Arlene Rosario Lindsay has been a United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York since 1994 and a Touro Law Center adjunct professor since 1995, teaching Trial Practice, Pretrial Litigation and International Human Rights. Judge Lindsay earned her B.A. from the University of Dayton and her J.D. from NYU, then served as an Assistant Bronx District Attorney, Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Deputy Suffolk County Attorney and Huntington Town Attorney. In 1990, she rejoined the Office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York as Chief of the Long Island Division, a position she held until her appointment to the bench.
She stopped by recently for an interview with Ken Rosenblum and Louise Harmon in connection with her selection as the Law Center’s inaugural Featured Adjunct.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was about 5 years old. I grew up in a blue collar family, but my parents really stressed the importance of education. Once I got to law school, though, I found myself wondering why it was I thought I’d wanted to come. I left school, took a year and a half off, and then discovered that I just couldn’t wait to get back. I wrote a letter to the then-dean Robert McKay at NYU. It was a handwritten outpouring and I begged him to let me back into law school. I owe him so much for giving me another chance.
What was your toughest course in law school? Con Law. Not the subject itself but it met at 9 a.m. and the professor was really dull.
What was your favorite course in law school? Tax. It was like putting a puzzle together. I liked the structure and the fact that there was a final answer.
What was your most satisfying moment as a lawyer? There have been so many. Letters I’ve received as a judge from litigants thanking me for helping to solve their problems. Letters from defendants I put in jail as a prosecutor, telling me that without my intervention they would never have gotten their lives straightened out.
What is your biggest peeve as a judge? Lack of civility. I always tell students that you can be a good lawyer, and a strong advocate for your client, and not be nasty. I really don’t like it when lawyers are unprepared, but I would take that over rudeness in my courtroom any day. You can be a forceful advocate, without the rudeness. It also seems like pressures caused by the current economic environment are causing attorneys to behave more aggressively and even to bring cases they might not otherwise have brought.
How did you feel when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to, then confirmed to the Supreme Court of the US? I identify very strongly as a Latina, so I was proud, but we are also friends, so I related on a personal level. She and I, along with District Judge Dora Irizarry, traveled to Colombia, South America to meet with Colombian judges and assist their country’s efforts to transition from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system of justice. I want people to know this about Sonia: the opportunity for her nomination may have presented itself because she was a Latina, but people need to know that on the merits, she has everything it takes to be a great judge. She is such a hard worker, and so bright and capable. She’s gotten to where she has because of hard work, not because she’s a Latina.
What do you hope your students will get from your courses? I hope my students develop confidence addressing judges and other lawyers. I’m brutally honest with them about their performance. I also tell them about things that actually go on in my courtroom, and how my clerks and I reacted. I bring them to court to watch lawyers in action and talk to them about what went right -- or wrong. They get to experience the law from a judge’s point of view.
What weaknesses do you see in your students? Well, it isn’t just my students. It’s the practicing bar as well. I see a real weakness in their writing. They don’t understand the importance of good letter writing and of good grammar and spelling. Grammatical errors really reflect poorly on a lawyer. Also a lot of lawyers who practice before me don’t know how to tell a judge what they’re looking for. I’ve sometimes got to plow through a three-to-four page document full of “he saids” and “she saids,” just to get to the last page and find out the lawyer just wanted an extension. Let’s face it: your reputation as a lawyer is going to be based in part on your submissions. You really have to think about what you’re writing, and then edit it several times.
What kind of advice do you give students as they try to decide on their careers? I think students can have unrealistic expectations based on a skewed view of reality. They’re focusing on a certain salary or a high-level position, but don’t seem to realize those things don’t usually happen when you’re first out of law school. Students don’t seem to recognize opportunities when they come their way. You have to take advantage of that first job offer, roll up your sleeves, get down to work, and do the best job you can – even if it didn’t meet your expectations. You build a reputation in that first job and then your boss will be impressed, and the word of mouth will get out that you’re a good lawyer and a hard worker. I started out making fifteen thousand dollars a year, but I worked hard impressed my boss and then he helped me move along to another, better position. So students shouldn’t focus so much on what field they want to work in, or how much money they want to make, but ought to treat that first job, whatever it is, as an opportunity. That first job and how you handle it can end up dictating your direction.