Virginia Court of Appeals judge, alum talks identity and lessons learned

Mary Grace O’ Brien was the final speaker for the 2018-19 Mudd Center for Ethics series.


Photo by Laura Calhoun, ’20

Laura Calhoun

Judge Mary Grace O’Brien of the Court of Appeals of Virginia, a 1983 law school alum, spoke on judicial identity at the Washington and Lee University School of Law last week.

The question-and-answer-style session was held in Moot Court room and hosted by Brian Murchison, Charles S. Rowe professor of law and director of the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics. About 60 people attended the talk, which was the last installment in the ethics of identity series.

O’Brien began her career as a law clerk for then-Virginia Supreme Court Justice Roscoe Stephenson, Jr., a double General in ‘43 and ‘47. Later, she served as a prosecutor and juvenile and domestic court judge in Prince William County before being selected as the first female circuit court judge for the 31st judicial circuit. She said she did not fully comprehend the significance of being the first woman to hold the title at the time.

 “There was a part of me that thought – ‘My brain works the same as theirs [a man’s] does. It can read the law just like theirs [a man’s] does,” O’Brien said. “What makes it so different?”

She said she also questioned her professional identity as a woman early in her career. Most women in trial practice did divorce and custody cases. When she became a prosecutor in an office dominated by men, she said she felt welcomed from the beginning.

“For the guys in the office to treat me like I was one of them… was a real gift,” O’Brien said. “I think I appreciated it then, but I have really come to appreciate it in the intervening years.”

During law school, O’Brien recounted observing other female lawyers and feeling like she didn’t fit the mold. She said she quickly learned to be true to herself in her career, even if she did not fit the professional stereotypes she held.

O’Brien said one of the hardest parts of her early career was dealing with the disappointment of losing a case.

“I remember losing some case and one of the older pros saying to me, ‘The only thing wrong with that is that you’re still thinking about it,’” O’Brien said. “You can’t stew about it – you have to go on.”

Her professional identity changed when she moved from being an advocate to a neutral judge. O’Brien said she learned important lessons about impartiality at the beginning of her judicial career.

“When you are on the bench, everything you do is magnified,” O’Brien said. “For the average person, they’re looking to get a read on the judge… you can’t be walking out on the bench scowling.”

As both a prosecutor and a judge, O’Brien said she has learned the importance of being kind in the courtroom, no matter how tense or difficult a case gets.

“I think you can be polite, I think you can be respectful, I think you can be tough,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think you should be arrogant and I don’t think you should be rude.”

 O’Brien said that a career in the legal profession “is a wonderful way to spend your life” and recommended that students interested in pursuing a legal career seek mentorship and observe court as much as possible.

This year, the Mudd Center for Ethics will host its annual series about the ethics of technology. Josephine Johnston, director of research at the Hastings Center, will host her talk, “The Good Parent in an Age of Gene Editing: How Novel Genetic Technologies Challenge Parental Responsibility” on Thursday, September 26 at 5:00 pm in Stackhouse Theater.