The road from academia to the bench may be less traveled, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna J. Ryu says she covers some of the same territory in her current post as she did in her previous job as a clinical professor at UC Hastings.
"There are definite connections between being a good teacher and being a good judge. Both require strong analytical skills and the ability to communicate well," says Ryu, who was appointed in 2010 to the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. "In both instances, an important aspect of the job is to facilitate proceedings. In the classroom, my objective was to engage students in a full discussion of the learning goals. My job in the courtroom is to ensure that people have a fair opportunity to be heard and that I get the information I need to make a just decision."
Ryu's professional experiences also have influenced aspects of her courtroom demeanor. "Transparency in decision making is a key aspect of justice. I try to explain things so that even if people get an adverse ruling, at least they know how I got there," she says. "As a judge, I work with lawyers and litigants from all walks of life. I try to put myself in their shoes, just as I did with my law students. I've found [that doing this] is a very important tool."
Ryu launched her legal career at McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen in San Francisco. She later formed her own firm, Ryu Dickey & Larkin. She was an associate professor at Golden Gate University Law School before joining the UC Hastings faculty in 2002. At the UC Hastings Civil Justice Clinic (CJC), she worked with students to score a California Supreme Court victory in the landmark employee compensation case Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, which led to a $1 million award of attorneys' fees to CJC.
Among Ryu's many honors are the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year Award for Employment Law, the Asian American Bar Association's Joe Morozumi Award for Exceptional Legal Advocacy, and UC Hastings' Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her appointment marked many firsts for the Northern District of California: She is the first Asian American woman, first Korean American, and first lesbian to become a member of that bench.
Yet even with her successful transition to the judiciary, Ryu admits that teaching is still in her blood. "I absolutely miss it," she says with a smile. "I pretty routinely warn [UC Hastings Academic Dean] Shauna Marshall that I will be knocking on her door soon to let me teach a class or two."
What advice would you give to law school professors who have their sights on becoming a trial court judge?
Make sure you have well-rounded experience in managing and litigating cases: all the nuts and bolts of trials, all the work of the motions and discovery, and the pace of cases. These are things you really can't learn from a book.