From the Bench: How to Succeed as a Young Lawyer from the Honorable Rebecca Pallmeyer

Post Authored by Kenny Matuszewski

This article is the second in a series of articles focusing on the Hon. Rebecca Pallmeyer, Chief Judge of the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois.

In 2019, the @theBar blog was privileged enough to write a Judicial Profile for Judge Pallmeyer and help capture a historic moment for the Northern District of Illinois. The profile can be found here. But Judge Pallmeyer was not only generous enough to donate her time to @theBar, but also to provide some advice to young lawyers and readers of the blog. That advice includes the following:

When asked what she would tell a younger version of herself, Judge Pallmeyer said she would encourage her younger self to take risks and try things she is uncertain she can do.  Judge Pallmeyer suspects that early on in her career, she spent too much time focused on trying to do the appropriate or “best” thing to help reach the next professional step, rather than just taking on challenges as they come.  She now sees that says it’s better to make an attempt at something, even if unsuccessful, than not to try at all.  The fear of failure can be difficult to overcome, but young lawyers should remind themselves that the real failure is not in an unsuccessful effort, but is in not taking on a challenge at all.

Judge Pallmeyer’s advice for young lawyers appearing in court will be familiar:  A lawyer’s greatest asset is the lawyer’s reputation.  At any stage of the lawyer’s career, that reputation must be carefully cultivated and preserved.  This means being careful and conscientious in written and oral submissions to the court; always being honest with the court and with opposing counsel; and treating other lawyers, on all sides, with consideration and respect.  “Hardball” tactics may work on television, but they are rarely successful in actual practice.  Instead, a successful lawyer will appear on time, will be courteous with opposing counsel and court staff, and will be fully prepared and informed about the legal and factual issues in the case.  Even when negotiating a discovery plan or protective order, maintaining focus on the “big picture” of a case will make the lawyer more effective in achieving a swift and favorable result for the client.

Judge Pallmeyer encourages young lawyers to be involved in their communities and in the organized bar.  Judge Pallmeyer herself is a member of the Lawyers Club of Chicago, the Richard Linn Inn of Court, the Chicago Inn of Court, the Federal Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, the Chicago Bar Association, and the American Bar Association.  She recalls that she became a member of the Linn Inn of Court when then-Chief Judge Holderman urged her to do so.  Judge Holderman was an active member and believed his colleague would be a good fit.  Judge Pallmeyer says she couldn’t turn the Chief Judge down and is glad she took his advice, as she has felt both welcomed and valued by members of the Linn Inn.  Since she has become Chief Judge, Linn Inn members stepped up to help the court furnish a playroom with toys and books for children whose family members are in the courthouse for their naturalization ceremonies.  This is just one contribution bar groups have made in the community.

Judge Pallmeyer has felt welcomed in all of the organizations she has joined and finds other lawyers are generally friendly and encouraging of young lawyers, as well.   Thus, even if they don’t feel like natural “joiners,” Judge Pallmeyer recommends that young lawyers get involved in bar associations early on.  Organizations like the CBA, FBA, or Women’s Bar give attorneys the opportunity to be leaders early in their careers, to learn good organizational and “networking” skills, and to develop skills in public speaking.

Even with all the benefits that bar associations and organizations provide, Judge Pallmeyer recognizes that bar associations are facing challenges in bringing in new lawyers as members.  She identified a number of possible reasons:  (1) law firms today are perhaps less likely to pay bar association dues for young lawyers than they once were; (2) as law firms have grown in size, many of them offer in-house continuing-legal-education programs, eliminating the incentive to seek CLE credits in organized bar activities; (3) young attorneys are pressured to work harder and bill more time than ever, leaving them with less energy for bar association activities; (4)  social media creates online communities and enables young lawyers to make friends without attending bar association meetings; and (5) the Internet has created a private world of communication for people who may, as a result, not feel as inclined to join bar groups to seek connections.   These challenges are significant, but they can be overcome.  Judge Pallmeyer believes the bar groups will respond to and adapt to the changing legal environment, and that bar groups will continue to be avenues for young lawyers to learn and grow.

Finally, Judge Pallmeyer advises young attorneys to enjoy the practice of law, and to choose a professional path that is personally rewarding.  But the law cannot be the only thing in their lives.  Lawyers are people first; they should care for their human needs and should pursue passions and interests outside the law.  That includes getting enough sleep and exercise, seeking and cultivating loving relationships, reading books, and maintaining hobbies.  According to Judge Pallmeyer, the best attorneys are balanced attorneys.

About Judge Pallmeyer:

Rebecca R. Pallmeyer graduated from Valparaiso University and earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School.  Following a one-year clerkship with Justice Rosalie Wahl of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Judge Pallmeyer practiced commercial litigation with a Chicago law firm. 

From 1985 until 1991, Ms. Pallmeyer was an Administrative Law Judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial agency responsible for enforcement of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.  On October 1, 1991, Ms. Pallmeyer was appointed a United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Illinois.  She served as Presiding Magistrate Judge from 1996 until 1998.  In 1997, President Clinton nominated her for a seat in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, where she has served since October 1998.  

Judge Pallmeyer serves as the Seventh Circuit’s District Judge Representative to the United States Judicial Conference.  She is an honorary fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.  Since 2006, Judge Pallmeyer has served on the faculty for the annual ALI-CLE program, Current Developments in Employment Law, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Judge Pallmeyer is past President of the Lawyers Club of Chicago, past President of the Richard Linn American Inn of Courts, and an active member of the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, and the American Bar Association.  She is immediate past Secretary to the ABA Labor and Employment Law Section.

Judge Pallmeyer was sworn in as Chief Judge for the Northern District of Illinois on July 1, 2019.



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