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If the Robe Fits

Lynn Luker returned to her business litigation and civil litigation defense practice in January after a six-month appointment to the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. We spoke with her in the middle of her judicial stint

Published in 2015 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine

By Ross Pfund on December 26, 2014


Q: How does one end up being appointed to this position?

A: It is a decision that’s made at the Louisiana Supreme Court level. I’m pretty amazed that I ended up receiving this appointment because they come up very, very infrequently, and there’s a lot of competition, as you might imagine. It’s a pretty spectacular gift to have this opportunity.

I think that I was considered because I’m generally, I think, considered to be a hard worker. I have practiced law now for 33 years. I practice in this courthouse, along with others, quite a bit. I’m a regular speaker on professionalism and ethics, so I hope I have a reputation as someone who follows the rules.

My first case that was percolating up for trial was a multimillion-dollar, very complex case. These guys worked me to death.

Q: So much for easing into the job.

A: It ended up settling. But I have to tell you, I’ve been affirmed on my three opinions that have gone up for review by the higher-ups. I’m on cloud nine about that. I would expect that they would disagree with me just as easily as agree with me. I’m just doing the best I can.

The judge who had this position resigned to run for mayor. It created this opening. There’s an election that’s taking place, and one of the requirements to be appointed is that you have to agree not to run, because it would obviously be a real advantage to someone trying to run for the job if they were actually sitting.

I’ve taught at Tulane Law School for 29 years, and what I am doing is bringing my students over to let them see how the courthouse works; how the oral argument, status conference or trial actually plays out. They get to actually see the paperwork that’s public record. They can volunteer as externs, and I’m giving them little assignments. Of course, we’re double-checking to make sure they haven’t overlooked anything because they are students.

They’re really getting the opportunity to participate. You can’t really, as a judge, rely on a law student for the kind of work that we’re doing. But if we can let them at least participate on the basis that they’re able to contribute, I think it’s a tremendous teaching opportunity.

Q: I’m guessing you’re finding yourself in a learning situation, too.

A: Interestingly, I’ve agreed to do three CLE programs already. The subject matter [of the CLEs] is what I’m going to do differently when I return to private practice.

First of all, there’s a very limited number of personnel here at the courtroom. I have two law clerks, and I have a minute clerk who keeps tracks of scheduling and whatnot. We have what we call “Rule Day” on Fridays. A typical Rule Day here may have 40 different matters; that’s an average number. It runs the gamut of everything from a discovery dispute to a ruling as a matter of law on whether a case should be dismissed, to issues for closure [and] succession, and some obscure legal issues that I haven’t come across in my entire 33 years of practice.

Even for me, someone who routinely puts in a solid 12-hour workday without blinking an eye, I can tell you, it is a lot of work. The first thing I changed when I took the bench is, I put a notice on my courtroom door that requires two courtesy copies of any motions. My law clerk needs a copy to pull the cases and do the research, and to prepare a memo for me. I need a copy so I can read it. There’s only so much time in the day, and I don’t want my law clerks standing in front of a machine copying pleadings just so I can have a copy to read.

Second, there’s no secret door that leads to another room with an army of people doing this work. It’s just us. I get these 40 different cases that I’ve got to rule on every other Friday. We’ve got to get online, pull the case, print the case, read the case, see if it says what the lawyer says it says.

I was supposed to have a trial today—it settled late yesterday. The lawyers were talking about putting in a deposition, and they were going to choose different pages. I said, “Guys, I’ve got to tell you, I’m so tired of reading a deposition and I flip the page, and all of the sudden I’m on page 20.” It’s like reading a novel and somebody tore out every other page. I wanted to hear the end of that question and answer, and it’s gone because somebody decided it wasn’t important.

All the judges want to make the right decision, but we only have a limited amount of information, so I’m going to really be much more thoughtful about whether or not I’m giving enough information to the judge. Lawyers—and I’m as guilty as anyone—we know these cases. We’ve been working on them for years. We’ve lived them. The judge is getting maybe 15 pages of something and is supposed to make a very important ruling based on 15 pages from one side and maybe 15 pages from the other.

Q: What else should lawyers know?

A: I had a conversation with a lawyer yesterday who was incredibly rude to my staff.

Q: And he thought you wouldn’t hear?

A: I pulled the lawyer aside, and I said, “When you’re rude to my staff, that’s worse than being rude to me, which you would never be.” That’s something that lawyers lose sight of. I told this lawyer, “We’re just going to reset. I’m going to chalk it up to you were having a bad day, and we’ll just go from there.” It’s the same as lawyers who are rude to other people’s secretaries. You just don’t do that.

I’ve never been rude to staff. The one thing that I have done is when I would come down and file something I would chitchat with the staff, thinking I’m being a friendly lawyer. What I know now is that these people have so much work, and they’re in the middle of trying to do whatever it is that they’re trying to do. They’re polite, they’re friendly, and they try to help people with whatever crisis du jour it is, but it’s not like they were just sitting here daydreaming, waiting for someone to come in and talk to them. [Laughs]

Q: Is it a challenge to change your mindset from being an advocate to being impartial?

