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Ninth Circuit judge shares journey with Lawyers Club

Jacqueline Nguyen was thinking about more than just herself when deciding whether to take a seat on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the first Asian-American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge, Nguyen knew she would be helping to open doors for others.

Earlier in her career, she became the first Vietnamese-American federal judge and the first Asian-Pacific-American female federal judge in California.

"When it was time to pursue a position on the Ninth Circuit, it not only was the comfort [knowing] I had strong community support, but also the recognition of the importance of breaking barriers, that really encouraged me," she said.

Nguyen described her journey and the challenges she faced, to a packed audience Thursday at the US Grant hotel during the Lawyers Club of San Diego's 41st annual dinner.

Nguyen was nominated by President Barack Obama in September 2011 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and she took the bench in May 2012.

She said the issues that are most important for women are also important for their spouses and children.

The reason is because of the changing dynamics of home life, which include more men serving as the stay-at-home parent. It's a simple matter of economics, Nguyen said, as 28 percent of women now earn more than their husbands, and women are graduating from college in greater numbers than men.

"The struggle to achieve equality for women isn't just exclusive to women," she said.

She said that progress has been made, noting that when Lawyers Club was founded in 1972, only 24 women practiced law in San Diego. Today, about 1,200 women are members of Lawyers Club alone.

"In that struggle there are a lot of reasons to celebrate," Nguyen said, "and there's no doubt in the legal profession, women and minorities have come a long way."

Born in South Vietnam, Nguyen fled her home country with her parents in 1975, and they eventually landed in a tent city on Camp Pendleton, where they stayed several months.

She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Occidental College and graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1991.

She gave credit for her achievements to her many mentors, and she said it's important to get out in the community.

"I know lawyers, especially young lawyers, can easily become overwhelmed," she said. "And it's really tempting to just hunker down in your own office and drive yourself into the ground. But, for me, going to events, meeting and getting to know people, was an important social outlet and also reminded me of the bigger picture.

"The most important mentoring relationships that I got came from the contacts that I made from just getting involved."

Playing off the evening's theme, "Writing the Next Chapter," Nguyen said today's lawyers must take individual responsibility for the successful march toward equality.

"To me, writing the next chapter does not mean that you have to have all the answers or that you must know exactly where you want to go," she said. "What it means is being in the driver's seat, taking control of the steering wheel and remembering to pick up some passengers along the way.

"I'm incredibly optimistic that the next 40 years will see a great deal of progress in the direction of equality, and I very much look forward to writing the next chapter together with you."

The Lawyers Club event included several award presentations.

Amanda Allen, a fourth-year associate with Hecht Solberg Robinson Goldberg & Bagley, was given the inaugural C. Hugh Friedman New Lawyer Award, named for one of Lawyers Club's founding members who died in January.

The award recognizes a lawyer with less than seven years in practice who is a leader within the organization and a champion in advancing the organization’s mission.

"I am humbled and honored by the award," she said. "As a new mom and a young attorney, I see Lawyers Club as a huge community of support."

Elaine Alexander was honored with the Belva Lockwood Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions by a Lawyers Club member. Lockwood was the first female attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alexander, who has served as executive director of the nonprofit Appellate Defenders Inc. since 1979, helped create the statewide system providing representation for indigents in criminal, juvenile delinquency and select civil appeals.

"Tonight I can see a roomful of confident, dynamic women who are making fantastic contributions to the law," Alexander said.

Lawyers Club also gave Tracy Skaddan, a former past president, its Community Service Award.

Skaddan is general counsel for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. She served on the Planned Parenthood board from 2006 to 2012, including serving as chair from 2009 to 2010, and serves on Lawyers Club’s advisory board. Before being named general counsel of Planned Parenthood in September 2012, Skaddan practiced primarily in Los Angeles, working on complex, high-profile civil litigation cases.

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