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After hanging up the robes, judges find career options in NJ law firms

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Former Superior Court Judge Ronny Jo Siegal and Former State Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein.
Former Superior Court Judge Ronny Jo Siegal and Former State Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein. - ()

Where do New Jersey justices and judges go when they step down from the state Supreme Court or other courts? Unlike Judge Judy, most won't end up starring on their own TV show—instead they may find a new home at a law firm. But retired jurists—whether they leave at New Jersey's mandatory retirement age of 70, or depart earlier—face emotional and other changes as they re-enter the private sector. Moving is a big step, as former Superior Court Judge Ronny Jo Siegal reports. She retired from the court in July, and in September joined the Hackensack-based law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.

Thanks to guidelines issued by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, limits on their in-state practice of law include a prohibition on appearing at counsel’s table during a court proceeding, or serving as counsel of record. Still, retired justices and judges can engage in activities like alternative dispute resolution, and appellate and trial advocacy. 

A change of pace

“It took a change in mindset to get used to being back in private practice. I still felt I had more to contribute to my community after I retired from the court,” said Siegal.  She met Michael Stein, chair and managing partner of Pashman Stein through a family court matter and found him “to be a gifted attorney who was both conscientious and perceptive,” she said. “After I ‘hung up my robe,’ Mike introduced me to Pashman Stein…and I was extraordinarily impressed with the communal atmosphere. ….I wanted to integrate community service with my legal work and this firm encourages that kind of activity.”

Siegal had been board president of Shelter Our Sisters [now called Center for Hope and Safety], which provides services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence. “I look forward to a return of involvement with public service,” said Siegal.

A fellow jurist, former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, also migrated to Pashman Stein in 2002, when he retired after 17 years on the state’s highest court.

From 1956 until 1982, when he served for three years as director of the New Jersey Governor’s Office of Policy and Planning, Gary Stein practiced as a lawyer. “So it wasn’t difficult to return to the role of an advocate,” he said.  “One of the valuable lessons I took away from the bench—which I brought with me back to private practice—is to always seek ‘a better answer.’ I followed that philosophy when Pashman Stein was a seven-lawyer operation and I continue to do that today, when we have nearly 50 attorneys.”

The ethics of a trip back to the bar

There’s no question that it’s legal for a retired justice or judge to work for a law firm after leaving the bench. But is it ethical?

“I’m comfortable with New Jersey’s conflict-of-interest rules,” said John Leubsdorf, a Rutgers Law School (Newark) Distinguished Professor of Law and Judge Frederick B. Lacey Scholar. “You can’t account for every possibility,” but he says that generally the restrictions on post-bench practice are satisfactory.”

Switch hitters

Both retired judges worked as lawyers before they ascended to the bench. Now back in private practice, they say that having been on the receiving end of legal arguments means they can now effectively mediate and advise clients on advocacy and appellate matters. Justice Stein and Judge Siegel can even appear in a courtroom, so long as it’s either a federal court, or a court outside of New Jersey.

Stein said that his time on the bench “still guides me. I have a better understanding about seeking a just result, and then working on guidance, advice, briefing and appeals to get to that just result. I’m a better lawyer for all that experience.”

There are some tradeoffs to leaving the bench, of course. “When I was on the bench, everyone had to listen to me and my colleagues,” Siegal said with a smile. “But the workload is tremendous. As a Family Court judge, you are on the bench conducting cases throughout the day, and in the evening, you must prepare for the following day including reviewing motions, drafting decisions and being mindful of new legal developments. We are affecting the lives of families so it is imperative that we ‘get it right’”.

The workload was also “enormous” on the state’s Supreme Court, Stein said. “You basically worked seven days a week and I don’t miss that. I remember writing several death penalty opinions while I was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. But we also had collegial discussions that, even when we disagreed, were intellectual and analytical. You also form some long-lasting friendships with other court members. But you can also find great colleagues and friends in private practice.”

The business of law

In many cases, when a heavy-hitter is recruited, he or she is expected to bring a book of business with them, beefing up a firm’s bottom line. But justices and judges don’t have clients that can follow them. So why hire a jurist?

“From a strategic point of view, having a former jurist associated with your firm brings you instant expertise and adds additional depth to your practice,” said Michael Stein. “They can elevate your reputation and provide home-grown mentoring and role model opportunities.”

When his father joined the firm “it immediately put us on the map as a premier appellate practice, and that helped to attract additional talent as well as established us as a powerhouse group for all types of high-stakes litigation,” Stein said.

He said Siegal brings experience in divorce law, child custody and domestic violence issues. “She is the perfect complement to our established family law practice,” he said.

When it comes to compensation, New Jersey regulations prohibit retired justices and judges from taking an equity interest in a law firm. In fact, a retired judge’s name may appear on the letterhead or on the office door but not in the firm name. But Michael Stein said there are a variety of compensation structures, which can differ by firm. “We don’t have just one formula,” he explained. “Some people here may prefer a contract based on the hours worked and the business they bring in, but many lawyers are compensated with a salary and bonus. At the end of the day, the important thing is that people enjoy working here, and we work hard to satisfy the needs of our clients.”

Email: dakscom@aol.com

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