Trailblazing judges map out pathway to bench at South Asian Bar Association meeting
The South Asian Bar Association of New York at a meeting on March 5 hosted a group of judges who discussed their path to the bench and took questions from members who are also interested in becoming judges.
Two of those judges happened to be Brooklyn trailblazers — Hon. Sanket Bulsara, the first judge of Indian-American descent to sit as a magistrate judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York; and Hon. Deepa Ambekar, the first female trial court judge of Indian-American decent in Brooklyn.
The other judges on the panel included Hon. Anil Singh, Hon. Ushir Pandit-Durant, Hon. Shahabuddeen Ally, Hon. Raja Rajeswari and Hon. Karen Gopee. Austin D’Souza served as the moderator for the event, which took place at the Fried Frank law firm.
The panel discussed everything from the differences between being appointed and being elected, when to begin preparing applications, what looks good on those applications, how much the process costs and a lot of other nitty-gritty details.
“Today, we are at a unique point in the South Asian legal community,” D’Souza said. “We have a panel of virtually all the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean judges across New York. They didn’t have this 20 years ago. Back when these judges were in law school, there was no panel of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean judges to give them career advice. They didn’t even have a large group of lawyers within our community to help them.”
Judge Ambekar, a graduate of Rutgers Law School who was appointed to the bench in May 2018, reappointed in January 2019 and currently sits on the bench in the Brooklyn Criminal Court, explained that the application process is extremely thorough and tedious. He cautioned that anyone who is even thinking about becoming a judge should start the process early.
“I never thought how to become a judge, they just appeared,” Ambekar said. “One day one of the more senior attorneys at the Legal Aid Society told me they were applying and said to me that if I was thinking about it, I had to start making the connections and laying the foundation early in my career.”
Judge Ambekar told the attorneys that it helps to document all of their cases, including the names of all judges they have appeared in front of, their adversaries and their trials’ exact dates, because the application asks for this information. These facts will be difficult to track down later, especially for people who work for agencies such as the Legal Aid Society or a district attorney’s office, she explained.
One of the most important things, Ambekar continued, is to maintain your reputation.
“It is such a small legal community,” Judge Ambekar said. “For law students, for new lawyers, the biggest impediment and key to your success is your reputation. It can make or break your application because people will ask about you. If you didn’t turn over material during a trial or did something shady, people are going to hear about it and you won’t even know it’s happening.”
Justice Pandit-Durant explained that it’s important for attorneys to find good mentors. When she was running for judge the first time, she didn’t even know Justice Anil Singh, but she reached out to him anyway and he was helpful in her ultimately reaching the bench.
“I stopped by his chambers and he was kind enough to let me talk to him,” Justice Pandit-Durant said. “I told him I was interested in becoming a judge and he told me what he did, explained the process to me and was a big help. I still remember that he said, ‘Anything I can do, give me a call.’”
Magistrate Judge Bulsara said that most successful judges and lawyers are usually willing to help anybody out, but explained that it’s important to have a solid reputation, to be good at your job and to ask.
“A lot of lawyers who are successful generally have a pay-it-forward mentality,” Judge Bulsara said. “They really want to help lawyers who are looking for guidance. I get many emails each week asking for coffee from law students. I meet with all of them because I think it’s important. If those people don’t reach out to me, then I don’t know that they need leadership.”
All of the judges appeared to agree with Bulsara.
Justice Singh challenged the group of roughly 50 members in the audience.
“Who here wants to be a judge?” Singh asked them. “Who here has started the process? We need more people from this community to step up and become judges, so who has started that process and what are you doing about it?”
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