So You Want to be a Judge? Spotlight: Hon. Julia Dayton Klein

The Hon. Julia Dayton Klein was appointed the Fourth Judicial District Bench in April of 2021 by Gov. Tim Walz. She was previously a partner at Lathrop GPM. 

What motivated you to start the application process to become a judge?

It’s something I’ve long wanted to do but had thought it would come later on in my career. I was always thinking that “now is not the time” because the next big case was fascinating and consuming, or that I wanted to continue to build my practice and contribute to making the firm a great place to work. But, the pandemic and the front-and-center orientation of our collective need to focus on the systemic issues that impact our justice system had my heart aching for our community in a most acute way. I took many long, contemplative walks around our urban chain of lakes—when not juggling distance learning and a busy law practice. 

In those quiet moments, when thinking “I should do more to advance the cause of justice. The pro bono and volunteer work isn’t feeling like enough more. What more should I contribute?” I reminded myself of my long-term desire to be a judge. Then, it all clicked. This is the way I can use my love of the law and my passion for helping our community—by answering this call to serve. It was not an easy call to answer because I liked practicing law and my colleagues, but it really was an epiphany for me.

What was one thing that surprised you about the application and onboarding process?

How extensive it is! The application process took many months for me, from having conversations with judges about what the job is really all about, to observing judicial proceedings that were unfamiliar to me, to talking with mentors and friends about this big life decision, to sitting down and recalling each and every thing I’ve done since law school—it’s a lot! But, it’s also such a joyful process, because it gave me a structure to think about the big, philosophical questions and to relive some cherished moments from my legal career. It also allowed me to connect with my now current colleagues who were so generous with their time in answering my questions and providing insight into what life is like on the bench. 

The onboarding process also surprised me in how thorough it is. I had to unwind my practice, transfer clients, transition cases, and disentangle myself financially from the partnership mid-year, all within about a month. Then, I started training, learning from my new colleagues and staff all the things that I would do (many of which were new to me) and shadowing experienced judges as they ran calendars, hearings, and trials. I went to bed each evening with a “brain ache” the likes of which I had not experienced since law school, but excited to see what the next day would bring. 

What’s one piece of advice you would have for someone who wants to become a judge? 

Start thinking about it early and make choices that can help to get you there. I was a bit meandering in my approach in that I wanted and needed job stability and wanted to build good skills, so I made sure to work in places that allowed me that stability and stretched me to be the best lawyer I could be. I also was lucky enough to work in places that allowed me to take on additional things that were interesting to me especially the pro bono work I had the privilege to do. Much later in my career, I figured out that my interests actually fit into a personal narrative that I had been unwittingly writing all along. I’d encourage folks to be a bit more intentional than I was and also to take on things that are interesting and meaningful to them. And build your network of friends and advisors who can help to guide you along this path. I spent too many years thinking I could never have what it takes to be a judge only to realize that, after time, I was alone in those doubts. By the time I set this intention, my friends and mentors had already seen it in me, and I had already written the story for myself. Write your story over time and enjoy the process as you do.

What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started the process?

How important it is to lay the proper groundwork to achieve this goal. What I mean by that is to do a lot of due diligence before applying. Take opportunities to observe hearings and proceedings that are unfamiliar to you to get some insight into how the parts of the justice system work, particularly those outside of your practice area. Get to know the people involved in the decision-making process who can answer questions about the process and offer their perspectives on what qualities they think are most important to bring to the bench. And really sit with yourself to ask why you want to do this work and give yourself the space to let those answers come to you. These are all important groundwork-laying steps that will serve you well in this process. At the very least, they will give you clarity on what’s important and you will get to know some extraordinary people along the way.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention about the process? 

I owe debts I can never repay to the many people who encouraged me, coached me, provided feedback on my application/interview and just hung in there with me as this process percolated along. In particular, I want to thank the Judicial Selection Commission members for being generous with their time and thoughts in answering my questions about the process, the governor’s staff who were so kind in helping me navigate this process, the Infinity Project who provided valuable feedback and interview coaching for those intense judicial selection interviews, and my mentors, family, and dear friends who offered boundless encouragement through the twists and turns.


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