How We Make the Bench-Bar Dinner Happen and Why It Matters

Pictured above, Honorees from the 2019 Bench-Bar Dinner

On October 30, 2019 and for the 26th year in a row, the Young Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar held the Bench-Bar Dinner. This annual event celebrates diversity in Virginia’s judiciary by honoring newly elected and appointed minority and female judges.  The Bench-Bar Dinner provides an opportunity for attorneys of all ages and levels of practice to socialize outside of work with judges from every corner of the Virginia judiciary. The program consists of an informal cocktail hour followed by a sit-down dinner featuring remarks from Virginia State Bar leaders and a keynote speaker on a subject that speaks to young lawyers. The evening closes with recognition of the judicial honorees.

Anna Birkenheier and I have co-chaired the Bench-Bar Dinner together for the past two years.  While we are MCs of the event and are responsible for its execution, most of what we do takes place behind the scenes, months ahead of the dinner. For the most part, planning starts about three months before the date of the dinner. More or less, our jobs begin once we receive notice of the newly appointed judges who will be honored at the Bench Bar Dinner. For planning purposes, a lot depends on the list of honorees. The list tells us the names and number of our honorees, which allows us to send invitations, create the event program, and assemble publicity materials. The number of honorees could also affect our chosen venue, which is one of the first decisions we have to make.

Once we have our list of honorees, planning kicks into high gear. Because there is a lot of planning to do in a limited time, we rely on teamwork to accomplish it all.  We have subcommittees made up of other YLC members who generously volunteer their time to help us publicize and solicit sponsors for the event. In addition, we work closely with Bar Services Director Maureen Stengel, who has masterfully supervised this event for years. This past year, we were also fortunate to work with the Bar’s Meetings Coordinator Mallory Ralston, who liaised with the venue, managed ticket sales, and kept track of the master budget among many other critical responsibilities. During the event itself, Anna and I continue to oversee things like seating, sound, and IT issues, again with the invaluable support of Bar personnel who staff and coordinate the event. In short, bringing this event to life takes a good deal of time, attention to detail, and most importantly teamwork. And it is well worth it.

Despite the relatively long tenure of the Bench-Bar Dinner, this year was a standout for multiple reasons. For one, we had the largest class of judicial honorees since the event’s inception, including 38 state court judges, two federal judges, and one Virginia Supreme Court justice. We also broke with recent tradition and moved the date of the event from early spring to the fall. And for the very first time, a group of undergraduate college students from VCU’s newly formed minority pre-law society attended the event. These ambitious aspiring lawyers were delighted to be part of the celebration and expressed interest in returning next year.

Anna and I were pleased but not surprised that the Bench-Bar Dinner is receiving notice from outside the professional legal community. This event is significant because it recognizes that diversity in the judiciary matters to our justice system. As with all people, a judge’s ethnicity, race, and sex affect his or her life experiences, which in turn influence his or her point of view and understanding of the world. While this does not affect legal reasoning, it can affect decision-making. In addition, Virginia has a diverse racial and ethnic population, so a lack of diversity in the judiciary may shade the public’s view of justice in this State. The YLC understands this and believes that diversity in the judiciary promotes a more equitable justice system for these important reasons. Our honorees also understand this and are routinely enthusiastic to take part in this special evening. This year, several of our honorees reported that they were the first, or one of the first, female judges in their district and were proud to have that role.

In sum, the Bench-Bar Dinner is a wonderful event that celebrates the changing face of our judiciary and the individual jurists who are making that change happen. We hope that members of our Bar will continue to support and enjoy this annual tradition for years to come.

About the Author

Madeline Gibson is a 2014 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and is an Assistant Attorney General in the Office of the Virginia Attorney General’s Trial Section. An active member of the Young Lawyers Conference, Ms. Gibson has served as co-chair of the Bench-Bar Dinner program with Anna Birkenheier for the past two years.