Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn
President, American Inns of Court
Trailblazing President Sets Ambitious Goal | The Bencher | September/October 2022
By Melanie Padgett Powers
Chief Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn has set an audacious goal as the new president of the American Inns of Court: to create 100 new Inns during her two-year term. But being a trailblazer is nothing new to Lynn, who serves as the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, based in Dallas.
Lynn has a long list of being the “first woman” throughout her law career—bookended by being among the first undergraduate women to attend the University of Virginia (UVA) and now serving as the first female chief judge in Texas. In between, she was the first woman summer associate, associate, and partner at her firm, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal LLP.
Lynn didn’t set out to be a trailblazer; she became one from a mix of her goals, ambition, and the time period. Growing up in Miami, Florida, she applied to UVA because of its academic excellence and its affordability for her middle-class parents. She didn’t even know until after she was accepted that women had not been allowed to attend college at UVA before her 1970 freshman class.
“It wasn’t that I set out with a big sword to break all these barriers,” she explained. “I just knew things I wanted to accomplish, and I couldn’t get there unless I fought the barriers and broke them down.
“I was motivated by the notion that if you worked hard, and you did good work, that you would be able to achieve what you set out to do,” she continued. “That worked very well for me all through high school. Then I got into the college I wanted to go to, but when I got there, there were these barriers.”
One of those barriers was at the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, which Lynn, a high school extemporaneous speaker and debater, wanted very much to join. However, although UVA chose to admit women, it didn’t force its clubs to follow suit. Lynn and other women were barred from joining the Society. She was allowed to attend meetings as a guest of her future husband, Michael P. Lynn—now a Dallas trial lawyer at Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann LLP—but that was it. Because the Society bylaws required the members to interview every applicant, “I made them interview me every semester, even though I knew they were not going to admit me,” Lynn said.
“The ones who did not want female members were pretty aggressive about trying to discourage me by asking very obnoxious questions,” she said.
It was her supportive future husband’s clever planning that eventually allowed Lynn to become the first woman member of the Society. When the more conservative members of the Society left town for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mike Lynn became acting president and realized he had a quorum to call a business meeting, if all members still on campus showed up. They did.
By just one vote, two-thirds of the members in attendance voted to change the bylaws to become a co-ed club. When the other members returned, they didn’t have enough votes to change the rule back. Lynn was admitted into the Society.
Accepting the Role of Judge
Although Lynn faced plenty of sexist barriers throughout her law career, she also talked about the support she received from male colleagues and mentors. After graduating from SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas in 1976—as No. 1 in her class—she joined Carrington, Coleman, where she practiced a variety of business litigation. She remained there until she took the bench.
“It was a very professional, cohesive place to work,” she said, explaining why she stayed for 24 years. “We had very little turnover for most of the time I was there. There were very cooperative relationships among the partners and associates, and they practiced law at the highest level.”
When a federal judgeship opened up on the Northern District of Texas bench soon after President Clinton took office, Lynn applied but wasn’t selected. When a position opened up about five years later, Lynn had moved on and decided to stick with her love of practicing law at the firm she loved. But then-U.S. Representative Martin Frost (D-Texas) told Lynn he wanted to recommend her to the president. She decided to go for it, primarily for the “public service aspects and to be able to more directly impact the administration of justice,” she said.
She took the oath of office as a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Texas on February 14, 2000. On May 1, 2016, she became the chief judge. As an experienced trial lawyer, Lynn thought she was prepared to be a judge but encountered a definite learning curve.
“When I took the bench I’d been practicing law since 1976, and I thought I’d seen a lot. I didn’t think I’d be surprised at the substance of the work, and that was just not true,” she said. “First of all, I didn’t have much experience in the criminal area. And second, there’s a lot of law on the books that I hadn’t encountered. Someone would walk in with a case under a law I’d never heard of, like the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, and I had to learn it like a new lawyer would.”
She said she was fortunate to have a “wonderful mentor” in Judge Harold “Barefoot” Sanders, whose office was next to hers. She had known him when she was a lawyer, and he helped answer her questions as a judge.
Paying mentorship forward has been important to Lynn throughout her career. She speaks often to young attorneys about their careers and how to achieve their goals. She also adheres to her own special rule to give young lawyers experience in the courtroom whenever she can.
“I feel like the opportunities for less-experienced lawyers in the courtroom have been substantially reduced. So, I try to create more space for that by telling lawyers that I will have an oral argument on a matter that I might not have otherwise, only if I know that a lawyer seven years or less in experience will be the one arguing it,” she said. “I want to do what I can to prevent the raising up of a generation of ‘trial lawyers’ who have never been in court at all. That scenario doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Expanding Inns and Their Membership
Mentorship is one of the many benefits Lynn sees the Inns providing. She is in three Inns, first joining the national organization when the Patrick E. Higginbotham American Inn of Court was chartered in 1988 in Dallas. Lynn had worked for Judge Higginbotham—a former national Inn president—during a law school summer and had heard him speak highly of the American Inns of Court several times.
In 2011, Lynn had an intellectual property Inn named after her in Dallas—the Honorable Barbara M.G. Lynn American Inn of Court—which she helped create. Within this past year, she helped launch the North Texas Federal Criminal Law American Inn of Court, the only Inn that focuses on the federal practice of criminal law. Creating more specialty Inns such as this is one way Lynn sees the organization achieving her goal of creating 100 new Inns over the next two years.
“I think that’s a very good model to try to spread around throughout the country,” she said. “My principal goals are to create more Inns and be of even more service to the Inns we have now.”
Lynn acknowledged the struggles of keeping Inn members involved and motivated during a pandemic that has entered its third year.
“Breaking bread with the other members is a very important aspect of what makes an Inn successful, so that was challenging,” she said. “But I think the notion of what the Inns stand for is more important now because I think the identification of young lawyers within the profession is a challenge.
“And, young lawyers who came into the profession during the pandemic have less of a sense of the importance of professional relationships than more senior lawyers did. I think we have to work very hard on letting young lawyers know why this matters and encourage their active participation in Inns,” she continued. “You really have to offer something that meets young lawyers’ needs, and that’s a challenge I want to meet head-on. I want young people to embrace the opportunities that Inn membership presents to them—mentorship, professionalism, civility, and excellence.”