MoFo Alumna Spotlight: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a United States District Judge who serves on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Jackson’s judicial service began on March 26, 2013, when President Barack Obama signed her commission.

The docket of the federal district court in the District of Columbia is relatively unique because the judges handle many cases in which the federal government is the defendant. This can include cases brought under the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, and cases of that nature ordinarily do not go to trial: they are typically resolved by the judge in the context of cross-motions for summary judgment. As such, Jackson often finds herself assuming a role akin to that of an appellate judge, because she is reviewing a paper record that the parties have submitted and deciding legal questions based on that record. The other civil matters on her docket also typically involve the federal government, such as suits brought by current and former federal employees who allege employment discrimination, or cases seeking to compel the federal government to act on an immigration visa petition. Jackson has spent the bulk of her time as a judge holding hearings and writing opinions, which she enjoys because it is similar in many ways to the work she did as an appellate lawyer.

In 2007, Jackson joined MoFo as of counsel in what was then known as the Supreme Court and Appellate Group, directly following her time serving as an appellate assistant federal public defender. She worked exclusively on appellate cases, drafting briefs for clients whose cases were on appeal in various state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court. The practice group represented both appellants and appellees.

Jackson recalls working on one case that the Supreme Court heard on the merits. After having served as a law clerk for Associate Justice Stephen Breyer early in her career, Jackson was excited to be part of a litigating team that represented an appellant in the Supreme Court. In general, however, the Supreme Court practice mostly involved analyzing legal arguments, writing briefs, and working with others to make strategic decisions about the arguments that were to be made in coordinated amicus-brief filings.

Jackson’s experiences at MoFo helped to advance her career in many respects. She had the opportunity to work on sophisticated civil actions, involving complex questions of both law and policy. She also had the opportunity to develop strategic decision-making skills and to meet and work with fantastic lawyers, many of whom were well connected in the legal community and supported her eventual nomination to the district court. Beth Brinkmann (former MoFo partner and chair of the Supreme Court Group) recruited Jackson to MoFo, and served as a mentor to her during Jackson’s years at the firm. According to Jackson, not only did Brinkmann provide invaluable feedback on research and writing, but she also served as an influential role model with respect to balancing the practice of law and family life.

Recently, Jackson has seen a shift toward more women litigators and lead counsel in the cases that she handles as a judge—which only makes sense, given the fact that women now make up a majority of the students enrolled in juris doctorate degree programs nationwide—and she thinks that the industry as a whole is much more mindful of gender diversity and inclusion than it was when she first graduated from law school. As an example, many clients now include diversity criteria when they select preferred counsel for big cases, and firms are creating formal mentorship and sponsorship programs for women and minority associates. Jackson hopes that the efforts that many are making to be more inclusive will bear fruit in the coming years in terms of reducing the gender disparities in the partnership ranks of law firms and in corporate general counsel positions.

The best piece of advice Jackson can offer to lawyers who are aspiring judges is simple: develop and maintain a dedicated work ethic. “The most important thing that you can do is to dedicate yourself to working hard and to doing your very best work, on every assignment, always. You will need to develop a reputation for being thoughtful and thorough and careful in order to be considered seriously for a judicial position, and you can influence how people think of you by putting in the effort and maintaining good relationships with your co-workers,” says Jackson. “And remember that, no matter what new role you take on, your reputation is what will follow you, wherever you go.”

Learn more about our MoFo Alumni community and their many contributions and achievements here.