Jennifer Walker Elrod has served as a Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit since 2007, with chambers in Houston, Texas. Prior to her confirmation, Judge Elrod was appointed and twice elected Judge of the 190th District Court in Harris County, Texas.
Judge Elrod is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Baylor University, which has recognized her as an Outstanding Young Alumna. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School, where she served as Senior Editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Following law school, she clerked for the Honorable Sim Lake of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Before serving as a judge, she was in private practice at Baker Botts L.L.P.
What is your best advice to current pre-law students about the LSAT, law school applications, or undergraduate work as a pre law student?
Judge Elrod: Well my best advice is to do the very best in undergraduate work, whatever course of study you choose. In my law school class we had people who were kinesiology majors and music majors, as well as political science and English and all of those types of subjects. And so I would say, whatever you do, do the very, very best you can. Of course if you’re interested in patent work or something like that, a science background will help you; and, in fact, to sit for the patent bar you have to have that sort of thing. But I would say that a curriculum that would include a lot of writing would be very helpful – and a lot of reading, because you need to learn how to read quickly and distill information quickly if you’re going to go to law school.
Any advice for recent graduates who are about to enter law school?
Judge Elrod: I would say that it’s very important to make sure you know why you’re going to law school. I do not think it’s good to go to law school just because you don’t have anything else to do and you don’t know what you’re going to do with the next phase in your life. It’s a lot of money to go to law school. And I am chagrined when I see students – who spend thousands and thousands of dollars – who don’t actually want to practice law. They just knew they needed to do something after they graduated. So make sure you understand what it is – at least part of what it is – to be a lawyer. Of course, you’ll learn a lot more about that in law school. But don’t just pick law school because you don’t have anything else to do. That would be my first piece of advice. My second piece of a advice would be to get organized, to get a copy of a good dictionary, to get a copy of some writing tips, some grammar books – Bryan Gardner has some really good books in that regard; there are others – your English books, like Strunk and White. You’ll need to have these handy dandy resources about writing because you’ll be writing. And have fun. It’s a lot of fun to go to law school and I think it was one of my favorite times in life – to get to explore and debate interesting issues and to get to study under renowned professors. And so it’s a lot of fun, but be prepared and get some rest because you won’t get much rest when you get to law school.
When you were at Baylor, what activities, clubs, or internships helped you in your application process to law school?
Judge Elrod: Well I did a lot at Baylor, so it’s hard for me to know what helped me to get into law school. I was in the Baylor Ambassadors, and I enjoyed that work and the lobbying experience, getting to meet the head of governmental relations at Baylor, who was Dr. Gary Wood at the time. And then he hired me when he left Baylor for the year in between college and law school, so that was very helpful. I was involved in my sorority and I participated in All-University Sing and Pigskin three times, and that was a lot of fun, but I don’t know if that helped me in my application process. I was also very involved in the honors program. I believe that it was not at the level of an Honors College that it is today. It wasn’t a college it was just a program. But I believed the writing I got to do, I did an honors undergraduate thesis under Dr. Dick Chewning, and that was very helpful. To get to know a professor very well and then to have to defend my paper – I would say that was quite helpful in school. I worked for my congressman, Congressman Jack Fields, and that was helpful – meeting people and being in Washington D.C. and all of that sort of thing. I was in the orchestra. I was very active in OΔK and a lot of honors groups that had a social component as well. And these were all helpful – I’ve made good friends that have lasted many, many years. And I improved my writing and got to know professors. I would say it’s very important to try to get to know your professors if you want to go to law school. You’ll need recommendation letters – not just for that reason, but for the insights you can glean. Having you [Pre-Law Coordinator] as a resource for the students is a tremendous, tremendous blessing for people who are actually interested in learning about law. So I hope the students come and talk to you and spend time, you know, gleaning your insights on these things.
Would you like to offer any particular advice for women with any interest in law, the judiciary, or politics?
Judge Elrod: The doors are wide open. I think the advice that I have for women and men is pretty much the same. Do your best. There are not things holding you back. If you want to do this you can do this. There are many people who have come before us who have made it easier for us to do this. And we do not face the same types of issues as women who graduated from law school in earlier eras and were not allowed become lawyers at law firms and that sort of thing. We’ve had, on my court for example, two chief judges in the past fifteen years who have both been very strong women. So the doors are wide open. Do your best and apply yourself. That’s advice for men too.
