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If it wasn’t for her sense of style, Chief Justice Amy Nechtem might be making discoveries in a lab instead of handing down rulings in court. Upon meeting her on a rather subdued Saturday morning, it’s obvious she is a classy lady – even as she is dressed casually for our interview. It was a strain to imagine her in goggles, a lab coat, and a cap. So, I was immediately curious about how she arrived here — in a corner office with iconic views of Boston.
Before studying law at Suffolk University and later graduating with honors, she studied nutritional science. But it was a moment of self-reflection that guided her to take a different path. “I studied chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and I was good at it,” she recalls. “I got out … [ of college]… and thought, this isn’t what’s in my heart. This isn’t what I want to do. Nor do I want to wear those types of clothes. I could not wear rubber-soled shoes,” she added with a laugh.
Today, Amy doesn’t have to walk around in rubber wedges. She found her calling upholding the law. As Chief Justice for the Juvenile Courts in Massachusetts, Amy is one of seven Chief Justices of the various Trial Court Departments. She administers and manages the Juvenile Court for the 14 counties of the Commonwealth which are responsible for cases involving child welfare and juvenile justice.
Aside from the inner voice that helped her avoid a potential career misstep, the influence of two men in her life is owed some credit for helping shape the path she ultimately chose. The first was her father. She developed an appreciation for community involvement by watching him from an early age. “He was an educator and an athlete who was very much involved with the city, the community, the kids … and I saw that early. I saw that giving back to the community was very fulfilling.”
After graduating and finding herself unsatisfied with the available options, a suggestion from her then husband helped her navigate to law. “He said, why don’t you go to law school? He was already a lawyer and I saw how happy he was. I saw how he was giving back to the community and involved in really important decisions that affected people’s lives.”
Newly married and soon pregnant, Amy enrolled into law school and pursued her degree. “The moment I entered the first class in law school I knew it was home. I loved it. Loved it. I still do. I’m passionate and excited even just thinking about the law.”
“The moment I entered the first class in law school I knew it was home. I loved it. Loved it.”
Amy began her career in law as a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. She was often involved in child abuse cases, and this is where her interest in juvenile justice blossomed.
“I got to know a lot of young people through these cases. We didn’t always prevail. They were tough cases to prove but I was giving children a voice to be heard and that remains my guiding light today.”
The opportunities to work on juvenile justice and child welfare cases brought Amy the sense of purpose and the community involvement she craved. For the last 16 years, she has devoted her time and energy to this cause. However, there was at least one detour worth noting.
When her daughter was young, she decided to take a break from law to launch an apparel retail business. Motivated by her desire to see women wear their confidence, she and her partner focused on providing stylish, tailored clothing options for career women. “It gave me a chance to explore my creative side, which I believe is important.”
On the topic of career paths, Amy believes that no woman’s path is necessarily a straight line. She further elaborated that women shouldn’t be afraid to explore the other dimensions of themselves. They should take and enjoy different opportunities that may come their way. The fashion business was a worthwhile endeavor, but Amy eventually returned to law. She considers her experience as an entrepreneur an essential and formative part of her life.
Her return to the courts came with a fresh perspective and a new ambition to go where few women had gone before. She wanted to move from being a prosecutor to becoming a member of the judiciary.
According to the American Bar Association, women made up 36 percent of lawyers in the U.S. in 2016. The legal profession’s pipeline is promising with 46 percent of Juris Doctors (JD) degrees currently being awarded to women. But the ascent to the judiciary represents barriers not explained by education levels or experience. Of all state level court judges in the U.S., 30 percent are women.
As of November 2001, Amy was counted among them. She was then appointed Chief Justice in July of 2014.
So, I was intrigued and wanted to know what motivated her to not only return to the law but have the courage to pursue the ambitious goal of sitting on the bench? She didn’t necessarily see these types of role models while growing up. However, she had noticed the accomplishments of other women in the field who had judgeships, and she wanted to emulate them.
“I would go into court and I would think, I can do that, I want to be like her.” She now strives to be the kind of woman she herself admired and who might inspire other young women as well.
The ascent to the judiciary for women represents barriers not explained by education levels or experience. Of all state level court judges in the U.S., 30 percent are women.
“In all the work I do now, I think it’s important that I continue to empower other young women to think like this as well because …[women] are still not represented in large numbers in the judiciary. Federally, only about a fourth of the judiciary are women.”
According to Amy, it’s very important for women who have reached a certain level of success in their fields to give back to the young women in the community. “I feel that I’ve arrived at my place because there are women who have come before me. It’s because of them that I can now choose what I want to do in my life. I want to encourage young women to continue the journey.”
Amy does that, in part, by serving as an active member of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ). NAWJ is a 1,200-member association founded to be the “leading voice of women in the judiciary”. She has the distinction of serving as its President from 2011-2012 and has served on its board over ten years. She is quite proud of her association with this organization as she feels it gives her an opportunity to empower women and inspire them to continue to advance in the field of law.
The boundless energy Amy exuded during the interview was notable. And I believe necessary when one considers how she juggles her numerous responsibilities.
When asked if it’s possible for women to “have it all”, Amy responded that women need to decide for themselves what “having it all” means. If they want to stay at home, focus on a career, or anything else – each woman should decide.
“We shouldn’t be judged for what we decide we want to do. We should also not lose sight of what women before us have given us and continue to support women’s issues.”
Aside from role models, the advice Amy gives women looking to advance in their careers, be it law or some any other field, is to find mentors. Whether these mentors are male or female is not as important. What’s important is whether they inspire you to be a better version of yourself.
“What you need is someone to whom you can say, I like what you do, I like what you project, can you help me.” She continued, “Look for someone you admire and respect and that you would like to foster… [a relationship with during] … your journey.”
Her advice for women today is that it’s important to be courageous and to go out there and seek opportunities.
Although it was her notion of style many years ago that helped her experience a moment truth,
Amy believes personal style is much more than the clothing on our backs.
Style is a display of competence and confidence in who you are. It transcends fashion and it knows no season.”
“Style is a display of competence and confidence in who you are. It transcends fashion and it knows no season.”
This sort of confidence, she believes, takes time. It requires one to work hard to cultivate it and not expect to know everything. But instead, she counsels that we should be gentle with ourselves and give ourselves time to grow. “Be comfortable in your skin. Project your personal style.” And to that, we say thank you, Chief Justice Amy. #