Yale Law School at a time when most of the students had famous fathers in the law or had enormous political ambition. I had never seen a lawyer at work and was never involved in politics. At first, I was intimidated even by my fellow law students, let alone by learned professors espousing the Socratic method.
When I started practicing, it was hard being a woman in a very male environment. The “Captains of Industry” had stereotypes about women, for example, that women are not tough enough to be convincing to juries and jurists or to be trusted with “bet the company” litigation. I think that because I am small and blonde, many people assumed that my size and intelligence were in direct proportion. Establishing the kind of presence important to success in law firms was just that much harder.
Title IX did not exist when I was growing up. As a result, most women never learned how to stand out while still being perceived as a good team player. In my generation, men often learned that art through sports. It does not surprise me that these days, there are many women athletes who gravitate towards the law.
What made you decide to become a judge?
I received mentoring from older lawyers, who came to me and said “we think you should and can do this.” I also credit my experience clerking for Shirley Hufstedler. She was such a powerful role model. I think that next to my mother, there was no more influential role model in my life. I also like being part of the solution, not part of the problem. Judges are problem solvers. I also wanted to tackle the intellectual challenge of being the guardian of due process and having a hand in the development of the law.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a Judge?
I have been a judge for 16.5 years and have had many different assignments. Each assignment presents a different challenge. As a general proposition, I think every judge has to find his or her own voice in the courtroom. One has to be able to establish oneself in the courtroom in a way that is compatible with one’s personality. That takes time.
In my current assignment as supervising judge of the settlement courts, initially the challenge was establishing the MSC program and ensuring its success. That required an extraordinary number of hours and versatility in settling the full gamut of civil cases in LASC. The program had to hit the ground running to establish credibility among all members of the Bar. I think we succeeded in doing that.
Now, with the most recent set of budget cuts, we have more demand for the program and less staff available to assist the judges. I am proud that we have kept up the quality of our work even in face of these challenges.
What has been the accomplishment of which you are most proud?
Easy question: My three children.
On a professional level, I am proud of the scholarship I have brought to difficult cases. I am proud of the fairness my courtroom exhibits. I am also proud of the peacemaking I have done as a settlement judge in cases that my colleagues and counsel thought were impossible to settle.
Is there any advice you wish you had been given before becoming a judge?
I think that the education I received in judicial college and the orientation for new judges was very useful. My more experienced colleagues were also a very important resource to me in every one of my assignments.
Did being raised by a single mom prepare you for becoming a lawyer, and eventually a judge?
It reinforced my independence. I always knew I would have a career. I never wanted to be economically dependent on someone. On a more personal level, having a mother who, in the face of adversity, did such an amazing job made me appreciate the importance of balance between work and family and the many roles I would play in my life in the future.
How did you balance a successful legal career with raising a family?
It helps to have a wonderful marriage and a supportive partner. You have to recognize that you have a long career and that there are times when you are going to have to compromise something. Sometimes you miss family events because of a crushing work demand, like a TRO. Sometimes you have to be content with earning less than you think you deserve because you attended that family event. My advice is not to beat yourself about what you are not doing. Celebrate the fact that you are managing it all.
Do you have any tips for young lawyers for achieving a successful work/life balance?
Get involved in bar activities and bar associations. I met so many mentors through bar activities. They gave me an opportunity to work on challenging matters and encouraged me to take on further challenges.
Jessica Kronstadt is co-chair of WLALA’s Financial Development Committee and is a Holocaust Services Attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services. She thinks her mom is Superwoman.