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Alumni Spotlight

Former federal judge Vanessa Gilmore ‘81 finds new passion as arbitrator and mediator

U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett '06

Vanessa Gilmore ‘81

April 4, 2023 — Following more than 27 years of distinguished service as a federal judge, Hon. Vanessa Gilmore quickly acclimated to a new role where she is able to use a similar skill set.

Since March 2022, Gilmore has worked as an arbitrator, mediator and referee/special master at JAMS: Mediation, Arbitration and ADR Services, the world’s largest private alternative dispute resolution provider.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to help people come to a resolution of their problems and their issues,” Gilmore, a member of the University of Houston Law Center Class of 1981, said. “I believe my experience on the bench makes me particularly well-suited to help people get to the bottom of the issues that are in contention and to figure out a way to reach some common ground. It has given me the ability to help people analyze their issues in ways that they may not have considered in the past.

“I really enjoy people, talking to people and interacting with people. I think that aspect of my personality lends itself to helping people feel more comfortable in disclosing and discussing what their real concerns are, so that we can help people find a way to resolve their disputes.”

The two aspects of Gilmore’s current role are arbitrations and mediations. While arbitrations resemble the courtroom experience, she said mediations are generally less adversarial in nature.

“In an arbitration, each side presents witnesses and exhibits, and then I write a final ruling or opinion at the end,” Gilmore said. That’s more akin to the trial experience.

“In mediations I encourage people to come to an agreed resolution of their dispute. Most of the work and discussion are done with me individually, with parties and their lawyers in separate rooms. I go back and forth between the two rooms trying to help them meet some common ground – sometimes in the middle of the hallway.”

At the time of her appointment in 1994, Gilmore was the youngest sitting federal judge in the U.S., and the first Law Center graduate to serve in that role. She had previously worked at the Vickery, Kilbride, Gilmore and Vickery law firm where civil litigation was at the center of her practice.

She credits her community involvement as a major contributing factor that led her to become a federal judge.

“Being a judge is really a public service job,” she said. “I was really actively involved as president of the YWCA of Houston, and then I served for some years on the board of the Texas Department of Commerce, working on business development, tourism development and job training for the state of Texas. I traveled all over the country recruiting businesses to come and make Texas their home. I worked on the NAFTA treaty.

“People already saw me as someone that committed to community service, who was interested in doing things to better the community that I lived in. I think that is as important as your legal skills and your legal acumen when you’re looking for an opportunity to become a judge or serve in another public service type of position.”

Gilmore presided over a number of high-profile cases, including a dispute between ridesharing companies Lyft and Uber against Yellow Cab Houston, an environmental case that resulted in a cruise ship terminal in Galveston, and a decade of litigation over the fallout of the Enron scandal. She said her docket could involve numerous areas of law on a regular basis from admiralty law, intellectual property law or tax law.

“The most interesting and stimulating aspect of the job as a federal judge is that every single day you have the opportunity to work on different types of cases,” Gilmore said. “One morning you might be working on an admiralty case or patent case. By that afternoon, you’re working on sentencing in a bank robbery case.

“Then there are other aspects of the job that are very rewarding like the ability to marry people and the ability to swear in new citizens. For me, I really enjoy the opportunity to be out in the community speaking to young people about my career, about my life and about the kind of work that we do as federal judges, and helping people understand the court system a little bit better.”

For law students who have their sights set on a career in alternative dispute resolution or in the federal judiciary, Gilmore said litigation experience is vital for either path.

“People that are interested in alternative dispute resolution need to understand what the normal process is like,” Gilmore said. “People who have a lot of trial experience or litigation experience would understand some of the kinds of issues that would need to go into the resolution of a case. I would say get as much trial experience as you can, and just try to take opportunities where you have to help people figure out a resolution of their issues.

“If you really have your heart set on being a judge, a litigation background is important. One of the things that you find out as a litigator is you don’t necessarily have to pick one area of practice as a litigator. That’s not to say that you can’t specialize in one particular area and still have your heart set on getting to the federal bench. But the skill you need is being able to read, analyze, think on your feet and that could be in any area of law.”

Gilmore said she is happy to host students who wish to visit the JAMS Resolution Center to learn more about a career in alternative dispute resolution.

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