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By Amy SpoonerApril 25, 2016
When Christopher Burke, '00, was in law school, he could see himself working in the public sector someday. But he couldn't picture exactly what that work would look like. Today the view is crystal clear from his federal bench.
Burke serves as a U.S. magistrate judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. It is a post he has held since 2011 when, at the age of 36, he left his role as an assistant U.S. attorney to become one of the country's youngest federal judges. Regardless of age, he says the key to success on the bench is the same—preparation and having the confidence to ask difficult questions. "Every new judge has a learning curve, but putting in time before court bridges the gap," he said. "When parties see that the judge is on top of the record and the case law, they know they're dealing with someone who will work hard to try to get the ruling right—even if the judge hasn't had years of experience with the subject matter."
As a former clerk—for the Hon. Kenneth Ripple on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit—Burke also knows the importance of a good rapport with his clerks. "If you have good clerks, you can rely on them to help you figure out what information you need in order to make a ruling. Judge Ripple taught me the importance of being prepared, working hard, and having a measured, professional approach that lawyers will respect regardless of whether they win or lose. I try to train my clerks in much the same way."
After clerking with Ripple, and before serving in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Delaware, Burke was in private practice with Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C. Part of Covington's appeal was its robust pro bono program, which included a number of opportunities for firm associates to work at local nonprofit organizations. Burke, who was on the board of Student Funded Fellowships at Michigan Law, seized the opportunity to pursue his passion for public interest work through a six-month Covington appointment at the D.C.-based Children's Law Center. "Even if students know they want to spend their careers at firms, I encourage them to take on public interest internships or pro bono work in order to understand the needs of the community. Plus, nonprofits need help that even law students or entry-level associates can provide, so young lawyers get meaningful, hands-on experience," said Burke, who noted that he had his first trial and appellate experiences at the Children's Law Center and participated in his first arbitration through another Covington pro bono assignment.
At the District Court, Burke also presides over a Re-entry Court, which helps individuals who are leaving the federal prison system secure jobs and better adjust to being back in society, so they won't recidivate. Additionally, this summer he is leading a new high school internship program at the Court for at-risk youth, which will provide the student interns with work experience and help them outline a path to college. "These programs aren't that different from a lot of the internships that Student Funded Fellowships supports," he said. "It's that same ethic, learned at Michigan, to make public service a part of your life in some meaningful way."
Burke also credits his time at Michigan with teaching him a holistic approach to the law that has served him well as both a lawyer and a judge. "From the time we were 1Ls, we were taught not just to master the facts of individual cases, but also to step back and see how a series of decisions in a particular field can show what the law is and what it's trying to achieve. I think of that all the time in my work."
Which gets back to that 360-degree career view. "I look around my courtroom sometimes and think how fortunate I am to have been given the responsibility to serve the government and the people in this way," Burke said. "It's a great honor, and it never gets old."
Photo credit: Eric Crossan
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