Thirteen years after graduating from Southern Illinois University School of Law, Judge April Troemper returned with some advice and encouragement for the current students, as well as some insight on the issues that women face in the legal profession.
As a recently appointed Associate Circuit Judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, and a married mom of two, Judge Troemper certainly had the credentials. However, as she was quick to point out, a few years before, she was just like the students in the audience, “taking classes, studying, working, participating in moot court and extracurricular activities, hoping [she] would pass the bar exam the first go around, and wondering where [her] legal career was going to take [her] during the next five to ten years.”
How did she make the leap from busy law student unsure of her future to successful female judge? It wasn’t easy, but Judge Troemper persevered. The following are some lessons she learned along the way:
• Plan to be successful.
Judge Troemper recommended that women “plan a road map” to reach their goals. In planning for their futures, Judge Troemper advised that female lawyers recognize the aspects of their lives that are out of their hands, but take charge of the things they can control. She promised that if women keep their attitudes, character, depth of knowledge, work ethic, and involvement in bar-related or other networking opportunities in check, they will be in a much better position to achieve their goals.
• Be determined.
Recognizing that sometimes roadblocks stand in the way of women’s ambitions, Judge Troemper told students, “When life throws a huge obstacle in the way, come up with Plan B and go around it.” One barrier in Judge Troemper’s life was financing her higher education. She wanted to transfer from junior college to a four-year university, but did not receive financial assistance from her parents, and was unsure whether her student loan application would be approved. What was Judge Troemper’s Plan B? She enrolled in the Army ROTC in hopes of receiving a scholarship. She was determined, so she completed basic training and finished second overall in her platoon, earning the scholarship she desired (though she ultimately declined to pursue her goals through that route and funded her education in other ways).
• Prepare for the difficulties of achieving a good work-life balance.
In achieving her goals, “the balancing act was not easy,” Judge Troemper said. There was only a short interval between the time Judge Troemper became a new attorney and the moment she became a new mom. Life as a working mom was difficult, and she had to juggle work and billable hours along with marriage and a child. When she told her employer she was expecting child number two, he asked, “Well, what is this going to do to your career?,” suggesting that most women in the profession who have kids either quit, work part time, or get state jobs. But Judge Troemper chose to do none of the above.
Judge Troemper admitted that at times she felt inadequate as both an attorney and a mom. It was hard for her to hear her kids ask why she did not come to their field trips or why she did not pick them up after school like the other moms. On the other hand, it was hard for her to hear the question, “Why haven’t you made partner yet?” from her successful friends. But again, she was determined, and she turned to her husband for support. He helped take on the traditional “mom” roles, such as picking the kids up after school, and although it was difficult, they were able to make the lifestyle work.
• Grow some thick skin.
Judge Troemper emphasized that women have to be prepared for the difficulties that come with entering a male-dominated field. As a young female attorney, Judge Troemper had to deal with other attorneys’ disrespectful and degrading comments. People remarked that she looked like a Barbie doll, and that no one could take her seriously. However, she learned how to deal with those derogatory statements, and grew some thick skin. Once, she arrived at a deposition, and her opponent said, “Well, looks like we are still waiting for the defense attorney to show up.” She then replied, “No, I am the defense attorney. I guess that means you are still waiting for the court reporter.”
• Network authentically.
Encouraging students to be true to themselves when taking advantage of networking opportunities, Judge Troemper warned against creating false relationships to get ahead. Instead, she suggested, attorneys should have legitimate reasons to talk to one another. “This is why networking and belonging to organizations is so important,” she said. She emphasized that women in particular need to take advantage of opportunities to join organizations because they may not be able to form relationships in the same ways as men. For example, women with children cannot frequently hang out with male attorneys at a bar or other social events, she said, because they might be looked down upon for being out with the guys instead of at home with the kids. Being active in organizations (and attending networking and social events within those organizations) also requires time away from the family, but Judge Troemper said that sacrifice was worth it to her because it created the opportunity to form genuine and lasting friendships with both men and women across the state while working with them in pursuit of common goals.
• Be mindful of your image.
Judge Troemper reminded students that as female attorneys, “you want to be respected for your intelligence and your work ethic.” If attorneys use new ways of communicating, such as Facebook, MySpace, and other social media sites, they should be careful about doing so, she said. She cautioned that pictures and comments posted on these sites can come back to haunt people, and employers may be looking at this type of information. She also advised students to dress professionally and avoid “revealing” attire. However, she also recognized that female attorneys do not have to be boring, and said that sometimes she liked to “jazz up [her] outfits or suits with trendy jewelry or scarves or shoes.”
Use your strengths and take advantage of opportunities, rather than feeling entitled.
Recognizing that attorneys come from different backgrounds and have different abilities, Judge Troemper said, “Some have lawyers and judges in their families. Some have financial resources that others do not. Some may be more intellectually gifted than others. Some are “A” type personalities. Some have the ability to lead others. Some are great speakers. Others are great writers. A few may be good at bringing people together for compromise. But one thing for certain is that we are all equipped with our own set of skills and talents. Learning what those are is the key.”
Judge Troemper encouraged students to use their talents wisely, saying, “Remember that while we recognize the disparity between genders and positions of influence, you cannot raise a huge issue about it and argue that you should get that position simply because you’re a woman.” She continued, “You have to take advantage of opportunities where you can prove yourself … So, if you are a leader—lead. If you are a team player, be a part of the team. If you come from a family of resources, use them wisely—but under no circumstances should any of us have a sense of entitlement.”
• Keep aiming high.
Judge Troemper has achieved many professional goals in her life. She has been a successful attorney, president of the Central Illinois Women’s Bar Association, and a member of the Illinois State Bar Association Board of Governors. Her most recent accomplishment was becoming an associate judge at age 37, a goal she had aimed to meet by age 40. One might think that she has finally earned a chance to take a deep breath and relax for a moment. However, “aiming high” is a habit Judge Troemper has not been able to shake since her first grade teacher observed her and told Judge Troemper’s mother that the young girl was going to be “a CEO or something really big.”
“Do I have more goals on the horizon?” she asked. “Absolutely.” ■