Insight

From Across the Bench

A lawyer who is contemplating becoming a judge has many factors to consider. It’s a weighty decision, as noted by two attorneys-turned-judges.

Judge sitting at the bench presiding over court case
Headshot of male with dark hair and black suit

Justin Smulison

August 16, 2023 11:00 PM

The path of the legal professional can be unpredictable. Just as some lawyers move across the aisle from prosecution to defense, and vice-versa, others heed another calling: to the other side of the bench.

The journey might not end there, though. Following the end of a term or a decision to vacate the role, former judges are sought after as educators and mediators. Many also enter private practice to bring unique prestige and a holistic view of the law that can help a firm get favorable resolutions.

Although their motivations vary, every lawyer or judge who transitions is, ideally, doing so out of a commitment to justice. Through their advocacy and fair-mindedness, these legal leaders strengthen the practice of law and uphold a tradition of professionalism for the next generation.

The Broader Impact

Many lawyers and judges would aspire to match the career of Kevin H. Sharp. He served as a petty officer in the United States Navy from 1982 to 1986 and was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1993. He spent the next decade in private practice and public service. He launched Drescher & Sharp, P.C., in Nashville in 2003 and was first recognized by The Best Lawyers in America® in 2008 (and, more recently, from 2020 to today) for Employment Law – Individuals.

He left the firm he founded in 2010 for an excellent reason—President Barack Obama nominated him to a judgeship in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee that November; he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in May 2011. By October 2014, he had been named chief judge, and over his nearly six years on the bench presided over nearly 3,700 civil and 363 criminal cases.

One standout case was that of Chris Young, a 23-year-old man Sharp was required to sentence to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense due to the federal “three strike” and mandatory minimum laws. The gravity of Young’s case, as well as other unique criminal decisions, weighed on Sharp’s conscience: “I was struggling with this internal question—‘Am I more valuable on the bench or off the bench?’”

He consulted peers and mentors for guidance. Though he was well-regarded among the judiciary, he decided to step down from his post in 2017 and joined civil-rights firm Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP as its newest named partner. “I knew [firm chairman] David Sanford after having served as a local counsel to the firm in a race discrimination trial prior to becoming a judge,” Sharp recalls. “I felt the firm’s values and mission matched my own.”

This new chapter of his career gave him the opportunity to correct what he felt were unjust applications of the law, and perhaps ease his soul. In March 2020, he visited the Oval Office with Kim Kardashian to try to secure clemency for Young. While Kardashian’s advocacy might have gained the White House’s initial attention, Sharp’s influence was evident. On his last day in office—January 20, 2021—President Donald Trump commuted Young’s sentence to time served, citing Sharp’s input and quoting him directly. Shortly after, Sharp was at the airport in Nashville to greet Young upon his release; he was the first person Young embraced.

Sharp is now a co-vice-chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp, leading many of its complex litigation matters and pursuing justice on behalf of people whose cases are particularly meaningful. One example: He actively leads pro bono efforts to secure presidential clemency for Leonard Peltier, a Native American civil rights activist who was convicted in federal court and sentenced to two consecutive life terms for killing two FBI agents in 1975 at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His plight was memorialized by Rage Against the Machine in the riveting video for the 1994 rap-rock anthem, “Freedom.”

Sharp shares the widespread belief that Peltier’s conviction and sentence were wrongful. Facts have emerged following Peltier’s verdict that date back as far as 1980, which Sharp says demonstrate his client did not get a fair trial. Such evidence includes a ballistics report that proved shell casings from the murder weapon did not come from a rifle tied to Peltier – a revelation uncovered following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Peltier’s original trial attorney. Sharp has also pointed to additional information that has emerged to support Peltier’s case, including credible allegations of juror bias as well as the FBI’s alleged intimidation of an eyewitness.

Looking through dual lenses as a lawyer and former judge, Sharp recognized that the case was rife with constitutional violations and injustices. Having met Peltier—who is nearly 79 years old now and uses a walker—and immersed himself in Native American history, he has, he says, a fuller understanding of the case’s impact.

