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Virtual career day: Judges and court employees discuss their own career paths, offer encouragement amid pandemic

May 27, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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A group of court employees planned a career day with a group of local high school students. When it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to host the event anyway over Google Meet.

“We had a group of fantastic speakers, and judging from the thoughtful and insightful questions asked by the students, it is clear that they found the event engaging,” said Judge Joanne Quinones. “I am so grateful that we were still able to share our time and experiences with the youth.”

Organized by Judge Quinones, an acting justice in the Kings County Supreme Court, the event had the participation of 11 court employees, including Judge Javier Vargas; three court attorneys, Kemar Hermitt, Betsey Jean-Jacques and Jasmine Valle; IT technician Ingrid Layne; Court Officers Robert Brooks and James Mercado; court clerk Marleen Jaspar; interpreter Nancy Hernandez and court reporter Kiyoko Panzella.

For about two hours, each member of that group took turns speaking to 37 students from the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service on Wednesday. They talked about where they came from, their jobs and how they went about getting those jobs. The goal was to get the students interested in careers in the courts.

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Judge Javier Vargas told the students that part of what motivated him to become a lawyer and then a judge was that he was teased as a high school student and wanted to prove people wrong.

Judge Quinones went first. She explained to the students that her career path to becoming a judge was not a linear one. In fact, she wanted to go to medical school and even after she decided to switch to law school had a brief two-year hiatus before she could even start down that road.

Even her legal career didn’t go how she’d expected, as her dream job was to work in the juvenile rights division of the Legal Aid Society, she said, a job she never obtained.

“After my first year as a lawyer, I got accepted to an elite trial training institute,” Judge Quinones said. “Days before I was supposed to leave for the institute, my brother, the family member I was closest to, had been shot. My brother didn’t make it. He died a few months before his 30th birthday.”

Judge Vargas, who sits in the Kings County Family Court, told the students that he didn’t aspire to becoming a lawyer or a judge from a young age, but that he only started down that career path when he was in college. Once he headed in that direction, he used his past struggles as motivation to keep moving forward, he said, even when he struggled.

Judge Joanne Quinones, acting justice of the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term, admitted to students that she nearly gave up her career at the Legal Aid Society when her brother was shot to death, but that she ultimately didn’t let that setback stop her from finding her way to a fulfilling legal career.

“I never thought about becoming a lawyer,” Judge Vargas said. “When I was in high school, I was just hoping to graduate with good grades and I had no plan for what happened afterwards. Finish high school and then go to college. I wasn’t until I got to college that I started to want to explore the law. I didn’t have a smooth path to becoming a judge either, and I applied three or four times before it happened. That’s why it’s important that you persevere.”

Perseverance and flexibility became a common theme among the speakers, as many stressed that setbacks will happen, but careers don’t come easily. Hermitt, a court attorney for Hon. Craig Walker, explained that not only was he previously not interested in working for a criminal judge, but he was initially against the idea. He stressed flexibility and finding a mentor.

“I never thought that I would touch criminal law with a long stick, but you have to be flexible in life,” Hermitt said. “Even when I was in law school, I thought I would be doing tax law or something, but criminal law is it.”

Stephen Nembhard, the program director at the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service, afterward called his classroom a tough crowd and said that it was no small feat that the group was able to keep the students engaged so long. He explained that the encouragement for the students was welcome because they had recently dealt with the death of a classmate.

Jasmine Valle was one of three court attorneys to speak on Wednesday.

“Just 10 days ago, one of our students was murdered in Flatbush on Mother’s Day, and we have all been reeling from his loss,” Nembhard said. “I am so thankful that the panelists were able to bring so much hope to our students in such a dark time.

“Professionals that look just like them and even come from the same neighborhoods that our students are from, I would like to thank them for showing our students multiple pathways to success and sharing their journeys,” Nembhard continued.

While the event was organized by Judge Quinones, who also runs an annual event for first graders during Read Across America and takes on about a dozen interns each year, she said that the event wouldn’t have happened without the help of Steve Williamson.

Judge Quinones said that she met Williamson through the Nathan R. Sobel American Inns of Court, a bar association they are both members of, and that Williamson organized the event as program coordinator of the Brooklyn Community Services’ Speakers Bureau.

“When we were looking for a school to work with, I reached out to Steve because on his invitation. I spoke at the school a few years ago,” Quinones said. “He put me in touch with Stephen Nembhardt, the school’s program director, and eventually everything came together.”

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