Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Federal Judicial Roundtable: Getting to Know Judges Kelley, Guzman, and Joun Part II

May 17, 2024
| Spring 2024 Vol. 68 #2

Interviewed by Elizabeth Gardon

The Boston Bar Journal held a roundtable discussion with three recent additions to the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts: Judges Margaret R. Guzman, Angel Kelley, and Myong J. Joun, moderated by Elizabeth Gardon, Associate, Todd & Weld. The first part of the discussion was published in the Winter 2024 Edition. In this second part of the discussion, which has been edited and condensed, the judges discuss how they navigated their practice as lawyers from diverse backgrounds and what others may consider in their own practice when engaging in the legal community. Some of their tips based on their own experiences include:

  • Introduce yourself to all members of the legal community including court staff, not just attorneys. 
  • Take the initiative to speak with people you admire and seek mentorship. Experienced attorneys and judges will confirm that mentorship is a two-way street.
  • Be an advocate for yourself and others in a manner that works for you.
  • Apply for judicial vacancies even if your experiences are not within the traditional judicial profile.

Gardon: The diversity within the Massachusetts legal community is growing. For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being issued a census report and summary of completed surveys of lawyers in Massachusetts, between November 11, 2020 and November 11, 2021. The report found that diverse lawyers, such as those identifying as female, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, multiracial, or those not identifying as heterosexual, were underrepresented as compared to the general Massachusetts population. The report also found that lawyers between the ages of 22 and 44 represented more diverse identities than lawyers aged 45 years and older. Can each of you tell us about your experience as a person of color in the legal profession?

Judge Guzman: I stood out more as a female. For many years, at trials among the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer, and court officers, I was very often the only woman in the room. That stands out more for me when I reflect on my experience in Worcester. The Hispanic part of my heritage didn’t play as much of a role as it has played for others’ lives and careers. Since I started in the late 1980s, the Worcester bar has changed significantly because of the encouraged internal growth. They made a concerted effort over a long time to recruit interns who came from diverse backgrounds. They did so by reaching out to affinity bar associations wherever they could. The change was assisted by a couple of people in leadership of the local bar association—from both the civil and criminal practices. It was a concerted effort. And those efforts have resulted in a more pronounced diverse community of women and men in the Worcester courts. Longstanding members of the Worcester legal community and the new generation of lawyers are working together to make sure that Worcester is seen as an interesting place to work, with a good environment to create growth and opportunity. Part of the proof of that is that many law clerks and interns are not only coming from Boston to work in Worcester law firms, but also many are putting down roots and making the move permanent.

Judge Joun: Earlier in my career, I didn’t know many other Asian lawyers in courtrooms. There was one Asian Assistant U.S. Attorney in this court around 1999-2000, but other than him, I didn’t see anyone else. I remember going to various state courts, and on at least a couple of occasions, the court officer would not allow me inside the bar because they thought I was not an attorney. I was once mistaken for an interpreter. Later there was one other attorney, Attorney Steven Kim, who left the District Attorney’s office and started practicing in Boston, so we used to see one another, but then I would at times be mistaken for him. So those things would happen because there were so few of us. But in my last year in the Boston Municipal Court, I was presiding in East Boston and both the prosecutor and the defense attorney were also Asian. So, things have gotten better.

Judge Kelley: Listening to Margaret made me think about my early days as an attorney. I was proud of my accomplishment of graduating from law school, being a young attorney. However, there were some things that I couldn’t escape, which was one being young, two being a woman, and three being a person of color. Often times people interacted with me based on just those three categories. And it was exhausting! It still can be exhausting to deal with that on a daily basis feeling that people are underestimating you or outright disrespecting you. I can think of the times when I was practicing in New York where I felt bullied in a deposition, with comments like “Young Lady, I’ve been doing this for 50 years.”  Being a New Yorker, my inclination was never to back down from a challenge and go toe to toe, “Well, let’s get the judge on the phone,” that was something that we would do in New York: call the judge, right from the deposition room, which I’m glad lawyers don’t do too much of here. But then I realized that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my career, and I really had to get out of my own way and not let my pride get in the way. So, I accepted the baggage people brought to the table, this baggage of underestimating me or marginalizing me, or wanting to disrespect me. And I decided to use that to my advantage. I can remember clearly, being told, “Angel, here’s a case for trial, go to the Bronx and try the case,” and when I got to the Bronx, one of the clerks said, “You’re really going try this case against this attorney? He’s an institution here in this courthouse.” I decided it was okay if the lawyers and staff underestimated me because I knew that meant they would underprepare, and I knew that I was going to be prepared for trial. Then the hammer would come out during trial because my preparation would win the case. I had to let my ego get out of the way to find a comfortable place that was more peaceful for me: one that wasn’t just full of anger or disappointment at the bar. I had to figure out how to navigate it. For me it was, put your head down, do the hard work, and think about the bigger goal here, which is to win the case. That’s how I navigated those obstacles.