“He’s a nice old guy who is frustrated he’s still in prison,” Sharp says. “Here we are in 2023, nearly 50 years later, still talking about his incarceration – [which is] a seminal event in America’s history and our jurisprudence in this country. But I’m optimistic [about representing Peltier] because though the story has not changed, the audience has. I think people are more open to hearing about this case and issues like treaty violations.”

A Diversity Trailblazer

Patricia Brown Holmes was omnipresent in the Illinois legal system in the 1980s and ’90s, notably as Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in the Seventh Circuit, prosecuting violations of federal laws before grand juries.

“It was fulfilling to say you were in court ‘on behalf of the people of Illinois,’ because you want to represent the victims but also the defendant to make sure they get a fair trial,” she says. “As a prosecutor, when you look at judges you see the epitome of the profession, so I set my sights early on. I wanted to progress through the office and become a judge.”

She was chief assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago in 1997 when she submitted her name for an associate judgeship in Cook County, the largest of the 24 judicial circuits in Illinois. This was the first time there had been several judicial openings in more than a decade, and she was one of hundreds to apply.

“Out of 368 candidates they chose 18, and I was one of those fortunate 18,” Holmes says. “It made me the youngest African-American to be appointed an associate judge in the history of Illinois. It was a big responsibility, and I knew I had to do a great job.”

That she did. For the next seven and a half years she served as a trial judge in Illinois Circuit Court in Cook County, where she was known for being “tough but always fair,” she says—a reputation she relished. Looking to progress within the system, and following the encouragement of her peers, she interviewed to be magistrate judge in Illinois’ Northern District. She got near the end of the selection process, and though she ultimately was not chosen, her interviewers later contacted her for other positions.

It was Ron Safer, a former colleague from the U.S. Attorney’s office, who persuaded her to vacate the associate judgeship, a job she loved, and join him at Schiff Hardin in 2005 as a partner, executive committee member and diversity committee chair. The chance to put her legal knowledge and insight to work for a large firm and bolster diversity in its ranks sealed the deal.

“It was almost like starting over, but starting over at the top of your game because you are an equity partner,” says Holmes, who has been annually recognized by The Best Lawyers in America since 2011 in Chicago for Commercial Litigation and Criminal Defense: White-Collar. Clearing a path for women and minorities in the profession became her passion over the next 10 years: “I dug in and got to work while at the same time mentoring and training and being a role model for young lawyers coming out of law school.”

Over drinks with other lawyers near the end of 2015, Holmes and Safer wanted to take their achievements to the next level and start their own firm, one with a culture of diversity and inclusivity and a commitment to social justice. Word got around to other lawyers and clients, and Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP opened its doors in March 2016, beginning with a staff of 22. In 2023, the civil litigation firm employs 100 lawyers across five offices in four states.

“Outside the goal of providing excellent service, we have the ability to be flexible, and we started with open minds,” Holmes says. “That many clients followed us, and we gained new ones, was a testament to our mission.”

Trending Behind the Bench

Turnover in the judiciary can be substantial, and external factors such as the pandemic accelerated retirement for several judges at federal and local levels. There have been many judicial appointments in recent years, though many vacancies remain.

The good news: Between 2018 and 2022, 412 professionals recognized by Best Lawyers left private practice to become judges. The peak year was 2019, during which 91 traded a suit for a robe. Commercial litigation was the top practice area among those 412, followed closely by appellate law, which had been among the top five specialties for the previous five years.

Changes in national leadership have affected the landscape as well. In the year after the 2020 presidential election, at least 19 lawyers left private practice to join the Biden administration or some other federal organization—including, notably, Second Gentleman Douglas C. Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

On the flip side, one evergreen challenge is for supply to catch up with demand for judges at the state and federal level. U.S. District Courts (including territorial courts) have 677 authorized judgeships. As of August 7, 2023, nearly 10% of those spots are unfilled—60 of them, with 23 nominees pending and two pending for future vacancies, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals is faring much better: Of 179 judgeships, just seven are vacant, with four nominees pending.

