Judges Discuss Law, Gender, and Motherhood at Law Women's Caucus Event

Three federal district court judges and an Illinois Supreme Court justice met for a lively lunchtime talk at the University of Chicago Law School about law, gender, and motherhood.

The Law Women’s Caucus hosted Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis and Northern District of Illinois Judges Amy J. St. Eve, Virginia M. Kendall, and Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, ’79, on April 11. The judges discussed being women in the judiciary, and balancing the demands of high-profile, successful careers with the pressures of having a family and a life outside of work.

Each woman took a unique road to the judiciary and offered advice from having “been there, done that.”

Pallmeyer worked for a commercial law firm, became an administrative law judge for the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and was a U.S. magistrate judge before taking the bench in her current role. She gave the students a word of advice about financial responsibility and career options.

“If you go to work for a big law firm, that’s fine. Do not live up to the salary you’re being paid. Put some of that money aside,” she said. That way, if you’re offered a terrific position in public service, you can afford to take it.

Kendall was married and had her first child at age 19, and went through her undergraduate and JD programs raising her very young children. She clerked for a federal judge and went on to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She discovered she had a “special ability to deal with child victims” and she trained judges on child exploitation and trafficking.

St. Eve was part of the Whitewater independent counsel that prosecuted former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and business associates of Bill and Hillary Clinton. She took the federal bench at age 36, in 2002. Theis started as a Cook County public defender and then went on to serve at every level of the judiciary in Illinois before becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 2010.

Theis gave the students in attendance an illustration of how much times had changed for women attorneys. In 1978, when she was a public defender, Theis was told she had to quit because she was pregnant. (She didn’t quit.) Two years later, she was pregnant again, and while her bosses told her this time that she could take off the time she needed, there still wasn’t an official maternity policy.

Throughout her career, Theis said she has worried she wasn’t a good enough judge or a good enough mother, because of the massive amount of time each takes. But her children turned out well, and she’s on the Illinois Supreme Court, so something must’ve gone right, she noted.

Pallmeyer used Theis’ story to remind the students in attendance to ease up on themselves.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said. “Don’t expect that because you do everything right, things are always going to go right.”

Pallmeyer even offered a bit of romantic advice.

“Marry well,” she said, drawing laughs. “And by that I mean, have a partner in your life who believes in your career as much as you do.”

Good friends help too, said Kendall, who said she’ll regularly vent to her fellow female judges about the pressures of the job.

“You’re tough and smart and capable, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need someone who cares for you,” she said.

The judges also talked about the challenges women still face in the law. For example, St. Eve said, she rarely sees a woman leading a trial as senior counsel for a law firm, only for government agencies. The judges also noted that many dynamic young female lawyers drop out of the profession when they have families, because the schedule is too grueling. They told the male students in the audience that they would “help change the culture” that dictates lawyers must work non-stop and not see their children, because today’s fathers don’t want that either.

Alison Siegler, Associate Clinical Professor of Law, moderated the discussion, which was prompted by student questions. She told the students assembled that the four judges were “inspirational for me on a personal level.” In particular, she once attended an induction ceremony for Pallmeyer and was “wowed that she could have this storied career and raise this beautiful family.”