The following is a judicial profile of the Hon. Laura S. Taylor, Chief Bankruptcy Judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of California. Gary Rudolph, a member of the Insolvency Law Committee, met with Judge Taylor to discuss her personal and professional background and her experience so far as a member of the bankruptcy bench.
In the Beginning
Judge Taylor has known since high school that she wanted to be a lawyer because it blended her interest in law and the political process. After engaging in private practice, including taking time away from a successful bankruptcy and finance practice with a large law firm to represent disadvantaged families on a pro bono basis through a non-profit program she helped to found, she set a new challenge for herself that would best use her talents and interests–namely, to become a judge. Judge Taylor had two respected judges as mentors and role models to follow on this path to the bench–most immediately, her husband, the Hon. Timothy B. Taylor, Judge of the Superior Court for the State of California, and the Hon. Irma E. Gonzalez, United States District Judge (Ret.), who was Judge Taylor’s neighbor and whose daughter babysat Judge Taylor’s oldest son.
A Lawyer Who Would Become a Judge
Judge Taylor grew up in Jamestown, North Carolina, before heading off to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where, as a Tar Heel, she earned her B.A. with highest honors. She then moved over to Duke University School of Law where, as a Blue Devil, she earned her J.D. with honors. The regional powerhouse firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP (“Sheppard Mullin”) then lured Judge Taylor to Southern California. She started as an associate and then served as a partner from 1983 through 1995 and from 1998 through 2007, practicing in the firm’s finance and bankruptcy practice group. Demonstrating her leadership and management skills, Judge Taylor for several years served as the firm’s San Diego office administrative partner.
From January 1995 through February 1998, Judge Taylor took a temporary leave from her firm to practice pro bono as one of the founders of the Special Education Project of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (“the Special Education Project”), which to this day continues to provide pro bono legal services to disabled foster youth and low income families with disabled children.
After a distinguished career in private practice, in January 2008, Judge Taylor was appointed to the bench of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of California, and she is serving as Chief Judge through October 2019. In January 2013, Judge Taylor was appointed to a seven-year term on the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “BAP”).
Apart from the many accolades that Judge Taylor has received and earned in her professional career, her proudest moments have come while practicing pro bono law, including for the Special Education Project. As noted, Judge Taylor took a break from her dynamic civil litigation practice at Sheppard Mullin to deal with the acute need for pro bono legal services in San Diego County for disabled foster youth and low income families with disabled children. Fueled by her desire to ensure that youth and families in need had access to basic legal services, Judge Taylor led the Special Education Project, drafting its hands-on manual and developing its training protocol for project volunteers. Through her work with the Special Education Project, Judge Taylor helped to give a voice to parents who could not otherwise afford to retain counsel to champion their side in disputes such as those with schools and school districts for special needs services. Judge Taylor says that nothing else in her legal career has given her the personal and professional fulfillment as she gained by helping parents and children and providing pro bono legal services hand in hand with other volunteers through the Special Education Project.
In recognition of her outstanding and tireless dedication and commitment to the Special Education Project, in 1996, the San Diego County Bar Association bestowed its coveted Public Service Award on Judge Taylor. In 1997, the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program recognized Judge Taylor as its Attorney of the Year and the State Bar of California bestowed Judge Taylor with the State Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award.
Remembering Private Practice
No longer in private practice, Judge Taylor says what she misses most are the interaction and camaraderie with colleagues and the intellectual challenges presented to her by clients at her old firm. She reports, however, not missing the competitive component of the “business” of law practice and pressure to find new clients. On the bench, she knows “new business” is always heading her way.
In transitioning from private practice to the bench, Judge Taylor was able to bring with her the skills she nurtured as a lawyer. She is an avid writer who also enjoys and welcomes oral argument. As a lawyer, she appreciated receiving tentative rulings before hearings. Now on the bench, she has developed the practice of crafting detailed tentative rulings to help frame arguments and colloquy between the bench and bar.
Outside of her pro bono work on behalf of disabled children and for families in need of special education services, Judge Taylor’s work at Sheppard Mullin seldom touched on consumer bankruptcy and consumer commercial law issues. Now on the bench, Judge Taylor has dived into this arena with relish. She gives much credit to her quick learning curve in this arena to the high quality of the consumer bankruptcy lawyers who appear before her; they help to heighten her understanding of the consumer bankruptcy issues facing consumer debtors and their creditors.