But with a majority of these vacancies in states with two Republican senators, expectations are manageable on whether the Senate will maintain its momentum. This is a key complication that characterizes a sector constantly in flux.

Subjective, Weighty Decisions

Ultimately, for lawyer-judges, the bottom line is not as prominent in their decision making as peace of mind and a sense of purpose. Although both Sharp and Holmes speak reverently of their time as judges, both seem content with being private practitioners again because of the impact they’re making for clients and within their firms. Their experience is certainly not a rule, though, and each offers advice for those pursuing a change in either direction.

Holmes notes that the early days are critical for a new judge and suggested that aspiring and new judges alike should rely on court employees’ experience to help ease the transition. “After they see and know that you’re taking it seriously and want to do a good job and are not impervious, then it can become a family,” she says. “And then the real work—and fun—can begin.”

Sharp notes that those who might consider making a career shift off the bench—as a midpoint or an endpoint—will naturally consider salary and a possible change in prestige. But he stresses that it’s important as well to contemplate the impact they can have on the profession and even society at large. “You have to remember why you became a lawyer. If you’re just following a path because it’s a path, you will be dissatisfied,” he says. “Truly ask yourself if you’re making your world a better place. Sometimes that means keeping the robe on because you’re making good decisions. And sometimes that means you’re a good judge, but you can be a great advocate again for a particular position.”

Headline Image: iStock/gorodenkoff

Related Articles

Trailblazing Titans of the Industry: Announcing the 4th Edition Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers honor and celebrate these talented, innovative newer lawyers who are trailblazing their way to victories in courtrooms across the country.

Connected web above map of the U.S.

Pearls of Wisdom: Celebrating 30 Editions of Best Lawyers’ Rankings


by Best Lawyers

In celebration of our landmark 30th edition, Best Lawyers’ leadership explains how the world’s original and most trusted legal awards maintain their esteem, integrity and reputation for excellence among the top legal entities and their clients.

Best Lawyers logo for 30th edition release with gold glitter in background

Here, There and Everywhere


by Justin Smulison

One legal career path can often lead to a plethora of options. In this article, we highlight former recognized lawyers whose commitment to justice never dwindled.

Blue paper airplane with professional figures standing on it and arrows below

Artificial Negligence


by Gregory Sirico

New AI technology is a marvel, capable of boosting productivity and efficiency across industries of all kinds. But legal marketing teams must tread carefully.

Three animated individuals surrounded by lifesized technology and money symbol

Biometric Points of Contention


by Gregory Sirico

The collection of individuals' biometric data via smartphones, facial recognition software and more—presents a challenge to consumers, lawyers and legislators.

Animated man with blue eyes and digital pixelations across his face

How Client Testimonials Fuel Client Acquisition for Law Firms


by Nancy Lippincott

Learn how client testimonials boost client acquisition for law firms. Enhance credibility, engage clients and stand out in a competitive legal market.

Woman holding blurb of online reviews

Mail-in Ballot Mayhem: Pennsylvania’s Current Electoral Mix Up


by Gregory Sirico

An appeals court recently stated that Pennsylvania has a glaring discrepancy with its mail-in ballot, which, if left untreated, could result in invalid votes.

U.S. ballot box with voting signage

Key Developments and Trends in U.S. Commercial Litigation


by Justin Smulison

Whether it's multibillion-dollar water cleanliness verdicts or college athletes vying for the right to compensation, the state of litigation remains strong.

Basketball sits in front of stacks of money

Texas’ New Immigration Enforcement Bill Hits Federal Appeals Court


by Gregory Sirico

Enacted in 2023, SB-4 is reshaping immigration in Texas, establishing new legal provisions that could only look to increase tension between the U.S. and Mexico

Border patrol officer oversees scene

Beyond the Billables


by Michele M. Jochner

In a recently conducted, comprehensive study, data reveals a plethora of hidden realities that parents working full-time in the legal industry face every day.

