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Words from the Wise: Women Judges Reflect on Their Personal Law Journey

By April 6, 2021STU News

Since 1984, St. Thomas University College of Law has produced some of the most influential female jurists in the nation, twenty-three of whom currently sit on the bench in three states, representing the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and respective states and counties. These judges preside over a myriad of supreme, civil, and criminal court cases concerning homicide, fraud, immigration, family law, drug running, DWI, intellectual property, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and U.S patent and trademarks. To recognize the recent celebration of Women’s History Month, a few of STU’s College of Law alumna, now active judges, share their empirical knowledge, experience, and empowering words of wisdom to current female law students.

Choosing your field of law

There are more than 20 major fields of law, including bankruptcy, business, civil rights, criminal, entertainment, environmental, family, immigration, and military, which may make it difficult to choose a specific field of practice.

“My favorite part of my legal career is being a public servant and giving back to the community,” STU College of Law class of 1989 member, Broward County Criminal Court Judge Kim Mollica stated. “My advice to female law students is to find what area of law motivates you, keep an open mind and find a mentor.”

“During the first summer of law school, I attended an off-campus course on intellectual property. I knew I would want to supplement my STU curriculum with additional IP experience, so I also took Administrative Law and the IP law elective at STU,” stated Administrative Patent Judge, Miriam Latorre Quinn, member of STU College of Law class of 2002. “My advice is to be thankful for and take advantage of all STU law has to offer. Then, find a career that works for you and aligns with your values.”

Class of 2004 graduate, 11th Judicial Circuit, County Court Domestic Violence Division Judge Eleane Sosa-Bryson advises, “It will take time to figure out your path so be patient with yourself and allow yourself the time to explore the various areas of practice.  Don’t be so set on a specific path that you miss a golden opportunity that can take your career in an entirely different direction.”

“From the moment I walked into a courtroom in my internship as a 3L, I was in love with trial practice,” stated Class of 1999 graduate, Circuit Court Judge Victoria del Pino. “Being in a courtroom was exhilarating and until that moment, I was really unsure if law was the right choice for me.”

Diversity in the Law

According to a recent American Bar Association article, “Diversity does not mean having a few ethnic or other minorities in the office. It also does not mean a group comprised only of minorities. It means having people of diverse culture, experience, and background in all levels of a law firm.”

St. Thomas University is internationally renowned as an educational institution with a rich culture and ethnically diverse body of students who originate from all corners of the world, including:

· County Court Judge Chiaka Ihekwaba ’01 (United Kingdom)
· 11th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lody Jean ’04 (Haiti)
· 17th Judicial Circuit, Broward County Court Judge Phoebee R. Francois ’94 (Haiti)
· U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Administrative Patent Judge Miriam Latorre Quinn ’02 (Puerto Rico)
· 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Maria M. Ruhl ’05 (Venezuela)
· U. S. Federal Immigration Judge Georgina M. Picos ’91 (Cuba)

“I met some amazing people and made some great relationships while studying law at St. Thomas University, and they turned into some of my closest friends and colleagues who have supported me and helped me grow in my career,” Judge Ihekwaba stated. “My advice is to stay true to yourself and strive to be whatever you want to be. Do not let anyone put limitations on you as you are in charge of your own destiny.”

“I was born and raised in Haiti, graduated high school at an American school in Port-au-Prince, and lived with a family in Miami while attending St. Thomas University College of Law,” stated Judge Jean. “English is not my first language, so it was a welcoming experience to see St. Thomas University had a large number of students who were also of an international background. The professors were attentive and understanding of different cultures and also that many of us spoke different languages at home.”

“My family migrated to the U.S. when I was two years old,” stated Judge Francois. “While growing up in the U.S., my parents raised my siblings and I with Haitian values and made sure we knew the Haitian traditions and spoke both Creole and French. Attending STU, it was apparent how much the university embraced students and faculty of different ethnicities and cultures.”

“Based on my experience when I attended law school, I can say I always felt diversity was the heart of the inclusive culture at STU,” stated Judge Quinn.  “For students who are seeking an environment where ethnic and cultural diversity is valued, STU is the place to be.”

“Regardless of where you are originally from, don’t be afraid to reach out for help and advice,” Judge Ruhl stated. “Ask questions, get to know your professors, speak to the career development office. STU has great resources, so use your resources!”

“I was born in Cuba, and my parents, older brother, maternal grandmother, and I were able to escape to Spain, and then legally immigrated to the United States,” stated Judge Picos. “I recall taking an immigration class in my second year of law school, which opened up my eyes to the laws that allowed us to immigrate. It completed the story of my family’s journey, as well as the journey of so many other families.”

The value of internships

While law school teaches the fundamentals of law, students still need to learn how to apply concepts and principles learned in the classroom to situations in the real world. St. Thomas University College of Law clinics, internships, and externship opportunities provide first-hand experience in the legal profession and a close look at the day-to-day responsibilities that come with being an attorney. Participating in an internship also helps law students decide which field of law to pursue. A 3L student might think about becoming an environmental attorney, but then intern for an entertainment law firm and realize a passion for this field of law instead.

