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Winter welcome 2020

Be Open to Serendipity, Be Kind, and Build Your Squad

By Ellen Merrick Petrill, ’77, ‘78

Jenny Martinez, Dean of Stanford Law, shared her wisdom at the 2020 Stanford Women Winter Welcome on January 21, 2020 at the Faculty Club with about 65 rapt undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty and staff from Stanford.  Jenny’s intimate and humble recounting of her life experiences showed us that she is a woman with broad interests and talents and a foundation of confidence.  She could have chosen many paths.  We knew that whatever path she had chosen, she would have excelled and impacted the world, as she does now in law and at Stanford.


Jenny Martinez is the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.  She is a leading expert on international courts and tribunals, international human rights, and constitutional law.  Jenny is married and has four daughters, three in middle school. Jenny spoke about her experiences and wisdom she has gained over the years.  She boiled down her experiences and wisdom into this advice: 
1. Be willing to take risks, to be open to serendipity
2. Be kind
3. Build your squad

Taking Risks, Being Open to Serendipity
Jenny graduated from Yale in History in 1993, where she changed her major so often that “…the file card was filled with scratched-out majors,” she admitted.  She had started out in the sciences.  However, Jenny found freshman history intriguing and enjoyed working on the school newspaper and in theater.  She realized, “This is not science.”  However, she also thought she might go to medical school so she took all the required pre-med courses.  She earned all but the last class for a chemistry degree as well. 
Jenny applied to both law and medical schools, was admitted to several, but none at the same place.  So she chose Harvard Law.  Jenny told us, “ I loved law school; the classes spoke to me.”  She knew she’d made a good choice. “And,” she said,  “if I’d chosen medical school, I probably would have been happy with that, too.”  

We all marveled at how many things she was good at.  No wonder she couldn’t decide.  Many students around me appeared relieved to hear that you don’t have to decide what your field is right away.  

After law school, she clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Connecticut, New York, and Vermont), and then for Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the clerkships, she had a position in a Washington, DC law firm, “…but I didn’t feel like working in a law firm at that time.  I had just broken up with my boyfriend and wanted to move away from Washington, DC. I consulted with my support squad (more on this later).  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg suggested looking into a position with Judge Patricia Wald of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.  I did and was hired as an associate legal officer!  I had less than seven days to move to the Hague.  I didn’t even know where the Hague was.  But I decided to take the risk and go.”

Because the position was under the UN, Jenny had to interview in London with the UN in international law to confirm the offer.  “Before the interview, I bought a British textbook on international law, because I hadn’t studied it at all in law school at Harvard.  I was lucky.  I had seven days to learn it and thanks to that text, I passed!”

“The Tribunal was investigating crimes in Yugoslavia against humanity.  Testimony included terrible things – sexual assault, torture, and genocide.  I asked myself, ‘Why do these crimes happen?  Even with UN oversight?’  

“Because similar things had happened in Bosnia and Rwanda, I realized the international legal system didn’t prevent it from happening again.  But the trial did take action against the Yugoslavian horrors.”  

After her time with the UN, Jenny went to work in the DC law firm.  But she found herself nagged by big picture questions.  Soon, she decided that working in academia rather than continuing her work as a lawyer in a high-pressure law firm would give her more time and opportunity to research and write articles to address the big picture questions that nagged her.

She left the law firm, became a senior research fellow and visiting lecturer at Yale.  In 2003, Jenny joined the faculty of Stanford Law.  
Taking risks and being open to serendipity led Jenny to a life-changing role with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia on crimes against humanity. That opportunity led to her taking a role in a field where she could research, teach, and write to continue to influence the big picture issues that drive her.

Being Kind

Being kind led Jenny to the opportunity to argue José Padilla’s case before the Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Padilla in 2004.  José Padilla was an American citizen who sought habeas corpus relief against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a result of his detention by the military as an “unlawful combatant.”

Donna Newman was a private attorney appointed by a New York City federal judge to represent Padilla.  Many high-profile lawyers offered to take over the case, presumably to get the publicity the case would bring.  Jenny reached out to Donna Newman and kindly offered to help at no charge.  Newman agreed and Jenny and Stanford law students provided memos on specific issues requested by Newman to support the case.  Jenny described, “It was more investigation than litigation.  Then I helped to write a brief, not as a ghost writer but as a partner.” 

