According to Judge C.J. Williams (JD88) of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, “my entire career frankly has been a series of accidents.” Williams remembers being drawn toward law school because he enjoyed his undergraduate business law class at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.
After graduation from the University of Iowa College of Law, Williams began a clerkship, thinking he wanted to work in private practice in a large law firm. As a clerk, though, he remembers seeing Assistant United States Attorneys who argued before his judge, Donald Eugene O’Brien of the United States District Courts for the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa, and thinking, “I want to be that good.” Williams ended up spending two stints as an AUSA, between which he also was in private practice as a trial attorney, gaining perspective on all facets of litigation at each juncture that has been far from accidental.
Williams is not the only Iowa Law alum who began a trajectory to the judiciary in part through a judicial clerkship.
In the , 30* graduates are scheduled to begin clerkships across the country in county, state, and federal courts. Whether this leads the 2021 clerks to judgeships or other paths in the law, they are sure to benefit from what Judge Samuel A. Thumma (JD88) of the Arizona Court of Appeals calls “a true sort of apprenticeship.”
The Iowa Law network of judges
This year’s clerkship class reflects the diversity of opportunities that has traditionally been available to Iowa Law alumni.
Iowa Law’s history of success in placing clerks demonstrates the power of the school’s alumni judge network. Like the incoming clerks, Iowa Law alumni have served as judges across the country at various levels of federal and state judiciaries as well as tribal courts. Indeed, Iowa Law alumni have held the highest judicial positions in Alaska (Chief Justice Joel Bolger (JD78)) and Hawaii (Chief Justice Ronald Moon (JD65)). In between those geographic extremes, Iowa Law relies on its strong alumni connections to help facilitate clerkship opportunities across the country, such as Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Gordon Moore and Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Kevin Ross.
“I knew Iowa Law would provide me with not only a top legal education, but also important contacts in Iowa’s legal community,” says Judge Stephanie Rose (JD96) of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the first woman appointed as an Article III judge in the district. “Iowa Law also offered me academic scholarships and provided a diverse range of fellow students and of professors—both of which impacted my decision to attend.”
Tangible and intangible benefits of Iowa Law education
“I didn’t know anything about the trajectory of a legal career before coming into law school,” notes Justice Christopher McDonald (JD01), an associate justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. As the first member of his family to attend law school, McDonald says the school’s small group sections his first year helped to ease his transition into law school.
McDonald also served as a research assistant to Professor James Tomkovicz, working with the professor on two Supreme Court amicus briefs.
Prof. Tomkovicz also influenced Justice Dana Oxley (JD98), who became an associate justice of the Iowa Supreme Court in January 2020 after a long-term clerkship in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals from 2001 to 2011 and private civil appellate litigation practice. Tomkovicz was her 1L small section professor and later taught her criminal procedure class.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to go to law school.” Oxley says. She was an accounting major in college and, like Williams, enjoyed her business law class. She began a career as a bank examiner but discovered “auditing wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.”
After law school and a few years of private practice, Oxley began a clerkship with Judge David R. Hansen on the Eighth Circuit, thinking that they would help her to go into academics. When she returned to private practice, although she did some transactional work, she found herself more drawn to litigation. “Every client came in with a different problem,” she recalled, and she enjoyed the variety.
McDonald credits Iowa Law’s strong as well. He enjoyed classes like Professor Margaret Raymond’s “writing intense” United States Supreme Court seminar, in which the class of 9 students followed the current Supreme Court docket and played the role of the court, including conferencing on cases and drafting opinions.
“Good writing is a reflection of good thinking,” McDonald notes.
“Writing is integral to my work,” says Oxley. When she was clerking for Judge Hansen, he encouraged clerks to explore issues as they came up in the research and analysis, and not simply to write toward the judge’s decision. Now that she is a judge, Oxley says she also wants to teach her clerks to “balanc[e] substantive law but also the critical thinking.”
Beyond practical experience, Iowa Law also provides intangible benefits to students. “Iowa Law taught me to navigate what is not found in black and white,” Rose notes. “The range of viewpoints amongst the students and faculty encouraged debate about the gray areas of the law, which is where as a judge I spend the bulk of my energy.”
Alumni judges hire alumni clerks
The respect for the qualities Iowa Law graduates can bring to a clerkship has also led to opportunities for alumni.
The career placement office and clerkship committee helped McDonald through the application process and into a clerkship with Judge Hansen on the Eighth Circuit. McDonald recalls, “It was foundational” to work with the judge, who is now a lifelong friend and mentor and “the first person I talk to when I have a question.” Although Judge Hansen is not an Iowa Law alumni, he is a friend of the school, hiring a number of Iowa Law clerks throughout the years, including Oxley, McDonald, and Thumma.
After Thumma settled in Phoenix, where a classmate who became his wife of 29 years was practicing, he also clerked for the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
Thumma, in turn, later hired Nicole Burgmeier (JD13) as a clerk. He says Iowa Law graduates are “hardworking, hungry, eager to learn, good to work with.”
Thumma notes that there is a “pretty strong” community in the Phoenix area, both of University of Iowa alumni in general and of Iowa Law graduates. “You see Hawkeye caps in places you wouldn’t expect.” Indeed, a fellow Iowa Law grad on the bench in Phoenix is Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton (JD75).
Before being appointed to the federal bench in Iowa, Stephanie Rose was the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, where she hired many Iowa Law graduates. Since she became a judge in 2012, more than half of her clerks have come from Iowa Law.
According to Rose, “Iowa Law consistently produces expert legal researchers and writers with well-honed analytical skills. I have never been disappointed in an Iowa Law hire.”
“The vast majority of my clerks so far have been Iowa Law graduates,” Williams notes. “I have come to trust Iowa Law to prepare my clerks to be skilled writers and researchers, and to think critically and creatively about the legal issues that come before my court.” Williams himself has participated in this preparation as an adjunct professor at Iowa Law, where he teaches classes with a heavy emphasis on real-world application.
Appointed to her position in 2020, Oxley’s first clerk, Taylor Bradley (JD19), had previously clerked for Chief Justice Mark Cady. Oxley says Bradley “was a godsend” as she began working as a new judge. Oxley recently began working with a new clerk, (JD21), and just hired Iowa Law 3L Ryan D'Eliseo as her law clerk beginning in the fall of 2022.
A bright future for Iowa Law alums in the judiciary
“The Iowa judiciary is made up of a lot of hardworking and caring judges,” Oxley notes. “There’s lots of room for Iowa Law students to find a home as a judge.”
Even if a student does not ultimately want to pursue a career in the judiciary, Oxley encourages aspiring litigators to seek clerkships after law school, particularly in state court. “The best way to be an advocate is to see the inside baseball.”
Rose is equally enthusiastic about the future of Iowa Law alumni in “any type of legal career,” including the judiciary. “Kindness is recognized. Fairness is expected. Skilled navigation of complicated legal matters is a must,” Rose remarks about her fellow judges. “Judges who display these positive characteristics by their very nature reinforce the selection of similar alumni. I’m optimistic that Iowa Law and its alumni will continue to develop and identify future judges.”
For a current list, visit: Iowa Law Alumni Judges.
*Clerkships numbers reported as of 9/23/21