What books besides the Bible have significantly impacted your life and work?
Judge Elrod: Well I know you said besides the Bible, so I don’t know if this qualifies, but I was in a Bible study years ago where we did a study called Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby. And it really helped in the discipline of the Christian life. And it was very important to me in my development as a person to build a reliance not on myself, but to rely on God. I think that the disciplines I learned in that were very helpful and helpful in other ways besides spiritual ways as well. In terms of other books, I read a fair amount of classic fiction, and I read a fair amount of science fiction. I read some biographies. I have a friend who’s an historical biographer. I think that it’s just important to read books. If you want to be in the law, you have to have a love of reading, and you should read all kinds of books. You know, I was in the airport the other day, and I was quoting Emily Dickinson poetry that I had studied when I was a student in Dr. [Linda] Walker’s class here at Baylor. You know, “There is no frigate like a book . . . .” They can take you so many different places. It would be hard to say which one is the most significant. Of course, Crime and Punishment and other books like that are significant and tell us a lot about the law and people and psychology, but there are many books that do that.
How did your faith factor into your experience as a student at Harvard Law School?
Judge Elrod: I don’t think I think about it like that. My faith is just part of who I am. It’s not a separate component, it’s integrated into my life. I was a person of faith in the law school class, and I’m sure that shaped my perspectives on things. And it might have shaped some of my activities – hopefully it made me a more generous and kind and caring person as I would go through the day. But I don’t really think that I can separate it out and say, that was a faith thing. Because I think it’s just that that was a me thing, and hopefully faith is integrated fully into all aspects of my life.
What were the highlights of your legal career before your appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals?
Judge Elrod: I don’t know if I had a career with highlights, but some important events have helped me along the way. I would say that the first of them was serving as a law clerk to the Honorable Sim Lake in the Southern District in Texas. I clerked for two years and I know some people say, “Oh you shouldn’t clerk for two years because you need to get out and practice and make money” and that sort of thing. But I have to say that was two of the richest years of learning about the law I have spent, and two of the most enjoyable years. I would say if you have the opportunity to clerk once you get to law school that you should really look into that, and certainly even if you’re not going to clerk you should take advantage of some of the judicial internships, because that clerkship was definitely one of the highlights of my career. I was in private practice, and I really enjoyed being in the court room and I think that encouraged that me to want to go to be a state judge. And that was tremendous experience, I was able to preside over, I think, over 200 jury and non-jury trials during that time. That was a terrific learning experience for me and it gave me a perspective on how I do my appellate job now, so that was an amazing experience. But I also had the opportunity to serve as the general counsel pro bono, the first general counsel of Communities in Schools of Houston. Being able to help an organization that was one of the largest dropout prevention oraganizations in America deal with their day-to-day legal issues, as well as their bylaws and their contracts and things – it was very rewarding, interesting – I learned a lot. And I felt like I was able to give back in a way that was important to me because I think educational opportunity is one of the greatest things that America offers. And to get to be a small part to help a group fulfill that for people who have not had a whole lot of opportunity was just a tremendous blessing in the practice of the law.
What, in your view, are the keys to success in the practice of law?
Judge Elrod: Keys to success, well there are lots of ways to practice law. So they’re not cookie cutters, and I don’t know that all the keys fit the same car. Being a person of integrity is very important. I was at a law school – not at Baylor University – and I was walking into the building, and one of the students asked the other student how they had done on a quiz. And they said, “Oh well, I got the answers from the other class.” You know they were just talking about cheating, just as they are walking into the building. I stopped the students, and we had a significant conversation, I hope. Being a person of integrity, and being that way in the smallest of details in your life as well as the big things, I think is a key to success in practicing law. Being a good manager of your time is an important factor in being a good lawyer, whatever kind of lawyer you are, because you will have tremendous demands on your time. And then I would say being a good listener. Lawyers are often problems solvers and so you have to listen and figure out what the problem really is as you begin the representation of whomever your client is. So being a good listener before you speak and spout off is more important, I think, than being a good public speaker or even being a good writer. But those are good skills too.