Business Law

ILC Judicial Profile Series: United States Bankruptcy Judge M. Elaine Hammond (Northern District of California)

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The following article is a profile of the Honorable M. Elaine Hammond – the fifth in a series of profiles of Ninth Circuit bankruptcy judges. Judge Hammond and members of the Insolvency Law Committee met in her chambers and discussed her personal and professional background, observations from the bench, and issues of interest.

The Judge’s Hometown and Her Road to the Bay Area

Judge Hammond calls Charlotte, North Carolina her hometown. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University, and her law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law. A “big basketball fan,” Judge Hammond graduated from Duke the same year as Christian Laettner, an “intense, very disliked” athlete who led Duke to two NCAA National Championships.

Judge Hammond enjoyed a broad liberal arts education at Duke. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she worked for three years before starting law school. During this period, Judge Hammond worked both at a large mortgage bank, and at a small, general practice law firm in Charlotte. At the small firm, Judge Hammond had her first experience assisting with a broad array of matters, including personal injury litigation, business transactions, and family law cases. It was then that Judge Hammond realized that she enjoyed the law, and welcomed the challenge of working on a range of issues, involving a mix of topics and clients.

When asked what brought her to the Bay Area, Judge Hammond’s response can be summed up in one word: love. She met her husband in law school, and he had a job lined up in Fenwick & West’s Palo Alto office after law school. Believing that her move would be for “two years only,” Judge Hammond took and passed the California Bar, clerked with Bankruptcy Judge Edward Jellen (ret.), and set down new roots with her family in the Bay Area.

Prior to Taking the Bench

Judge Hammond interviewed for her clerkship position with Judge Jellen in the summer before her 3L year, before she had any bankruptcy knowledge or experience. She feels she “lucked” into the position with Judge Jellen, and started her two-year clerkship in Judge Jellen’s chambers after taking the California Bar exam.

Describing Judge Jellen as “wonderful” and “a pleasure” to work with, Judge Hammond noted that he was very skilled at putting disputes in context. A very practical judge, Judge Jellen explained to her that the issues resolved in court often represented only the tip of the iceberg. Judge Jellen also would bring counsel into chambers after contested hearings where he saw the parties butting heads, and recommend that they discuss whether a business resolution may be a better idea than having the court decide. Judge Hammond acknowledges that her time in Judge Jellen’s chambers was a “great education,” and helped build the foundation for her judicial values today.

After her clerkship, Judge Hammond spent several years at Murphy Sheneman Julian and Rogers, working closely with partners Pat Murphy, Andrea Porter, and Richard Adler. She felt that it was a tremendous experience for her (and any young lawyer) to learn from those who know what to do in any given situation. Judge Hammond noted that while working at the Murphy Firm she gained valuable insight into how bankruptcy works from the top down, and learned to appreciate that chapter 11 matters are often best resolved by compromise. Judge Hammond remarked that bankruptcy is not necessarily a “zero-sum dispute” as in many cases, parties’ relationships do not end once the case is concluded.

At the Murphy Firm, Judge Hammond had a spectrum of representative experience in chapter 11 cases, representing debtors, secured and unsecured creditors in main case matters and in adversary proceedings. Shortly after Murphy Sheneman merged with Winston & Strawn, Judge Hammond chose small firm life over “big law” and joined several lawyers in a split-off firm, Friedman, Dumas & Springwater. She stayed at that firm, ultimately becoming a partner, until she took the bench in February 2012.

Becoming a Judge

Judge Hammond first applied to join the bankruptcy bench when Judge Newsome retired after 28 years. Observing that Judge Tchaikovsky had been on the bench for 23 years and Judge Jellen, for 25 years, Judge Hammond realized tenures on the Northern California bench tended to be long and felt this was the time to start applying. Though Judge Hammond did not receive the appointment the first time she applied, the second time was the charm, and she was appointed to replace Judge Jellen.

Judge Hammond described the application process as challenging and she appreciated Andrea Porter’s encouragement and mentoring throughout the process. In particular, she noted that the panel for the second round of interviews included Court of Appeals Judges and the Chief Bankruptcy Judges. As Judge Hammond remarked: “They really know how to ask questions.” Once on the bench, however, Judge Hammond was impressed with how supportive the Ninth Circuit judges are of the bankruptcy bench.

