From the Bench: Why the Hon. Mary M. Rowland Lives Her Life with Pride

Interviewed by Sudeep Dhanoa and Kenny Matuszewski

Nearly forty years ago, a pandemic once again raged around the world. But this time, it predominantly affected one group of people: the LGBTQ community. Called the “gay plague,” the AIDS pandemic gave rise to a renewed anti-gay movement across America. LGBTQ lawyers and law students were not spared from this one-two punch and had to navigate a nearly impassable minefield.

To Judge Rowland, this was simply what the world was when she grew up and started her legal career. As a child, she wanted to be a lawyer and follow in her father’s footsteps, even though she did not know what a lawyer did. But as she grew older, she realized that being a lawyer meant helping people. She attended law school at the University of Chicago with this mindset and desired to help the underrepresented.

During law school, Judge Rowland noticed that law schools rarely promoted or discussed opportunities in public interest law, and scholarships and programs were even harder to come by for students pursuing public interest law. This was not the only challenge she faced during law school. LGBTQ law students, such as Judge Rowland, had to be cautious about disclosing their identities. Only the brave few law students disclosed their affiliations to LGBTQ organizations in their resumes. Even fewer lived their lives openly.

At the time, Judge Rowland was able to overcome some of these challenges triumphantly. Immediately after law school, Judge Rowland started her career in one of the most coveted positions for law students looking to work in both the private and public sectors: a law clerk for the Hon. Julian Abele Cook Jr. in the Eastern District of Michigan. Once her clerkship ended, she joined the Federal Defender in Chicago. Judge Rowland notes that if her parents had not helped pay her law school education, she would not have been able to work at the Federal Defender. At the time, the starting salary for a Federal Defender was only $28,000. To this day, she is grateful for her parents’ assistance but also recognizes that many others are not so lucky.

But the problems law students faced as LGBTQ members of the legal community did not vanish after graduation.  Judge Rowland never came out during her clerkship in the Eastern District of Michigan, even though it includes liberal and progressive cities, such as Detroit and Ann Arbor.  Judge Rowland started coming out to her colleagues when she was at the Federal Defender. Even then, it took her a couple of years to do so, and she told only a select few people at first. Judge Rowland was not the only lawyer to be cautious about disclosing her true identity to the general public. LGBTQ judges in the Eighties and Nineties generally stayed in the closet. LGBTQ organizations, such as the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago (“LAGBAC”), were also much smaller. The beginning days of LAGBAC in particular were humble. Judge Rowland remembers that most meetings took place at a bar and that even four to five people attending was a large crowd.

As time passed, Judge Rowland’s career trajectory changed, along with the world. After ten years at the Federal Defender, she joined Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick, & Dym as a partner. The firm had, and still has, a robust civil rights practice, which Judge Rowland had always wanted to practice.  But the move came with a huge learning curve. Judge Rowland now had to learn how to manage discovery in civil disputes and represent plaintiffs instead of criminal defendants.

Instead of dealing with speedy trials, Judge Rowland saw her cases balloon to a length of three, four, and sometimes even five, years when she worked at the firm. She was frustrated with the amount of time it took to resolve these cases and wanted to find a way to do so. It was at that time that she noticed the impressive work being done by members of the bench. She also admired their ability to handle delicate issues with tact.  In 2007, she applied to be a magistrate judge. Five years after she first applied and twenty-four years after she graduated from law school, Judge Rowland became a Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Illinois.

The shift from private practice into the bench was even more dramatic than moving from the Federal Defender to private practice. In private practice, attorneys’ main goal is to win, for their clients’ sake and interests. But on the bench, judges do not answer to clients and only have to ensure they find the right answer in each case. Judge Rowland loves these factors about being on the bench. She particularly enjoyed working settlement conferences, which are predominantly the magistrate judges’ responsibility at the Northern District of Illinois. Settlement conferences play a big role in moving cases along or allowing them to resolve early. They are also less structured than motion hearings, which allowed Judge Rowland to hear from not only the lawyers, but also the clients, and decide how to reach the right answer.

Judge Rowland recognizes that getting the right answer is not easy. But no longer having the burdens of managing business and clients was a large weight off her shoulders when she joined the bench.  While her motivations are clear, the cases are complex. As a magistrate judge, Judge Rowland, much like the colleagues she admired, handled these complex cases with tact and a deep understanding of their nuances. This resulted in her being confirmed as a District Court Judge for the Northern District of Illinois in 2019, and she has since skillfully managed difficult cases.