Gardon: I really appreciate all three of you for being open about your experience, especially early in your careers. I hope that it continues to improve for those practicing now. The efforts for inclusivity and the support of lawyers of all identities are more prevalent in our practice, I believe, now with affinity bar associations and other efforts, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and committees at law schools, law firms, and other workplaces. When Judge Kelley presided over my swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the court played the Massachusetts Trial Court Up-Stander video, a video of state court judges and staff speaking out against disrespectful actions and behavior in the courts. This was my first time watching it. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a recognition of the need for that call to action in our profession, though I hope that this type of effort continues to expand in the legal practice. Do you have any suggestions for attorneys from diverse backgrounds, especially newer attorneys, about handling any obstacles related to their identity that they may encounter in their practice or in the legal community?

Judge Guzman: I had a similar experience to Judge Joun. Not only once, but many times I was ordered to interpret Spanish. A judge would say, “You, I need you to interpret for that fella, who’s standing there.” Rather than fight it, I approached the defendant and confessed that I didn’t speak Spanish and the person would say, “I know, I know.”  There was not much you could do. Those were the old days. There are people who will be your allies, and you just have to reach out to them. If you see a lawyer who’s done something fabulous, go up to them and introduce yourself. And then say, “I’d like to second seat you, or I’d like to observe a trial and then talk to you about it,” something like that. You have to be proactive. You cannot let other people’s treatment of you be how you define the way you behave in court. If you want to be a lawyer, you need to be confident enough to get up and say something good on behalf of your criminal defendant who’s accused of something terrible. In that same way, you should advocate for yourself. That means if someone wants to be a trial lawyer, or pick up cases, or learn how to do that, reach out to someone who has done it. I don’t know any lawyer or judge from my generation that would ever turn down an opportunity to speak with a young lawyer about our personal experiences—without having to be an official mentor—just a telephone conversation or certainly in chambers. The new lawyer has to take the initiative to reach out, find people they admire, and ask that person to have a conversation with them.

Judge Joun: I agree with Judge Guzman that if an incident happens you shouldn’t let it go, but how you handle it really depends on who you are and what’s comfortable for you. I didn’t experience it so much as a personal affront, but it was more embarrassment in front of my clients. When I was treated that way, I decided I was going to visit courthouses more often, get to know the clerks and the court officers by name, so that they were familiar with me so that it didn’t happen in the future. If they called me Attorney Kim the first time, they wouldn’t do it again once they knew me. I wasn’t trying to be confrontational. I would simply say, “Hi! I’m Attorney Joun.” But if it was more intentional, then I would just have a conversation with the person quietly without embarrassing them. You can do that in a professional, respectful way. There are different tactics, but it has to be something that’s truly you. I think you can do it in a way that can be educational and at same time fix the immediate problem.

Judge Kelley: In addition to being an advocate for yourself, which sometimes can be exhausting to always having to be the one to speak up. Be an advocate for others. Through that process, hopefully, you’re building a tent with more allies who will then speak up for others, which is part of the premise of the Up-Stander Video. On a larger level, I think that the bar associations have a lot of power to communicate that they want to cultivate an environment that is more receptive and accepting of attorneys of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Then, seek out individuals who may be able to assist in finding a creative platform or to be a megaphone for some of these goals. I definitely believe that it’s important to stand up and speak out because as long as we keep a lid on it, as long as we accept it and keep things quiet, things will stay the same; no one wants to work in an environment like that on a daily basis. I think sometimes people don’t even know what they’re doing. It’s an educational process for them as well. I think that we can bring the legal community around to accepting and being more respectful to the bar. There are things that can be done on a small scale and a larger scale. Fortunately for me, when I was in the state court, we had state court leadership that was receptive to a number of projects, such as the Up-stander Video, the Lawyer Well-Being Committee Report, or the commissioning of the racial diversity inequities study that Justice Gants commissioned through Harvard. In fact, making the Up-Stander Video took several years to complete. We started it at the beginning of the pandemic when Justice Gants was still with us, and Justice Carey was chief of the trial court. By the time that the video was released, Chief Justice Gants had passed, and Chief Justice Carey had stepped down, and we had to add the new chiefs. It was a very, very interesting project to do, because while it was widely well-received, some people didn’t want to be a part of it initially. But then, as it was nearing completion, a few people said, “No, no, actually I want to be part of it now.”  It grew in length to include the latecomers and original naysayers. It was something that I’m very proud of, and I’m glad that you remember it. I try to show it as often as possible. I hope the federal court will create something similar.

