The Hon. Nora Barry Fischer, a U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania, shared her wisdom and experiences Wednesday evening with Notre Dame Law School’s incoming class.
“You are at the beginning of what can be – and should be – a remarkable journey,” she told the audience of students in the Patrick F. McCartan Courtroom.
“This is a different kind of place, it’s a different kind of law school,” she said, “and I think each and every one of you will become a different kind of lawyer.”
Fischer earned her B.A. at Saint Mary’s College in 1973 and her J.D. at Notre Dame in 1976.
In 1977, she became the first woman associate at Meyer Darragh Buckler Bebenek & Eck, an insurance defense litigation firm in Pittsburgh. In 1980, she became the first woman to be named partner at the firm. In 1992, she joined the firm of Pietragallo Bosick & Gordon, also in Pittsburgh, as an equity partner.
President George W. Bush nominated Fischer for U.S. District Court judge in 2007, and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment.
Here is some of the advice Fischer offered incoming students for success in law school and beyond.
Be a team player
“Look at the people around you,” Fischer said, “because these are the people that you will network with throughout your professional life.”
Lawyers – even if they have their own practices – need support from other lawyers, she said. They need colleagues and friends who offer feedback and are willing to discuss and explore legal issues. Lawyers also receive most of their work through referrals from other lawyers, she added.
“I suggest to each and every one of you that you help one another as you go,” she said. “Teamwork is essential in the practice of law. Get in the habit of being a team player.”
Have some fun
“Admittedly, you are looking at a year ahead that is going to be jam-packed with new information. You are going to spend a lot of time reading, studying, analyzing, second-guessing yourself, and the pressure will be there,” Fischer said.
“But you also need to have some fun, some release, some kind of outlet,” she said, “because to be a good lawyer, you have to be a full person.”
Find your passion
“Ultimately, you’re going to find your passion. You may find it here in the first three years of your legal career, or it may take some time afterwards for you to truly find your passion,” Fischer said. “To that end, you really should be looking for what excites you most.”
Pay it forward
“When I started law school and then started practice, there were not many women who were at the table,” Fischer said. “In addition to that, those who practiced were not very diverse. I’ve always felt it was part of my duty to help others in that vein.”
That view was also a source of motivation. When things got tough, Fischer would say to herself, “Nora, you’ve got to stick with this, because if you don’t, others won’t follow.”
She’s maintained that mantra throughout her career, and she has been committed to mentoring younger lawyers.
“That keeps it real for me,” she said of being a mentor. “I hear about what younger people in the law are doing, I try to help them and try to encourage them. I encourage all of you, as you go into your careers, to pay it forward.”
It’s a privilege to serve
Fischer said she has often wondered why so many Catholics and other religious people are called to the law.
“I think it comes down to this – there is that call to service,” she said.
“I think each and every one of you has ultimately been called to serve your family, your friends, this law school, and the greater Notre Dame community,” she added. “And I’m sure each and every one of you, in your own way and in your own style, will be successful in answering that call.”