Tulane graduate, ABA President speaks at Tulane Law School

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American Bar Association president Judy Perry Martinez spoke to Tulane Law Students last week on how to become a leader in the field of law.

Amy Nankin, News Editor

Judy Perry Martinez, American Bar Association president and Tulane University Law School graduate, spoke to a “Lawyers as Leaders” class at her alma mater Friday about what it means to be a leader in the legal profession.

Martinez has held leadership positions in the ABA for over 30 years and was elected ABA president in August 2019. Born and raised in New Orleans, she attended Louisiana State University and University of New Orleans as an undergraduate before attending Tulane Law School. 

Growing up, Martinez did not always know she wanted to be a lawyer. She reflected on the moment her professor told her to stay after class, telling her she needed to go to law school. 

“When I think back on that now, I think about what a powerful moment that was that someone can see something, no matter how small, see something in somebody and believe in it and tell them that and make a difference in somebody’s life.” Martinez said. 

Martinez told the law students not only to mentor others, but to look for inspiring things in others. She told the class stories of her pathway to the ABA, which began at a commercial law firm and constantly changed as her own view on what it meant to be a lawyer leader evolved.

For Martinez, there are a few key elements involved in becoming a lawyer leader: understanding, gratitude and striving for constant improvement, among others. Martinez said she enjoys working with people who hold different views than she does, and she has encountered this situation regularly in her line of work.

“It’s about having patience for others who aren’t in the same place as you are,” Martinez said. “First off, not going after somebody because they don’t hold your views but thinking about, ‘They don’t hold my views, but on most fronts I am respectful of their position,’ and help me by helping them understand. And I can share my views with them so we can find commonality and work together and every once in a while we are enlightened by what they see.” 

Throughout her speech, Martinez stressed improvement in leadership. She explained how many lawyers do not fully understand the immense leadership role they are able to have in their chosen profession, and how many view their work as “lawyer servant” rather than “lawyer leader.” She made this realization herself as a student while sitting in on a panel during her time at Tulane Law. Martinez credited Tulane with laying the foundation of knowledge and the unique experiences she had there that helped propel her to her position today. 

Growing up in New Orleans, Martinez emphasized the benefits of Tulane allowing her to meet people from all over the country. 

“I didn’t know a lot of people from different parts of the country, so that in and of itself was enriching for me,” Martinez said. “I think it’s also just the notion that the way you learn here — I’m assuming it’s still the way it is now — it’s about expressing your views and understanding the law, but it’s also about understanding the practical understanding of the law and whether that’s in an ethics and professional opportunities class or a curriculum class, and I think that’s helped me all along.”

Martinez has maintained a close relationship with Tulane Law School. She served on the Dean’s Advisory Council, has hosted events and tries to speak at local New Orleans schools as often as she can. While being a lawyer is not for everyone, Martinez stressed the fulfillment she feels in her profession. 

“Use your leadership to drive your passion,” Martinez said. “One of the best ways in which I know you can contribute is by a career as a lawyer, and I say that with full sincerity. I could not feel more fulfillment in any other field as I do in being a lawyer, and I truly feel that way. And I feel so much that way that I want to tell everyone. It’s not for everyone. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline, but if you enjoy being with people and enjoy making a contribution then I think there is a place in the law for you.”