A: There is a funny story involving a friend of mine. He was appointed to sit for a period of time. He’s very smart, an excellent lawyer, a really great guy. He was presiding over a trial, and he made an objection.

Q: It’s second nature.

A: I think because I heard that story and we laughed so much about it, I’ve been very mindful of trying hard to remember that I’m supposed to be the judge and not an advocate. But it is hard to separate yourself. The hardest part has been … as an advocate you have a side and you argue, and as a judge, you have to get it right. And that’s much more difficult.

What’s been really gratifying is that both the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the defense attorneys have been really pleased to have me involved in their cases. In fact, my minute clerk came in here one day—she’s just this wonderful lady—and she said, “We’ve now had two different cases where the lawyers called and want to move their trial date up before the end of the year so you can be the judge for their trial.”

Q: Nice endorsement.

A: I thought, “Gosh, that’s a tremendous compliment.” I don’t know how many of them I’m actually going to try. A lot of the cases are ending up settling, which is what is supposed to happen in real life. The only cases that should go to trial are cases where there’s some real issue that has to be decided. Most of the time, smart lawyers can figure out some overlap that generates a settlement if they just talk.

Q: When you return to private practice, what will you tell people about being a judge?

A: There are three things I will be telling everybody. Number one, judges work really hard.

Two, we don’t pay the fair value for the work we get. It’s shameful what judges make. They’re true public servants.

The third thing is unique to New Orleans, but something that I feel very strongly about, and I had already known this before I came down here. Our facility for our courthouse is deplorable. The week before I started, my courtroom flooded. I’m sitting here at my desk right now looking at my ceiling tiles, and they’re all stained. The carpet’s got big spots all over it. I don’t expect to have a palace to work in, but we need a new courthouse really bad. We’re stuck in the politics of that.

Q: Would you consider going into the judiciary full time?

A: I’m having a blast but it’s not on my bucket list. This is just the right amount of time. I love what I do as a trial lawyer. I love the wheeling and dealing and the performance in court. The reality of it is I’m very happy to go back into my private practice. The other piece of it is that I’m sitting during an election cycle, so it’s unlikely that there would even be an opening anytime in the foreseeable future that I would consider. And we have a very qualified group of judges sitting, and I don’t have the experience they have.

Q: The Louisiana State Bar Association recently gave you the Human Rights Award for your work in promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Do you have any stories of facing discrimination early in your career?

A: I was very lucky because I was hired when I was in law school. I worked for two years during law school in the public defender’s office. The people there were incredibly supportive and nurturing. Then I was hired by a big law firm, Adams and Reese. I was there 18 years. I was very well treated, but I did have some very hilarious experiences with outside attorneys who tried to intimidate me and be disrespectful.

There was one lawyer in particular who was really, really ugly to me. Very mean, very disrespectful, and just pulled all kinds of ugly, nasty stunts. I had many cases with him because I was doing maritime law, and we frequently crossed paths. He couldn’t have been any more of a challenge because he would just do whatever he could to try to make me question myself and lose confidence. The good thing about him was that, because I had such great mentoring and support from my own firm, all it did was make me a better lawyer. It forced me to develop the skill set to deal with someone who was unpleasant and disrespectful.

Q: You also once won an award for being one of the 10 best-dressed women in New Orleans.

A: I do like to dress professionally and with a bit of pizzazz. I enjoy who I am. I’ve had people ask me if I was the court reporter because I was frequently the only woman there. I’ve had people be dismissive of me because, obviously, a girl who wore eye makeup couldn’t possibly have a brain, because you can’t be both cute and smart.

It was pretty common in the ‘80s when I started practicing law, because that was really the time when a lot of women started being out there in the practice. My experience was, mercifully, much better than many of my friends who had terrible experiences, didn’t have the support network that I had, who actually quit practicing law because it was just so awful.

That’s not my personal story, but I know enough people that experienced it that I can tell that story and relate to it. It’s also not just being a woman. I see the racial component of it as well.

Q: How much has the atmosphere changed and how far do we still have left to go?

A: I think that it is no longer acceptable in most places to be overtly discriminatory. [When I] give these talks, I say, “Who here is opposed to diversity in the workforce or diversity in your law firm?” No one will raise their hand. Everybody says they’re in favor of diversity. “OK, so how are we doing on inclusion? Who are your leaders? How many women and people of color do you have that are partners, that are on your board, that are officers in your organization, that have a voice in the decision-making?” That’s the place where we are not successful.

Here in the courtroom, I’ve been shocked because I’ve been in and out of courtrooms for 33 years and yet this coming Friday, it will be 90 percent white men in here arguing. Now, how does that make any sense when half of our law school classes are women, and women are overachieving in terms of the statistics when it comes to holding the higher grades in the class? Where are they?

That’s a dilemma, but that’s where I think it’s important for people to be out there pushing the envelope and doing these things. Believe me, I do not hesitate to use the platform that I’ve been afforded to get my message out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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