The Honorable Denise Casper Delivers Second Annual Esdaile Lecture

Judge who presided over James "Whitey" Bulger trial offers students "unsolicited advice"

denise j casperOn Thursday, April 17, 2014, Boston University School of Law hosted the second annual James N. Esdaile Jr. Lecture, featuring the Honorable Denise J. Casper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Judge Casper addressed an audience of students, professors, alumni and fellow judges in Barristers Hall.

Dean Maureen O’Rourke introduced Judge Casper, who has served as a district judge since January 2011. She was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2010, and became the first black woman to sit on the federal bench in the Massachusetts district. In 2013, she presided over the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, receiving national attention and earning an honorable mention as one of the Boston Globe’s 2013 Bostonians of the Year. Prior to her judicial appointment, she served as the deputy district attorney for Middlesex County. She also worked as an assistant United States attorney, at a law firm, and as a court clerk. She is a Harvard Law alumna.

Judge Casper began her lecture with thanks to James N. Esdaile, Jr., in whose honor the lecture series is named, relating his experiences to her own as a teacher of “bright and enthusiastic law students.”

“Unsolicited advice,” Judge Casper quipped, would make an apt title for her lecture. She focused on offering “advice, for what it’s worth, for the law students in the room.”

First and foremost, “decide what type of lawyer you aspire to be,” she said. This means more than selecting a specialization; it means choosing to be the type of lawyer who “reflects the very best in their profession,” she said.

With more than 300 cases on her docket at any time, Judge Casper said she does not often see the same counsel in multiple cases. Most attorneys in federal court are well-prepared, but those who stand out “know the place for zealous advocacy,” candor, and disagreement, she said. She advised future lawyers that their reputation gets established early, “and for better or worse, can be hard to shake.”

“The law is the law, and it will not always be in [your] client’s favor,” Judge Casper said. Still, you must be a “good citizen attorney” and “truly engaged” at the bar, she said, with an understanding of the importance of access to justice.

Today’s attorneys may not stick to one job, but each of her career opportunities, she said, gave her a chance to be an active member of the bar. By exploring her options, she said, she learned more about the practice of law than she if she had “remained in the four corners of an office.”

She advised the audience to advocate for funding and staffing of the court system, pointing to the small percentage of the total federal budget that goes toward supporting courts. Even though federal courts’ budget is in the billions, it goes toward hundreds of federal courts, and what affects them will also affect “access to justice.” Approximately 10 percent of federal judgeships are vacant and dozens of nominations pending, she said, further challenging the system.

In Massachusetts, the federal court “is certainly in a state of transition,” Judge Casper said, and every time a new judge fills a vacated seat, “the court pivots a little.”

denise j casperGiven this rapidly shifting environment, she next advised students to be prepared for changes during their own careers. She recalled attending her 20-year law school reunion, and how few of her peers were still in jobs they took after graduation or a clerkship. Some changed by choice, she said, opting for a better or even non-legal position, but others changed less by choice than necessity.

“You are responsible for taking command of your own career,” Judge Casper said. Do your work well, she said, so your “reputation for lawyering precedes you.” Rely on mentors now and throughout your career, and start strong to assure many opportunities along the way.

“Sometimes, the paths you don’t take are as important” as the paths you do choose, she added.

Lastly, she reminded law students to “have a well-balanced life.” This advice is frequently offered, she said, but “what’s lost is that [balance] brings immeasurable perspective to the practice of law.”

“You were fully formed people before you got to law school,” she concluded.

Next, Judge Casper answered audience questions. By developing students’ problem-solving skills and encouraging peer-to-peer giving and receiving of criticism, she told Dean O’Rourke, the law school can advance its goal of encouraging “civility.”

She commended young lawyers as consistently well-prepared and “facile with evidence,” but advised them to acknowledge what they do not know and give their “informed perspective” as needed. As for third-year law students planning their careers, she advised that they keep both public- and private-sector employment options in mind as paths toward serving the public good.

In her time as a judge, she has found “small moments” to be very satisfying, as well as her accomplishments in directing major trials and keeping them on track, she said. She concurred with Massachusetts Appeals Court Judge Robert Katzmann, who noted the reduced number of jury trials. “I’m always happy when cases do go to trial,” she said.

Finally, Judge Casper addressed Associate Dean for Student Affairs Christine Marx’s question about mediation and her involvement in the process. Judge Casper said that her role in this process is about resolving sticking points using her sharpened judicial instincts.

“I try to be responsive to what that case needs,” she concluded.

A 1970 Boston University School of Law alumnus, James N. Esdaile, Jr., was a partner in the Boston-based law firm of Esdaile, Barrett, Jacobs & Mone, former managing editor of the Boston University Law Review, and BU Law lecturer, University trustee and alumni association president. Esdaile, Barrett, Jacobs & Mone sponsors the lecture series.

Reported by Jaime Margolis ('16)
April 30, 2014

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