Judge Gloria Tan

Current Job: Judge, Massachusetts Juvenile Court
YLS Year: 1998


Could you describe your career path generally?

Coming into law school, I knew I wanted to do something public interest oriented—and law school validated that. I always wanted to work in the community. So after graduating, I became a public defender in Boston, and my passion was working with kids. I mostly represented children in the public defender’s office. I loved being a public defender and working with kids.

What made you decide to become a judge?

I’d been working as an attorney for a while, and I was quite happy doing it. While I would’ve loved continuing to be an attorney, when people encouraged me to consider a judgeship, I thought long and hard about it. As an attorney, you try to persuade the court to rule a particular way. But as a judge, you have the opportunity to make decisions that achieve a just outcome. You have the potential to do a lot of good as a judge.

What’s the day-to-day experience of being a judge like?

Every day is different. You don’t control what particular cases will come in. Every person who appears in front of you is different and presents different issues. It keeps you on your toes. Listening to motions to suppress, evidentiary hearings, they’re all very interesting.

What are typical cases that come before you?

We hear “Care and Protection” cases, which are child welfare cases when parents are accused of abuse or neglect of their children. We also hear cases in which kids under 18 are charged with crimes. There are also “CRAs”—Child Requiring Assistance petitions—which are civil petitions schools can file against truant kids or habitual school offenders. Parents can file these also if they need help with their children, or if their children have run away.

How do you feel your background as a public defender has shaped your judicial perspective? 

It was really helpful having represented and worked with kids. Having visited them in their homes, in their communities, and also in detention has helped me. When you’re being asked to detain juveniles, it helps to know what that means, where they go, what conditions they’re being held in.

It seems that being a judge demands a certain degree of optimism and belief in the law’s ability to achieve just ends. How did working as a public defender affect your personal or philosophical understanding of the law? Did it influence your view in a negative way?

It didn’t give me a more negative view. I remained (and remain) optimistic about kids and families and people’s potential for rehabilitation. That’s our mission in the Juvenile Court, and the way we treat kids helps differentiate us. It would be a pretty grim existence as a judge if you didn’t hold the philosophy that kids are able to change. Recent studies have found that kids’ brains aren’t fully developed until sometime in their early 20s.

What were the most important lessons you learned from your time as a lawyer?

It’s important to recognize that as an attorney, you’re often the only voice for your client. So it’s important to educate the court. Your client is more than just their docket number. They’re more than whatever crime they’re being charged with. It’s not that the kid is bad, but there are a lot of other issues going on that have gone unaddressed.


Were you involved with clinics in law school? If so, did you stick with one clinic or try different ones?

I explored different clinics. I wanted to do the Parent-Child Advocacy Clinic, but I think it was full. So I ended up doing the Poverty Law Clinic, New Haven Legal Assistance Clinic, and Immigration Clinic.

Did you know what you wanted to focus on prior to law school?

I had done volunteering with kids and I knew I wanted to do something public interest-oriented. So I sort of had a general sense that I wanted to work with kids. Public interest jobs are hard to come by. They don’t have the same funding as law firms do, so if you’re able to make connections with a particular organization that is helpful.

What skills do you rely on now but that law school did not emphasize enough?

Well, it is so helpful to get real-world experience. I took Trial Advocacy, which is a class taught by practitioners. In Trial Advocacy, you’re taught trial skills. The instructors also gave us practical advice such as treating everyone in the courtroom with respect, from the judge to the court staff to opposing counsel. When I became a lawyer, that lesson really rang true to me. It’s helpful to have good relations with everybody in the court.


As an Asian woman, what particular challenges have you faced, if any, in the legal profession?

I didn’t find many Asian American female attorneys practicing in the trial courts. In fact, I felt as though I was the only one in my area at the time. Once, the judge stopped proceedings in the middle of what I was doing, and asked what I was doing. I told him I was waiting on the cases to come in. It turns out that the judge thought I was the interpreter. When I went to new courts, I was sometimes mistaken for the interpreter.

Wow, that must have been extremely frustrating. How did you deal with that?

I would make jokes sometimes, and brush it off. Sometimes, that’s all you can really do. That’s why I would love to see more Asian American attorneys doing public interest work. There are ten Asian American judges in Massachusetts, and believe it or not, I’m the first Asian American juvenile court judge appointed in Massachusetts. I think the more who enter the profession, the better.

One other thing, which I will say because it may help or reassure some students: I graduated from YLS without a job. The truth is public interest jobs are hard to come by, and it can be hard to hold out because law firms sometimes make job offers years in advance. But it worked out for me. If you’re interested in a public interest career, get your foot in the door by volunteering, if you can.


What is the most important piece of advice you would give to an incoming Yale Law Student? 

You should try to experience as many different opportunities as you can that are offered at the law school. For me, what I found to be very formative were clinics. I would also encourage people to explore externships. Clinics and externships were so helpful because I found it to be very stimulating and meaningful to be able to help and work with people. I was able to find real-world applications for what we learned inside the classroom. It’s also important to find a good mentor.

Do you think it’s disadvantageous not to have worked with a public interest organization prior to law school?

Not necessarily, but it can be helpful to have some public interest experience. I did some hiring when I worked at the public defender’s office and at the clinic at Harvard, so I can say from the employer’s perspective that it’s always harder to get a job in a field if you don’t have a committed history to show you’re interested in that area of law. This is particularly true when you’re competing with applicants who do have a demonstrated commitment to that field.

What if you’re not sure what field you’d like to work in after law school? 

If you’re not sure, you should explore during law school. For example, even though I thought I was interested in public interest work, I spent half a summer at a law firm.

Was that the right decision, working at a firm for part of the summer?

Yes. It helped me realize firm life wasn’t for me, and that my passion was working in the public interest sphere.

What advice would you give to minorities and women who feel they face a disadvantage in law school and the legal profession?

Don’t take yourself out of the running for prestigious positions, like the Yale Law Journal, clerkships, etc. Often women don’t even apply. It’s like the lottery—you don’t win if you don’t play.

Any last pieces of advice?

Finding mentors can be extremely helpful. A good mentor can help you find your way in law school and in life. Also, I would encourage students to do something you feel passionate about.