Judge Irma Gonzalez has spent the last eight years at JAMS as a mediator, arbitrator, special master/referee and neutral evaluator. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke with Judge Gonzalez about how she started in ADR, her accomplishments, the challenges that she’s faced and her advice to younger generations.
How did you get your start in ADR, and how did it lead you to your role at JAMS?
My first exposure to ADR was in 1984, when I was a judge. One of my responsibilities as a magistrate judge was to settle civil cases. I did this for seven years. Then, as a district court judge, I didn’t have federal settlement conferences, but I did have to decide cases without a jury. I had to write opinions during bench trials, so in a sense, I was practicing ADR, in terms of making judgments as an arbitrator would. Throughout my entire 30-year judicial career, I was doing ADR in some sense. When I decided to retire from the bench, I wanted to work with an ADR provider, so I decided to join JAMS for a couple of reasons. First, it has a fabulous nationwide reputation, and second, a lot of the federal judges I knew went to JAMS as well. So that gave me confidence that JAMS was the right provider for me to partner with. I can’t believe it’s been almost eight years already; it’s gone by very fast!
Are there any accomplishments that you are most proud of during this time at JAMS?
One thing I’m proud of is the great variety of cases I hear. I’ve had some very complex, very sophisticated cases, covering a wide variety of subjects. I feel that it’s an accomplishment that I’m not viewed—and JAMS isn’t viewed—as handling only a certain type of case. I think a lot of the more sophisticated lawyers who practice nationwide come to JAMS. I’ve been selected by attorneys and judges to be a special master in some large class action cases. For example, I was a special master in the sexual abuse class action that was filed against Dr. George Tyndall at USC. It was an accomplishment of great significance for me and JAMS. I’ve also been asked to be a special master in another class action sexual abuse case involving UCLA and Dr. James Heaps.
What do you think has contributed to your success?
I always try to do a good job, as it’s a reflection of who I am. Positive word of mouth is important because lawyers like to get each other’s opinions about different mediators or arbitrators. I think preparation is extremely important. Lawyers will know if you are prepared for the mediation or arbitration. Even when cases don’t settle, the lawyers are often very happy with the job I did. A lot of times, they will come back for a second mediation, and that is very rewarding for me. Trying your best, going the extra mile in preparation and talking to the lawyers ahead of time are crucial.
You were recently awarded the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. How did that make you feel?
I had been nominated a couple times prior by Lawyers Club of San Diego, a wonderful women’s organization whose mission it is to promote women in the law. The award is given to five women from across the country each year. It is such a great honor to be a part of this fabulous group of women, some of whom have national reputations.
You were also awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hispanic National Bar Association. Can you tell us more about this award and what it means to you?
This was quite a few years ago. The HNBA is a national organization that honors Latinos who are role models for other Latinos. That is the purpose of the award. As a U.S. district court judge, I was one of the first Latinas of Mexican descent to be selected for the district court, so I received the award in recognition for that. It was such an honor to receive that award.
Did you have any role models?
When I graduated law school in 1973, there were not many women in law school and no women professors, and no one in my family was a lawyer. I did clerk for a district court judge right after law school. I knew then how much of an honor it would be to become a judge. Throughout my career, I have spoken to various judges to get their advice on a career path that would lead me to becoming a judge. Male judges were role models for me because there weren’t that many women judges during my early career.
I hope others see me as a role model. Young lawyers often reach out to me for advice, whether it’s finding a path to the bench or even ADR. I am always sought out by friends and colleagues, and that’s something that I hope will continue.
What are some of the barriers or challenges that you’ve overcome throughout your career?
One major challenge was avoiding being seen a token, that I was a judge because there had to be a Hispanic person or Hispanic woman on the bench. That put a lot of pressure on me to prove myself. I felt that was the biggest challenge, that I had to work extra hard to prove that I had the intelligence and work ethic and everything else it takes to be a judge. I think there is pressure for any woman and especially a woman of color to prove herself.
What do you think the future of the legal field looks like in terms of diversity and inclusion?
It’s certainly gotten a lot better since I began practicing law. There have been huge improvements in the hiring of people of color and those with diverse backgrounds, but there’s still more work to be done. Although more than 50% of law students today are women, it’s still difficult for them to attain positions of power. However, there’s an increased emphasis on selecting people who have merit and who also come from diverse backgrounds, and I’m really happy about that.
What advice would you give to younger generations?
Don’t ever lose sight of your goals. Reach for the stars, even though you might think you will fall short; you never know. But if you don’t even try, you’ll definitely fail. Remember to always work hard. There is often some amount of luck involved in accomplishing any major goal; I think that applies to what I’ve accomplished So I encourage young people to seek out those who have gone before you to get advice and ask them to be a mentor to you. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. People are usually happy to share their knowledge and experiences.
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