Recently, for one case, Judge Rowland needed to approve a settlement for a class action claim. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Rowland was working at home, since hearings were and still are being conducted through videoconferencing. Further, parties must file a notice electronically before the hearing if they disapprove of the settlement. Forty-five minutes before the hearing was supposed to start, Judge Rowland received a call. She was told that fifteen people were in the courtroom. None of them previously noticed their disapproval of the settlement. Despite this, Judge Rowland sprinted to the courthouse. While she made it to the hearing on time, she did not have time to change out of her pajamas! As a result, she wore them under her robe and continued to proceed with the hearing, with business otherwise as usual.

Judge Rowland was able to handle this situation so calmly and efficiently through her experience working with the unpredictable as a magistrate judge. She also learned how to handle her docket efficiently, which came in handy when her caseload tripled as a district court judge. In addition to her caseload increasing, the type of work Judge Rowland does as a district court judge has changed. Instead of managing settlement conferences, she now deals with motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, frequently on the papers alone. Lawyers also tend to be more reserved in front of her now that she is a district court judge.

The fact alone that lawyers now feel intimidated or shy in front of Judge Rowland shows that the world today is a far cry from the limited and repressed world she grew up in. When Judge Rowland joined the bench as a federal district court judge, the Northern District of Illinois not only gained a passionate advocate, but also its first openly LGBTQ district court judge. Judge Rowland never would have predicted just how much things would change when she was in law school and a young lawyer.

Today, thanks to Judge Rowland’s courage and the courage of many others, LGBTQ lawyers are free to be more open and prouder about their identities. When she receives resumes from law students for judicial externships, Judge Rowland notes that nearly all the students’ resumes mention their involvement in OUTLaw, the law school LGBTQ affinity group, in some capacity. Just by being herself and working hard, Judge Rowland’s path culminated with the highest of honors: a standing ovation during her investiture as a district court judge, which would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago.

Access to public interest opportunities, particularly for LGBTQ law students, has grown massively as well through programs such as Equal Justice Works and Skadden fellowships.  Recent awardees of the former include non-binary and bisexual individuals, among other members of the LGBTQ community. Students of all backgrounds in general have many more opportunities during law school, through clinics, internships, and fellowships, to get involved in public interest work.

The LGBTQ legal community in Chicago is thriving as well. LAGBAC has grown to be a massive organization that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. It currently has a large, diverse membership with scholarships and networking opportunities available for both Illinois law students and lawyers. The Alliance of Illinois Judges, of which Judge Rowland is a member, comprises thirty openly LGBTQ judges. The Alliance works to promote diversity and understanding within the judiciary and Illinois legal community. Judge Rowland is the only federal judge in the organization and appreciates the fellowship of her state court colleagues, who playfully refer to her as “the cousin down the street.”

Judge Rowland recognizes that her fellow state court judges were revolutionaries and paved the way for her to become a federal judge. She has nothing but the deepest admiration and gratitude for them. This started with Tom Chiola, who became the first openly gay man to successfully run for judge.  He was also the first gay man to win a race for any government service position in the city. She also credits Nancy Katz, the first openly lesbian judge in Illinois, who became a judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1999.

Judge Rowland is inspired by the brave lawyers and judges who came before her, but also realizes that her achievements will, and have already started to, pave the way for future lawyers and judges. As recent as March 2020, Jill Rose Quinn became the first openly transgender judicial candidate to win a judicial primary candidate bid and could be the first transgender elected official in Illinois if she wins in November. Whether law students want to work for the underrepresented in public interest, advocate for clients in private practice, or work as a judge, Judge Rowland’s advice remains the same: follow your heart and build the practice you desire.

About Judge Rowland:

Judge Mary M. Rowland graduated from the University of Michigan in 1984 and earned her law degree from the University of Chicago in 1988. Following a two-year clerkship with the Hon. Julian Abele Cook Jr. in the Eastern District of Michigan, Judge Rowland worked at the Federal Defender Program in Chicago. At the Federal Defender Program, Judge Rowland was an Assistant Federal Defender from 1990-1995, and the Chief Appellate Attorney from 1995-2000.

From 2000 until 2012, Judge Rowland was a Partner at Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd., in Chicago, where she focused her practice in civil rights law. On October 1, 2012, she was appointed a United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. In 2018, President Trump nominated Judge Rowland for a seat in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, where she has served since 2019. The American Bar Association unanimously rated her well qualified for the position.

Judge Rowland is the first openly LGBTQ judge in the Northern District of Illinois, and is also a member of the Alliance of Illinois Judges. The Alliance of Illinois Judges was formed by the LGBTQ judges of Chicago, and aims to be a resource for fellow judges and the legal community, and mentors for LGBTQ law students. She is also a member of the Chicago Bar Association, the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, the 7th Circuit Bar Association, and the Federal Bar Association, Chicago Chapter.

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