Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew '71
Senior Judge, United States District Court for the Central District of California
In the purview of Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, "Being a judge is probably the best position in the field of law. Advocates often must take positions that are not their own, but as a judge, the positions I take are my responsibility. They may be in conflict with my own beliefs, but they will be within the concept of the rule of law," he said.
As a young lawyer, Judge Lew never aspired to the bench. "Becoming a judge was not a goal I could entertain. There weren't any Chinese American judges, nor for that matter, any judges who were not white men," he said. His future in the legal profession was chosen by his father, a Chinese immigrant, who believed his son could help bridge the gap between the Chinese immigrant community and mainstream American society. "My father's dream was to use the law as a vehicle for integrating the Chinese immigrant community into the American system."
Following his college graduation, Judge Lew entered Southwestern's evening program and worked days at his family's laundry. His legal education was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army, but soon after graduation, he accepted a job in the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, where he gained litigation experience. He spent a year and a half in criminal law, and another in civil liability, then entered private practice, finally recognizing the dream he had come to share with his father. While in private practice, Judge Lew served five years as a Fire and Police Pension commissioner, a factor that influenced his first appointment to the judiciary.
That happened in 1982 under the tenure of Governor Jerry Brown, whose appointments brought men and women of different ethnicity to the bench. Two years later he was elevated to the Los Angeles Superior Court, and in a 1987 appointment by President Reagan, Lew became the first Chinese American District Court judge in the continental United States. He took senior status in 2006 after 24 years of service on the bench. Although he never planned to be a judge, he believes today that fate delivered the proper calling.
Judge Lew recommends that lawyers develop strengths in areas outside their preferred field. "An externship in an area of law other than their career choice makes people better lawyers," he said, "because first choices are based on limited knowledge." Lew insists that law clerks and externs in his office expose themselves to areas outside their stated interest. "Invariably they discover something they like better," he said. "The important thing to remember when starting out in law, is that it is always changing, always fluid, and you have to accommodate the changes."