“It’s OK to look over your shoulder, but don’t stare.”
That was how Judge Annette M. Rizzo began and ended her recent presentation to the Women in the Profession Committee at a jam-packed Philadelphia Bar Association Conference Center.
Judge Rizzo advised the audience not to get stuck in the moment. The past is something to look back on and learn from, but she said to be careful not to get mired in it. The message that day was evident – Judge Rizzo quite clearly is focused on moving forward. After 16 years of proud service on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Judge Rizzo has chosen to reinvent herself yet again as a distinguished neutral doing dispute resolution with JAMS.
She called the decision to leave the bench a highly introspective, logical process. It is important to note that this was a voluntary transition for Judge Rizzo. Because no one was forcing her out, she had the ability to engage in a period of self reflection, and as she repeated throughout the program, self-discernment. Asked if she is retiring, she said she is “re-tooling, very important distinction with the ‘re.’” She says she would never retire and she does not know what “retiring” means.
When Judge Rizzo announced her decision to step down from the bench, many were perplexed. In part, the decision gave people pause because it was voluntary. Her choice spawned an array of questions. What happened? Did you need the money? Is it for some illness? “Becoming a judge is a pinnacle in one’s career, so it would be difficult to understand why someone would want to step away from that,” she said. Following the questions, many revealed their own personal struggles with their own transitions.
Throughout Judge Rizzo’s career, she has worn many hats and gone through many changes. It is a personal and introspective journey. She began her career in the City Solicitor’s Office and talked of her love for that job. In fact, when discussing all of her jobs, she seems to have loved them all. She describes the City Solicitor’s Office as a place where you were “handed a file, told to go over to room 238, go pick a jury…such high volume, you learned.” Next was two years at Rawle & Henderson LLP, practicing in the areas of civil rights and medical malpractice. Again she said she loved the work and she learned.
Judge Rizzo said she had always wanted to be general counsel. She told an interesting story of how she landed the job at CIGNA. Exhausted before the meeting, she asked the interviewer for a Coke to wake her up. With no insurance background whatsoever, she still managed to seal the deal. After seven interviews, Judge Rizzo got the job, and again loved the work. After CIGNA, she leapt at the chance to join the bench when then-Gov. Tom Ridge called. She recalled a first day that she’ll never forget and the process of moving “through the black curtain.” Judge Rizzo said that although she loved the public service and impact on the law including breaking down the law and applying it, she did not necessarily love certain aspects of being a judge.
Judge Rizzo said she is always logical in her process, interested in breaking down and analyzing systems. She spoke logically of her decision to leave the bench, saying “a system does not rise and fall with one person.” This resonates with her love of public policy, her strong sense of community and her pride in the FJD’s Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program allowing people to be able to stay in their homes.
Maureen M. Farrell ([email protected]), principal in The Law Offices of Maureen M. Farrell, is an associate editor of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.
This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Bar Reporter, March 2015.