Judge Guzman: We brought a lot of that good work with us from the state court. What I did as soon as I was able to, was fill my chambers with not just my law clerks, but interns as well. I have college interns and high school interns. Every semester we take students from local public schools. They’re in the courtroom. They put on presentations. They meet with probation. It’s taking some of the stigma out of federal court for them; it becomes a place that they see themselves in. It’s been a wonderful experience to be able to bring the people from this community into this courthouse.

Judge Kelley: Outside our walls, certain communities referred to the federal courthouse as “the House of Pain.”  Hopefully, we get back to being a house of justice and not a house of pain.

Gardon: That is valuable insight, and I know I will remember this advice as I navigate my career. As a general matter, do you have any practice tips for attorneys appearing before you in court?

Judge Guzman: Be ready. Know your case.

Judge Joun: Know the rules, be prepared, and be civil.

Judge Kelley: I don’t really have any practice tips, but I would ask the following: if something takes place in my courtroom, whether it’s something I, my staff, a lawyer, probation or anyone, said or did, even if  I wasn’t present for it and it was inappropriate or insensitive, to bring it to my attention, because I don’t want that going forward. And hopefully, I can help to make certain that my staff doesn’t do it, and maybe have a conversation with the lawyers, so they’re not repeating that someplace else. And so always find a way to speak to me about that. Talk to my clerk to bring something to my attention, and don’t be hesitant about that at all. I simply want us all to be better at our jobs. So, I don’t have a practice tip, but that’s what I would ask.

Gardon: Any closing remarks?

Judge Kelley: I am living my dream, not because I didn’t make mistakes, I surely did. I am living my dream, because I continued to apply to get to this very position, even when I was told “no” on more than one occasion. My path to the federal court bench was not a straight path, nor a pre-ordained journey, but I still reached my goal. I am thankful to the Biden-Harris administration for having faith and confidence in me. I encourage everyone to pursue your dreams and don’t be deterred by a little rejection.

Judge Guzman: I would just say, if you want to see the inside of a courtroom, walk into a courtroom and introduce yourself – either to the local Assistant U.S. Attorney or the Federal Public Defender, or ask to meet the judge. There is not a thing wrong with that – even if you are just visiting and don’t plan to practice there. If you’re in Worcester, stop by the federal court. Everyone knows that my chambers is open to visitors. And I would say, the same is very true in Boston and Springfield. So that’s just from the federal court. I mean, I don’t know a state court judge that wouldn’t love to sit down and talk with a student or a young attorney. I don’t know any that would turn down an opportunity to have that conversation.

Judge Joun: I know there are scores of vacancies that are coming up in the next year or two in the state courts. For those attorneys that are interested in possibly applying, they should really give it some serious thought even if they don’t have the traditional resume. Echoing what Judge Guzman said, as an attorney, I didn’t think you had access to judges to talk to or think about issues with them. Having been on this side now, I know many judges are open to conversations. Whether it’s a bench bar, formal sort of event, or just an attorney calling and say, “Hey, can I talk to you about this?” I don’t think there are many judges who will say they don’t want to talk to you about your interest in applying. I think we’re more accessible than attorneys think, and I would encourage them to think about doing that.

Gardon: Thank you all for your participation.

Hon. Angel Kelley was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in September 2021. She previously served twelve years as a state court judge in both the District Court and the Superior Court. She was a trial attorney before joining the bench, in New York and Massachusetts, in both state and federal courts, with experience in both civil litigation and criminal work as a federal prosecutor and defense attorney.

Hon. Margaret R. Guzman was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in July 2023. She previously served for fourteen years as a judge in the Massachusetts District Court. Prior to judicial service, she was a sole practitioner in Worcester from 2005 to 2009; and from 1992 to 2005, she served as a public defender for the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Hon. Myong J. Joun was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in July 2023. From 2014 to 2023 he served as an Associate Justice of the Boston Municipal Court. Before the bench, he was in private practice for fifteen years focusing on criminal defense and civil rights litigation in state and federal courts.

Elizabeth L. Gardon is an associate at Todd & Weld, where she concentrates her practice on complex civil litigation matters. Gardon previously served as a law clerk to a state trial court judge in New York.