Women in business attire pushing stroller takes a phone call

Recruiting, Raising and Retaining the Next Generation


by LaVon M. Johns and Patricia Brown Holmes

With savvy recruiting, great culture and a focus on work/life integration, learn how any law firm can still get the most out of its greenest personnel.

Animated figures putting massive puzzle together

Generation Gaps


by Victoria Brenner

A major case upended aspects of grandparents’ disputed visitation rights regarding their grandchildren. 20 years on, where do laws around the country stand?

Child with hands over older man's eyes

Preventing Malpractice Issues in Pediatric Practice. A Lawyer's Perspective


by Sean M. Cleary

Despite medical breakthroughs and patient care, hospitals often act as a source of medical malpractice claims, leaving patients in dire need of legal counsel.

Sketch of doctor providing medical care to child

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

The Push and Pitfalls of New York’s Attempt to Expand Wrongful Death Recovery


by Elizabeth M. Midgley and V. Christopher Potenza

The New York State Legislature recently went about updating certain wrongful death provisions and how they can be carried out in the future. Here's the latest.

Red tape blocking off a section of street

How Maine’s Yellow Flag Law Stacks up Against Other New England Gun Restrictions


by Gregory Sirico

New England states currently boast some of the lowest firearm mortality rates in the nation and world, but the state laws of the region vary quite drastically.

Silhouetted hand covering the barrel of a gun

Trending Articles

Presenting The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to present The Best Lawyers in Australia for 2025, marking the 17th consecutive year of Best Lawyers awards in Australia.

Australia flag over outline of country

Legal Distinction on Display: 15th Edition of The Best Lawyers in France™


by Best Lawyers

The industry’s best lawyers and firms working in France are revealed in the newly released, comprehensive the 15th Edition of The Best Lawyers in France™.

French flag in front of country's outline

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing The Best Lawyers in New Zealand™ 2025 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is announcing the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in New Zealand for 2025, including individual Best Lawyers and "Lawyer of the Year" awards.

New Zealand flag over image of country outline

Announcing the 13th Edition of Best Lawyers Rankings in the United Kingdom


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to announce the newest edition of legal rankings in the United Kingdom, marking the 13th consecutive edition of awards in the country.

British flag in front of country's outline

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

For a milestone 15th edition, Best Lawyers is proud to announce The Best Lawyers in Japan.

Japan flag over outline of country

The Best Lawyers in Singapore™ 2025 Edition


by Best Lawyers

For 2025, Best Lawyers presents the most esteemed awards for lawyers and law firms in Singapore.

Singapore flag over outline of country

Announcing the 16th Edition of the Best Lawyers in Germany Rankings


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers announces the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Germany™, featuring a unique set of rankings that highlights Germany's top legal talent.

German flag in front of country's outline

How Much Is a Lawyer Consultation Fee?


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers breaks down the key differences between consultation and retainer fees when hiring an attorney, a crucial first step in the legal process.

Client consulting with lawyer wearing a suit

Celebrating Excellence in Law: 11th Edition of Best Lawyers in Italy™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers announces the 11th edition of The Best Lawyers in Italy™, which features an elite list of awards showcasing Italy's current legal talent.

Italian flag in front of country's outline

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers’ Compensation Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers' Compensation Legal Guide provides exclusive access to all Best Lawyers awards in related practice areas. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Illustration of several men and women in shades of orange and teal

Things to Do Before a Car Accident Happens to You


by Ellie Shaffer

In a car accident, certain things are beyond the point of no return, while some are well within an individual's control. Here's how to stay legally prepared.

Car dashcam recording street ahead

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

The Push and Pitfalls of New York’s Attempt to Expand Wrongful Death Recovery


by Elizabeth M. Midgley and V. Christopher Potenza

The New York State Legislature recently went about updating certain wrongful death provisions and how they can be carried out in the future. Here's the latest.

Red tape blocking off a section of street

Attacked From All Sides: What Is Happening in the World of Restrictive Covenants?


by Christine Bestor Townsend

One employment lawyer explains how companies can navigate challenges of federal and state governmental scrutiny on restrictive covenant agreements.

Illustration of two men pulling on string with blue door between them