Remembering a Mentor

By Karen Federman Henry

Anyone who has clerked for a judge knows that a special bond develops during that relationship. For a budding attorney, a clerkship provides one of the first opportunities to gain insights into the practice of law. The perspective of a judge can form a strong foundation for a law clerk’s future pursuit of a law practice. I had the good fortune to serve as a law clerk to the Hon. Rosalyn B. Bell when she sat on the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. With her passing in August, and a memorial service in October, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the impact she had on her clerks, the legal profession, and the practice of law.

As only the second woman to serve on the intermediate appellate court, Judge Bell brought a new perspective to the court. Her practice had focused primarily on family law, so she often was consulted by her judicial colleagues regarding domestic issues. But she also had life experiences and perspectives that made her a resource to her colleagues on the bench. Juggling a family and career at a time when few women did so gave her an understanding of certain issues that many other judges did not have, and it fueled many of her activities. She did not shy away from new issues, but embraced the opportunity to learn a new topic area.

Known for her endless energy, Judge Bell often arrived in chambers by 7 or 7:30 a.m. and worked until 5:30 or 6 p.m. (or later). She held herself to high standards, so it came as no surprise that she demanded the same from her clerks. Everyone in her chambers worked hard, and kept to a schedule for preparing opinions, but we also learned how to be sound practitioners. Often, when discussing an issue, Judge Bell would include an explanation of how the issue arose and how a practitioner would approach it.

This added balance to the black-letter law that we otherwise were researching. As a result, we learned to check details thoroughly and often. In fact, one of her favorite comments was, “If you ask me what time it is, I will tell you how to make a clock.” This phrase captured her endless promotion of learning how to find an answer ourselves.

Her strong emphasis on professional learning and development found other outlets as well.  Before she became a judge, she and her husband began a continuing-legal-education program for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — this was well before the creation of MICPEL and the transfer of the training function to the Maryland State Bar Association. She often taught classes at nearby law schools as well.

As a mentor, Judge Bell embodied the balance many of us seek in a career. She managed to juggle her professional responsibilities with spending time with friends and family. And she even found time for hobbies — it was not unusual to see her knitting during a meeting.

Throughout her career, Judge Bell was a source of wisdom and support, especially for issues that affected women disproportionately. She was instrumental in creating a spouse abuse task force to review and address domestic-abuse issues. And she participated in the first study of gender bias in the courts during the 1980s.

The gender bias study evaluated the judicial system from multiple perspectives — not only those of the judges and attorneys, but also the parties appearing in the courts. The study conducted surveys to discern whether gender bias affected the outcome of judicial proceedings. Both the spouse abuse task force and the gender bias study occurred well before most people knew there was a need for them. Her mentoring role often extended beyond her chambers to those she knew through the Women’s Bar Association and the Montgomery County Commission for Women.

Admittedly, I did not see her as much as the years went by, but I still honor the lessons I learned during my clerkship:

  • Always be on time — translated as, “be early” (never late);
  • Dress for success — “casual days” did not exist (if you dress professionally, you will behave professionally);
  • Look people in the eye when speaking;
  • Carry yourself with confidence;
  • Learn how to give a proper handshake (none of those fingertip things);
  • Always be prepared (this helps with the confidence level); and
  • Proofread your work — twice! Your reputation is affected by even the smallest typographical error.

These lessons remain as important now as they were 30 years ago. And they always conjure an image of her greeting someone with a smile that put a dimple in her cheek and a sparkle in her eye. Maybe now I’ll go build that clock.

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