Among her least favorite issues she has had to deal with on the bench are budget challenges for the court system and jurisdictional questions arising from the Supreme Court’s Stern v. Marshall decision and its progeny.
Chief Judge Taylor
As Chief Judge, Judge Taylor recognizes she is “the face of the court.” Always one to roll up her sleeves and get to work, this hands-on judge employs and relies on committees within the court and among practitioners in the community to broaden input and share the workload, all with the goal of achieving more efficient operations at the bankruptcy court and a higher quality of practice before the bench. Judge Taylor currently chairs the Local Rules Advisory Committee of the Southern District Bankruptcy Court and has led the effort to redraft the court’s Local Rules, with input and active participation of other San Diego bankruptcy judges and leaders in the local bankruptcy bar. She also serves on the Federal Judicial Center’s Chief Judge Education Committee, which is working to develop a curriculum for chief judge leadership and problem-solving skills. Judge Taylor actively participates in educational programs including those presented by the State Bar of California, the San Diego and California Bankruptcy Forums, and the National Conference of Bankruptcy Trustees, among others. She is an active member of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges and serves as chair of its United States Trustee Liaison Committee. In addition, recognizing her roots as a civil litigator, and still giving back to the community, she serves as a Master of the Bench in The Louis M. Welsh American Inn of Court.
The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel
Judge Taylor is near the end of her initial seven-year term on the BAP. The desire to serve as a judge on the BAP evolved from her passion for writing and her interest in “collaborative judging.” The assignment, she says, requires her to think about cases differently than if she were the trial judge and allows her to work with fellow jurists in formulating a panel’s decision, or from time to time to test ideas as she develops a dissent.
Judge Taylor believes that serving as an appellate judge on the BAP has enhanced her trial judge skills, giving her a different perspective, with the benefit of hindsight and more time to reflect. The role also affords her the opportunity to develop case law through decisions and published opinions.
Pro Se Litigants
Judge Taylor recognizes that many pro se litigants are looking for someone to listen to their story. Judge Taylor believes that by taking the time to explain the law to pro se parties and by treating them fairly, the majority will come away with a better understanding of the judicial system and the decision reached in their case, even if adverse to them.
Observations from the Bench
When writing a brief or presenting a legal argument to Judge Taylor, the judge asks counsel to adhere to just a few simple rules. Most of all, don’t put the judge to sleep or confuse the issues. Take the time to make sure your brief is well written. Present your arguments clearly and concisely. Guide the court from point A to point B, with clarity and without obfuscation.
In court, be respectful both in presenting your oral argument and while opposing counsel makes their case. Do not even think about rolling your eyes as opposing counsel makes an argument with which you disagree. Professionalism is the core principle for Judge Taylor. If you have a compelling case, lay out the facts. Be eloquent and forceful in your arguments, without flapping and flailing of arms.
Judge Taylor’s tentative rulings are guideposts to her thought process. She is transparent about what she is thinking. The tentative rulings give lawyers a chance to process their oral argument ahead of time. If you disagree, take the time to develop and present your reasoning to Judge Taylor.
When preparing for oral argument after reviewing the tentative ruling, litigants need to keep in mind the need to have a strategy for creating the best record for a possible appeal. The hearing or trial is the litigant’s opportunity to create their record to frame their arguments for appeal of any adverse ruling. The tentative ruling gives counsel extra time to address the Court’s concerns and issues that in her mind dictate the result and ruling.
Judge Taylor forecasts that the smaller to mid-size tech companies that are based in the San Diego and surrounding area will be filing bankruptcy in the Southern District of California. This is already an increasing source of cases. Judge Taylor is looking forward to getting more clarification in appellate court decisions regarding equitable mootness and a clearer articulation of the standards for a court to award sanctions.
At the End of the Day
When Judge Taylor leaves the bench at the end of a day, she looks forward to quiet family time, cooking, traveling, and reading. And each new day, she and her husband take early morning walks together by the Coronado Bay–thankful for their lives in San Diego.
This judicial profile was written by Gary Rudolph, a partner with Sullivan Hill Lewin Rez & Engel APLC in San Diego, California (email@example.com). Editorial contributions were provided by his partner, James Hill ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you for your continued support of the Committee.
Insolvency Law Committee
Radmila A. Fulton
Law Offices of Radmila A. Fulton
John N. Tedford, IV
Danning, Gill, Diamond & Kollitz, LLP
Marcus O. Colabianchi
Duane Morris LLP
Rebecca J. Winthrop
Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP