US District Judge Allison D. Burroughs of the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts talks about her role as a federal judge and experiences during her time on the bench, and offers practical advice to litigators.
Education: 1983: B.A., Middlebury College; 1988: J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Career in Brief: 2015–present: US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, US District Judge; 2005–2014: Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, Partner; 1995–2005: US Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts, Assistant US Attorney; 1990–1995: US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Assistant US Attorney; 1989: US Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force, Asset Forfeiture Counsel; 1988–1989: US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Law Clerk to the Honorable Norma Levy Shapiro.
What do you enjoy most about your role as a federal judge? As a litigator, you spend your time hoping and begging that the judge you are appearing before will make the right decision. I like having control over the decision-making and not having to rely on others for that.
What are some things that have surprised you since you took the bench? There are many aspects of my role that have surprised me. Although it is unquestionably a great job, it is much different than what I expected. In particular, I am surprised by:
How few women lawyers appear before me.
The many different approaches people use when trying to avoid jury duty.
How many litigants appear pro se, often because of the high cost of litigation.
The amount of time many lawyers request to get a case trial ready.
The amount of time I spend on relatively inconsequential or futile claims.
Who are some of the jurists that have impacted your approach to judicial decision-making? There have been many judges over the years that have taught me about the kind of judge I want to be. I would single out the late Judge Norma Levy Shapiro and the late Judge Louis H. Pollack of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Both were brilliant, fair, wonderful people who were committed to doing the right thing and making the world a better place. Judge Shapiro was fearless, pragmatic, and unafraid to speak her mind. Judge Pollack was a gentle, kind, and thoughtful intellectual whose opinions resolved issues, but also were impressively scholarly.
You have worn the hat of both a federal prosecutor and a white collar criminal defense attorney. How have those different experiences shaped your approach to civil litigation? Representing both plaintiffs and defendants before a number of different judges has shaped my view of how to effectively run a courtroom and clarified my own court preferences. For example, I run a relatively informal session, but try to always start on time and make sure that breaks also begin and end on time. I make myself available to the parties before and after court to minimize sidebars and, when possible, I require counsel to give opening arguments and summations on the same day as their adversary. I also try to empower the jury by keeping jurors apprised of the daily schedule and informing jurors about what they can expect on each day of a trial.
My background in criminal law has also helped shape my approach to and view of civil litigation. I would like it if there were something like the Speedy Trial Act to keep civil cases moving. I am impatient with relatively inconsequential discovery disputes. And although I rule on the specific applications before me, not every case warrants a motion to dismiss or a summary judgment motion, particularly where the resolution fails to fundamentally refine or narrow the issues for trial. Additionally, my experience with the criminal justice system and its guarantee that defendants will have counsel has made me fairly aggressive about securing counsel for unrepresented parties who appear to have non-frivolous civil cases.
Above all, I try to ensure that the tone in my courtroom is always civil. Frankly, I wish I saw more mutual respect between civil litigators like that which I commonly observe between parties in criminal cases.
What do you wish attorneys explained to their clients about federal civil litigation? Counsel should make clear to their clients that litigation is not the answer to every problem and that it will almost certainly be more expensive and take longer than most clients anticipate.
How have social media and emerging technologies impacted discovery and trial practice in your court? Social media and technological innovations affect the scope of discovery and the presentation of evidence in both positive and negative ways. For example, technology can make it easy to expand the scope and burden of discovery, but can also help surface relevant evidence quickly. High-tech presentations to a jury can be more efficient than traditional methods, but can sacrifice effectiveness and impact.
I am particularly concerned with ensuring that jurors are not influenced by social media or information that they learn outside the courtroom through Google searches or other internet activity. Although I instruct them at the beginning of the trial that they should not consult these out-of-court sources, and remind them of that prohibition at the close of each day, it is challenging to shield jurors from their increasingly easy access to this type of information, particularly in high-profile cases.
What are your biggest courtroom pet peeves? Counsel who are obsequious, disingenuous, or always need to have the last word, disorganized exhibits, and overly long briefs that would have benefitted from adhering to the 20-page limit.
What do you think is currently the biggest challenge facing litigation attorneys? There are some cases that should be tried rather than settled or compromised. In those cases, litigators must be more willing to reach the trial stage without spending endless amounts of time and money on discovery, motion practice, and other tactics that drive up litigation costs while slowing the resolution process. The challenge for these litigators is to see themselves more as trial lawyers than as discovery mavens or motion writers.
What advice would you offer to female attorneys who aspire to the state or federal judiciary? There is an element of pure luck to becoming a judge. For that reason, it is important that anyone (male or female) who aspires to the bench find the work they are doing in the meantime to be satisfying. That said, potential future jurists should avoid things that will tend to disqualify them, such as getting arrested, using illegal drugs, or being found in contempt. By contrast, they should do as many things as possible to make their eventual application strong, such as trying cases, writing articles, being involved with bar associations, and performing pro bono work.
Becoming a judge inevitably involves a thorough vetting process. Aspiring nominees should treat people fairly and respectfully throughout their careers so that during the vetting process, colleagues and adversaries can honestly report positively on the nominee's demeanor, fairness, and professionalism.
Finally (and maybe most importantly), future jurists must make their interest known and be persistent. When a hopeful nominee is ready and qualified, she has to actually apply, often more than once.
What is one mistake you made early on in your legal career and what did you learn from that experience? Without detailing the mistake, a lesson I learned as a junior lawyer is that not every thought needs to be expressed — there is value to keeping one's own counsel.
What career advice do you wish you had gotten early on? Keep a good rolodex or list of contacts! I wish I had kept better track of all of my friends, classmates, and colleagues for both personal and professional reasons. You never know what you will end up doing or where you will end up going. Renewing and revisiting those early relationships can be fun and useful in unexpected and valuable ways.
What is the best career advice you received? When I was finishing up my clerkship with Judge Shapiro, I was desperate to be a federal prosecutor. Most US Attorney's Offices, however, would not hire lawyers right out of law school. At just the right moment, the Philadelphia branch of the US Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force received funding for its first asset forfeiture counsel position and offered me the job. I was unsure about accepting because the Strike Force was not part of the US Attorney's Office and the position seemed uninteresting and more civil than criminal. Judge Shapiro counseled me to accept and get my foot in the door. She assured me that I was bright and aggressive enough to gain useful skills and experience, but also to parlay the job more into the type of work I wanted to be doing.
Judge Shapiro's advice was (as usual) spot on. After starting my new job, I volunteered for every case and assignment. A few months later, the Strike Force merged with the US Attorney's Office and I became an Assistant US Attorney. Within a few months after that, enough people had left the office that I suddenly went from being a junior lawyer on a significant criminal case to co-lead trial counsel on the case. The office hired a new asset forfeiture attorney and I went on to a 17-year career as an Assistant US Attorney in the criminal divisions of the Boston and Philadelphia US Attorney's offices.