Elizabeth Brown ('86)

Alum of the Month Aug '14

For the Honorable Judge Elizabeth Brown ('86), this month’s Alum of the Month, serving on the bench is a family affair. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Judge Brown had a unique opportunity to attend court with her father, who presided over a criminal docket during the summers while other judges were away on vacation. One of six siblings, Brown fondly remembers watching her father’s cases all morning and then going home and talking through the issues with her father over lunch. The experience was particularly important for Brown who, after betting her brothers that she would go on to become an attorney at the age of seven, was firmly committed to the legal profession as a self-described “very stubborn person.”

Judge Brown enrolled at Colorado Law after completing her undergraduate degree at Colorado College. As Brown describes it, during law school she was planning on pursuing a career in Corporate Law, but deep down really wanted to be a litigator. After graduating Order of the Coif and serving as Managing Editor of the University of Colorado Law Review, Brown began her legal career with the Denver-based firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs. Following a major overhaul to the bankruptcy code in the mid 1980’s, the practice was picking up with local firms and Davis Graham & Stubbs hired a former judge to lead the department. Brown asked the firm if she could join the new department, which they agreed to. Realizing she had found her passion, Brown never looked back and has spent the past 25 years immersed in the specialty.

After her initial legal experience with Davis Graham & Stubbs, Judge Brown joined the firm of Rothgerber, Appel, Powers & Johnson (now Lewis Roca Rothgerber) in 1990, where she was a partner for seven years. In 1997, she moved on to the firm of Holme, Roberts & Owen (now Bryan Cave HRO) and worked as a partner and co-chair of the bankruptcy and insolvency department. Four years later Brown was appointed to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado and then to the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit.

Judge Brown is incredibly appreciative of her opportunity to serve Colorado. She notes that she particularly enjoys hearing consumer bankruptcy issues as she rarely had chance to work in the area in private practice. To her, the ability to serve the public by making decisions that have an impact on the lives of ordinary people is very rewarding. Judge Brown also greatly appreciates the chance to watch the area’s great lawyers ply their trade in her chambers, adding that it makes her proud to be an attorney.

While her bankruptcy docket keeps her incredibly busy, Judge Brown has found the time in recent years to help prepare the next generation of attorneys. As an Adjunct Professor at both Colorado Law and the University of Denver, she enjoys sharing her passion for the nuances of bankruptcy law. Finding the teaching experience very stimulating, she especially loves watching the light bulb go off when a student gets a complex point and is enlivened by the dedication of her students. Judge Brown is also an associate editor of the prestigious American Bankruptcy Law Journal.

Between her professional responsibilities and raising a teenage daughter, Judge Brown admits she doesn’t have a great deal of free time. However, she also enjoys arts and crafts, the theatre, and home improvement projects.

Five Questions for Judge Beth Brown (’86)

What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?

I was married and living in Denver during law school and I commuted to Boulder with a wonderful classmate, Bob McCormack, who was an early riser by nature. So we would show up at the library as early as it opened and, without a car of my own, I was a captive in the library all day long. Many folks assumed I was very studious because I was always in the library. What they did not know was that I always had a murder mystery novel in my backpack and I went through a different novel about every other day. When I did actually study, I had to put M&Ms in my text book, about every ten pages, to serve as inspiration. But the candies and the novels got me through the grind. And I loved the reading period before the exams. I would buy the nicest paper and best colored pens I could find, sneak into DU Law’s library to study, and do nothing but outline my classes. There has probably never been another time in my life when I had that kind of single-minded focus.  (Now you know what a true geek I am.)

What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?

There is no one path to “success” as a lawyer. I wasted a lot of energy in law school telling myself that I had to place in the top 10 percent, or else I would never land a job at a “big firm” in Denver.  The assumption was that, if you did not land at the big firm, your career would be over before it started. I was extremely fortunate to work at three exceptional “big firms,” then known as Davis Graham & Stubbs, Rothgerber Appel Powers & Johnson, and Holme Roberts & Owen. The lawyers I worked with at these firms had incredible legal minds, great integrity, and were passionate about serving their clients. But as a judge, I have the opportunity to observe lawyers from all types of law firms and I realize now that there are incredibly talented, smart lawyers who are solo practitioners or who practice in small boutique firms. There are lawyers I know who worked part-time while their children were young, but have nevertheless made partner in their firms and made names for themselves in their area of specialty. It took them a little longer, but they got there all the same.

What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate? 

I have two thoughts. First, in this job market, sometimes your “dream job” is not available at the time you graduate. But embrace whatever job you find yourself in. Keep your eye on where you want to end up, but work as hard as you can to be invaluable wherever you are, and later you will look back and see how those early jobs prepared you for your dream job. And sometimes you will find that one of those stepping stone jobs is actually where you are meant to be. I never planned to be a bankruptcy lawyer. I never even took a bankruptcy class in law school. But it was the first job available to me and then I fell in love with this quirky bankruptcy world. 

My second piece of advice is to remember that, during your first five years or so as an attorney, you will feel like an imposter. Law school is extremely important in that it teaches you how to pull apart a problem and analyze it, but it is not meant to be a practical training ground. So you will be terrified in the early years, knowing that you have no idea what you are doing. Somehow you will stumble onto the right answer or strategy. But just remember that everyone else starting out is in the same boat. Some of your colleagues may boast in those early years about how they are God’s gift to the legal world, but that is just their insecurity talking.

Who was the biggest influence on your career?

That is an easy one for me. It was my father, Ray Calkins, who was both a lawyer and a part-time judge in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was a full-time lawyer because he had six children to raise and educate, but his true passion was serving as a judge in the summertime when other judges were away on vacation. He would take me to his morning court sessions, which were usually criminal cases. We would go home for lunch and talk about the cases. He gave me rare insights into how a judge views the cases and how hard it is sometimes to enforce a law when it leads to an unjust result in a particular case. If you have any interest in litigation, and your father is not a judge, I strongly recommend interning or clerking for a judge. You would be amazed at how much you can learn from observing lawyers in the courtroom, both their styles and strategies, seeing what is most effective in persuading the fact finder.

Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

On a professional level, I would say being a judge, and especially a judge on the Tenth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for ten years, is my proudest accomplishment. Being a judge is not lucrative, but it highly enriching. Having input on how the law should be interpreted, considering the possible implications of any interpretation beyond the particulars of the case before you, is a serious but very rewarding job. I love that, in reaching a decision, judges can spend as much time as the case requires without having to consider the cost benefit to the client. I never had the opportunity to work on cases as an attorney that affected the “average Joe,” as opposed to large corporations, and I now find it highly satisfying to interact with and make a difference in the lives of average citizens.