The case made its way to the Supreme Court.  During a moot practice, Newman realized that Jenny would argue the case effectively and asked her to do it.  “I was both intimidated and honored,” said Jenny.  

Being kind, not obnoxious, got Jenny some excellent experience for herself and her students, and led her to a role on the other side of the Supreme Court.

Building your Squad

Jenny told us how important it is to have a squad to support you. “Your squad is the people you lean on for advice, for help at home, for ideas and feedback.  Law clerks pitch in and help each other.  In the law firm, you bounce ideas off the senior team.  Judges give advice.  Moms of my kids’ school mates share carpooling and ideas for dealing with middle school issues.”

Having a squad will help you to take the risks you need to take to grow and be able to address the issues that face you.  Your support squad can help nurture and support you in myriad ways.  For example, Justice Ginsberg had advised her to consider the Hague.  The Hague experience led to her continuing focus on international human rights law, as well as an on-going relationship with Judge Patrica Wald, who officiated Jenny’s 2004 wedding.

Q and A

Q: With such upsetting cases as in the UN International Criminal Tribunal, how do you balance emissions and the law and keep from getting too emotional?”

A: The law is supposedly abstract.  But emotions can help you.  Hold on to that feeling of injustice.  Channel it into modes of presenting, but within the framework of the legal structure.  
You can also take on secondary trauma as you learn about the sexual assault, for example.  Build in training and counseling as you need to, to take care of yourself.  Mindfulness and self care are always important.

Q: How do you maintain balance with work and soccer moms, for example?

A: We share roles among the moms and families.  I make a point of scheduling a call or get together.  I put it on the calendar.  

Q: Who did you call about the offer to go to the Hague?

A: Aside from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I talked with my mom, who is a lawyer, Justice Breyer, Judge Calabresi, and co clerks.  Nobody told me not to go.  I was recommended to read a NY Times story about the Bosnian conflict, which I had skipped over when it first came out.  But then I read it and found it compelling.  

Q:  International Law – does Stanford recognize it as an important area to study?

A: Stanford Law offers 25 classes, so yes, international law is offered. I have found in the past the US approaches international law with the sense of exceptionalism.  The U.S. tends to act outside the framework of international law, putting self-interest as a country and the rights of individuals first.
I wrote a book on slave trade and international law in the 19th century ( The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law).  By 1900, slavery was abolished.  The UK banned slavery in 1807 through international law treaties.  The British almost decided to regulate the sea trade but stayed the course to abolish it.  The US stayed outside of the British treaty system and continued slavery to the 1860s when Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. A long time horizon is needed for international systems to change; they need 50 years or more.  

Q: What is your advice to your 20-year-old self?

A: Sleep more!  Take care of yourself.  Exercise and eat your veggies.  Learn to say no!  You don’t have to say why.  If you say yes to everything, you won’t have time to do what’s really important.

Q: How do you give your advice to middle school age daughters to take risks?

A: I sometimes look back with wonder at how my mom was so encouraging of me going to the Hague!  Will I be able to do that?  At my daughters’ ages now, I encourage them to try something new.  You don’t have to know if you’re good at it or whether you like it before you try it.  I try to help them be open to new experiences. 


Hearing Jenny Martinez’s intimate and humble accounts of critical experiences in her life and her resulting advice was an inspiring example of how women leaders impact our lives and our world.  The Stanford Women Winter Welcome is one of the ways Cap and Gown offers vital opportunities to learn from leaders. 

Cap and Gown is grateful for support of the Stanford Schools of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Humanities and Sciences; and Engineering, for the 2020 Stanford Women Winter Welcome.   

Heartfelt thanks to the work of the Cap and Gown Winter Welcome committee:  
Actives: Jess De Suza, Rachel Portillo, and Corie Wieland
Alumnae: Beppie Cerf, Michelle Galloway, Jessica Mahler, and Smeeta Ramarathnam
Special thanks to Cayce Martin, Smeeta’s work colleague for her work on our SplashThat! registration site.

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