Step into any courtroom around Virginia, and chances are good the judge graduated from the University of Richmond School of Law. Statewide, more than one in four sitting judges is a Richmond law graduate, far greater representation than for alumni of any of the seven other law schools in the commonwealth.

The alumni tradition of service is seen in state and federal courts throughout the nation as well as in all levels of the Virginia judiciary, with the strongest presence around Richmond, Tidewater, and Roanoke.

Even after 43 years on the bench in Virginia’s courts, Justice Lawrence Koontz Jr. says, “Every day I deal with something that takes me back to law school, something we touched on.” A Salem resident, Koontz, L’65, LL.D.’99, is serving on senior status with the Supreme Court of Virginia after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 this year. His retirement and the death of former Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. left two vacancies on the seven-member high court.

Ashley K. Tunner, L’95, spent three years in the Portsmouth public defender’s office before moving to its counterpart in Richmond. Seven years after that, she was named to the bench of Richmond’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, where four of the five judges are School of Law alumni. J. Stephen Buis, L’73, Richard Campbell, L’93, and Marilynn C. Goss, L’82, also serve in this court.

For Tunner, some aspects in the shift from trial attorney to judge were difficult. On the one hand, she knew the system well from being in the courtroom every day for 10 years. She was familiar with the juvenile court, the players, the agencies and different types of cases. The psychological differences took more adjusting.

“No one calls me Ashley anymore," she said. "It’s always ‘Judge’ or ‘Your Honor.’ I had to be more restrained in my communications because everything I say is taken with a different gravity, coming out of the mouth of a judge.”

To Chief Judge Walter S. Felton Jr. of the Virginia Court of Appeals, “the practice of law in Virginia has always been a hallmark of the University of Richmond School of Law. And the graduates are pretty good in court. Good practitioners make good judges.”

Felton, R’66 and L’69, also mentions the students’ exposure to judges as adjunct professors and class speakers, and the opportunities for students to participate in the activities of their courts. “UR has taken appropriate steps to broaden its horizons,” says Felton, who serves on the 11-judge appellate body with Larry G. Elder, L’75.

One way the School of Law stretches the curriculum is with a course comparing civil and common law systems taught by Claudia Brand, L’05. She entered law school with experience as a district court-level and appellate judge from 1994–2001 in her native Germany, but had never practiced as an attorney. At age 26, Germans can apply for a judgeship after passing the second state exam and finishing a university law education that almost exclusively trains them to analyze cases from the standpoint of a judge. “Back when I was a trainee I spent an entire year in different courts. By the time I had to decide my first civil case as a judge,” she says, “I had already drafted lots and lots of opinions.”

Mary Costello, L’85, a Superior Court judge (the Virginia circuit court equivalent) in New Jersey since 2007, says she’s very proud of her School of Law experience. “Richmond was a small school in central Virginia, with D.C. and other mega schools in the north, and U.Va. and William and Mary on either side. UR was proactive, determined to be noticed,” she says. “We did stand-up recitation, which many other schools had discontinued. They put you through the paces.”

This article by Marilyn J. Shaw originally appeared in the summer issue of Richmond Law magazine.

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