Once she received her appointment, Judge Hammond interviewed other bankruptcy judges to get their advice, and sat in on trials and motion calendars to observe how other judges handled situations. The other judges were very friendly and supportive of her efforts as a soon-to-be new judge.

On the Bench

Though she thought being a judge would be a good job (“Why else apply?”), Judge Hammond has been pleasantly surprised by how much she really enjoys the job. Though more isolated than a job in private practice, she finds tremendous satisfaction in working with law clerks and judicial assistants, and appreciates the camaraderie and feedback from other judges, particularly on “close cases.” Rather than “living” a case as she once did as a lawyer, Judge Hammond thrives on her involvement as a judge in numerous matters, some of which have a long history before reaching the bankruptcy court. While her private practice was focused on business cases and very little consumer work, Judge Hammond has enjoyed the work on chapter 7 and chapter 13 matters and getting to know the attorneys who specialize in a consumer practice.

Judge Hammond enjoys handling trials, the give and take between attorneys, and the testimony of live witnesses. She noted that she lets counsel try their own case and is unlikely to intervene with her own questions unless she needs testimony to be clarified.

Asked to what extent she may encourage settlement from the bench, Judge Hammond noted that attorneys and parties sometimes lose sight of the fact that a practical solution to a dispute is often a very good resolution. When she thinks parties are listening or appear receptive, or where the parties have a longstanding dispute where the bankruptcy court is new to the dispute, she may encourage parties to discuss a business resolution.

Pet Peeves

Judge Hammond stresses that attorneys should proofread their court submissions, know their objections, be courteous in their papers, and make their case. She finds that attorneys can sometimes get caught up in attacking the other attorney, or the other party. Judge Hammond noted that such an approach does not help any party’s argument and is very tiresome to the court, as complaining about your opponent does not assist the court in deciding the case.

When asked what she sees developing in terms of the court and the way it handles matters, Judge Hammond noted that after Bankruptcy Judge Arthur S. Weissbrodt retired, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has not filled his position. Bankruptcy Judge Hannah L. Blumenstiel, seated in San Francisco, is hearing the Salinas chapter 13 cases; and Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali, also seated in San Francisco, is taking one-third of all of San Jose’s chapter 7 and chapter 11 cases.

Judge Hammond remarked that the Northern District is in the process of moving from a group of four divisions to a district with shared practices, procedures and staff. When asked about the volume of bankruptcy cases, Judge Hammond is persuaded that bankruptcy filings will increase and the court will be busier. However, despite the invitation to play prognosticator, Judge Hammond declined to give a guess as to when that might happen.

Off the Bench

Judge Hammond enjoys spending time with her husband and two children. She loves being a parent and actively volunteers in her community, including as Girl Scout leader.

Judge Hammond also loves to travel. In fact, Judge Hammond and her family visited the island nation of New Zealand over the most recent Christmas holiday. Judge Hammond also enjoyed attending the annual Ninth Circuit judicial conference which took place this month in scenic Big Sky, Montana.

When she has a quiet moment to herself, Judge Hammond also loves a good book. She highly recommends All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, the New York bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intertwine in World War II occupied France. Judge Hammond also enjoys watching movies, having enjoyed both Spotlight and The Big Short. Finally, drilling down on what’s trulyimportant, Judge Hammond roots for the Duke Blue Devils over the UNC Tar Heels; and she prefers eastern North Carolina-style, vinegar-based BBQ sauce over its western-style tomato-based counterpart.

This article was written by Monique D. Jewett-Brewster of Hopkins & Carley in San Jose, California (mjb@hopkinscarley.com), Immediate Past Co-Chair of the Insolvency Law Committee, and Stephen D. Finestone of the Law Office of Stephen D. Finestone in San Francisco, California (sfinestone@sfinestone.com), member of the Insolvency Law Committee.

Thank you for your continued support of the Committee.

Best regards,
Insolvency Law Committee

Co-Chair 
Leib Lerner 
Alston & Bird LLP 
Leib.Lerner@alston.com

Co-Chair 
Corey Weber 
Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror Weber LLP 
cweber@brutzkusgubner.com

Co-Vice Chair 
Asa S. Hami 
SulmeyerKupetz, A Professional Corporation 
ahami@sulmeyerlaw.com

Co-Vice Chair 
Reno Fernandez 
Macdonald Fernandez LLP 
Reno@MacFern.com


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