Class of 1992 College of Law graduate, 13th Judicial Circuit County Judge Margaret R. Taylor shared, “I was lucky enough to get an internship with the Federal Public Defender’s office (Southern District of Florida) during my 3rd year at STU and they kept me on after I graduated.  As a result of the internship leading to this job, my first jury trial…ever… would be also the biggest jury trial of my career!”

“I took the opportunity to do the Legal Aid clinic as a 3L where I learned about issues in domestic violence cases and injunctions, and also gained courtroom experience representing individuals petitioning the court,” College of Law Class of 2001, Pinellas County 6th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Theodora C. Komninos stated.

“The experience helped me as a new prosecutor by not only giving me the knowledge I needed to understand the cases and parties I was dealing with, but to also be comfortable walking into a courtroom to handle cases, motions and trials unlike other new attorneys who didn’t have any courtroom experience.”

“After having interned at the State Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office, I still had difficulty finding a job as an attorney so I resolved the issue by opening up my own general practice law office,” Class of 1991, Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court Judge Mindy S. Glazer said. “I learned how to prepare complaints, pleadings, motions, appellate briefs, understand the rules of evidence and how to prepare a case for trial.  Also of importance, I learned how to manage a law office!”

Be inspired and of service to your community!

17th Judicial Circuit Court Criminal Division Judge Barbara McCarthy was in the first accredited class to graduate from St Thomas College of Law in 1988. Judge McCarthy worked in the public school system for eight years as a former special education teacher and an ESE specialist, and attained a Master’s degree in Social Work before making the decision to attend law school.

“Working in the field of social work, and in special education with juveniles, and adults, ignited my passion to pursue law school,” Judge McCarthy stated. “I was the first student to do a federal internship in Miami with the Honorable William Hoeveler and one of the first graduates to work as a staff attorney for the Honorable Barry Stone at the 4th DCA, West Palm Beach. I also have the privilege of continuing to mentor students and lawyers in the community. My advice is to always persevere, and be open to try new experiences in law, and at your job, even if it is not your first interest.  It is also important to reach out in your communities and at school for diverse pro bono opportunities.”

“Be authentic to who you are, follow your heart and listen to your inner voice to determine what will make you happy at the end of the day,” 17th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Tarlika Nunez Navarro stated.

Judge Navarro began her law career as a Broward County assistant state attorney after graduating from STU College of Law in 2010. Her desire to help and serve her community, coupled with the opportunity to teach and mentor law students and adolescents interested in the law, are the favorite parts of her law career.

“Life is too short to be unhappy. You have to fill your cup before you can fill the cup of others around you. Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” added Judge Navarro.

STU College of Law Class of 2002, 11th Judicial Circuit, County Court Judge Michaelle Gonzalez-Paulson began her law career as a Dade Legal Aid Attorney in the Domestic Violence Division, representing victims of domestic violence. Like many of her fellow STU alumna, Judge Gonzalez-Paulson, believes in giving back to the community, while working hard to reach your goal.

“During my time at STU law, we were always encouraged to give back to the community and I always took that to heart; whether helping to build a home with Habitat for Humanity, mentoring students and judges, or teaching yoga to the clerks, I am always happiest helping others,” Judge Gonzalez-Paulson stated.

“Stay the course, never settle and always know that it’s your journey and the path is never straight– enjoy every moment,” Judge Gonzalez-Paulson added.

With a profound goal to one day preside over criminal cases, STU’s College of Law class of 1997 graduate Stacy D. Glick began her law career as a prosecutor in Miami Dade County. She rose to become a Division Chief in the Felony Unit with primary responsibilities to include supervising attorneys and prosecuting Life, Capital, and Media felony cases.

In 2008, Glick was elected to the Circuit Court bench and presided over cases in the Criminal Division from 2009 to 2020. And is currently a judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court Family Division.

“I recall the first year of law school being really tough. But once you can adjust as to how it works, it becomes more manageable. Keep going and do not ever give up pursuing your dream,” stated Judge Glick.

“My mother was a strong woman who believed with hard work and faith in God, anything can be accomplished,” stated Judge Francois. “While studying for the bar examine, my mom had an aneurysm and slipped into a coma after surgery. I continued to study while remaining at her bedside at the hospital because she would have wanted me to keep going and pass the bar no matter what the circumstances were, which is what I did. My advice is to keep your faith, always work hard and do not let anything deter you from accomplishing that goal.”

Miami-Dade County Court Judge Julie Harris Nelson graduated from STU College of Law in 1994 and has been involved in community service since college.

“Public service is near and dear to my heart.  I began extensively serving the community while in college. There, I learned through my sorority, about supreme service to all mankind,” stated Judge Harris Nelson.  “My heart remains heavy with this thought continuously on my mind: Service! Therefore, it should be no surprise that I decided to serve on the bench in the criminal division.”

Member of STU’s College of Law Class of 2005, Criminal County Court Judge & Acting Circuit Court Judge in Domestic Violence, Judge Victoria Ferrer explains, “Being a lawyer provides one with a great sense of purpose. I am a great believer that a life well lived is one devoted to being in the service of others. When times are tough and you don’t feel like studying then just force yourself to do so. Volunteer. Don’t complain. Know that there will be difficult moments but remind yourself that you are worth all of this effort.”
“Have your game plan. Visualize it. Pray on it. Work on it.  Achieve it!” Judge Nelson added.

Michelle Tulande

Author Michelle Tulande

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