Hon. Lillian Wan discusses her transition from trial to appellate judge
In a recent episode of the Diversity Dialogues podcast, hosted by the New York State Unified Court System, the Hon. Lillian Wan, the first and only Asian American woman to serve on any of New York’s Appellate Division courts, discussed her life experiences, biases she faced, and how these shaped her career.
Justice Wan is a barrier-breaking legal figure with a rich career spanning family law to appellate adjudication. A Brooklyn Supreme Court alumnus, she was initially appointed to Family Court by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012 before her appointment to the Court of Claims in 2018 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Elevated to the Appellate Division in 2022 by Gov. Kathy Hochul, Justice Wan has navigated her way through the legal landscape while confronting the challenges that came with being the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
She began her legal career as a litigator at the Family Court Legal Services Division, dealing with abuse and neglect cases. Later, she served as a court attorney/referee in Kings County Surrogate’s Court, handling diverse matters from trusts to adoptions.
Born to Chinese parents who migrated to the U.S. in search of better opportunities, Justice Wan grew up mostly in Malverne, Nassau County, grappling with the complexities of her Asian American identity amidst a predominantly non-Asian community.
Justice Wan spoke candidly about her childhood as the daughter of immigrant parents and the assumptions people made based on her appearance. “I wanted to make sure that, especially when I became a judge, that I fostered an inclusive environment,” she said.
Justice Wan, who began her legal career as an Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) attorney, did not always plan on becoming a lawyer. She originally considered careers in teaching and social work.
It wasn’t until working closely with Judge Margarita López Torres, the first Latino Surrogate in the history of New York State, that Wan saw a judicial role as attainable.
“That judge that I worked with was Margarita López Torres, the surrogate in Brooklyn at the time, and I believe the first Latino surrogate in the history of New York State. So she was a wonderful mentor to me,” Wan said.
Switching from being a trial judge to an appellate judge involved a substantial transition, she said. Appellate courts are more like “team sports” requiring collective decision-making, unlike the solitary role of a trial judge.
Wan served as president of the Asian American Judges Association for three years. The organization focuses on promoting diversity and the inclusion of Asian American judges at all levels. “It is hard to be what you can’t see,” she noted, underscoring the importance of role models in the judiciary.
Additionally, Judge Wan chairs the court system’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, a role she took on after being recruited by the Hon. Randall Eng in 2017. The committee functions somewhat like an appellate body, providing advisory opinions on ethical questions posed by judges across the state.
The “Amici” podcast, hosted on Soundcloud.com, is designed to offer insights and information from New York’s judges and the Unified Court System to a broader audience.
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