Michele Christiansen Forster began law school at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in the early 1990s as part of the first incoming class in history to consist of more women than men. She’s continued to be a trailblazer since graduating and has held several positions in the public sphere, including serving on the Utah Court of Appeals after an appointment by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2010.
Christiansen Forster was recently named the 2017 recipient of the Dorathy Merrill Brothers Award for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession by the Utah State Bar. The award is given to a person who demonstrates the highest qualities of professionalism, public service, and public dedication. The recipient also is recognized for enhancing the administration of justice, the delivery of legal services, improving the legal profession, encouraging new efforts, and engaging in significant activity on behalf of the advancement of women.
Christiansen Forster spoke to the S.J. Quinney College of Law recently about her path to law school in a Q&A:
Q: What made you interested in going to law school?
A: I wish I could tell you that I have always had a passion for the law, but the reality of my path to law school is not quite that dramatic. My senior year in college I was appointed to serve on the Lawrence University Judicial Board, the body which adjudicated complaints of student social code violations. These hearings were my first taste of quasi-legal proceedings and I found that I really enjoyed examining the governing regulations and rules and being a part of a group that helped resolve conflict between students. Also, strangely enough, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French intellectual history from a small midwestern liberal arts college did not seem to open as many employment doors as one would think! At the end of the day, I couldn’t be happier that I chose the legal profession and that I attended law school at the University of Utah.
Q: What do you do today? How did your time at the law school shape and/or help what you are currently doing?
A: I am currently the Associate Presiding Judge of the Utah Court of Appeals and I have been an appellate judge for almost nine years. Prior to joining the Court of Appeals, I was a trial judge in the Third District Court for a little over three years. There are so many ways my time at the law school helped me on my judicial path. First and foremost, the relationships I developed with my professors and fellow students have provided me with life-long mentors and supportive friends who push me to be my best self and legal professional. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the many amazing people I met and with whom I worked during my three years at the law school. Other significant benefits of my law school experience were the excellent legal research and legal writing instruction and professors I had during my time there. It goes without saying that strong research and writing skills are a must for an appellate judge and I continue to be grateful for all who helped me become a better writer and for those who taught me to think critically and analytically.
Q: What is one memorable experience from law school that will always stay with you?
A: My time in law school began with the fact that the Class of 1995 was the first law class at the University of Utah that contained more women than men (and I could be wrong, but I think the Class of 1995 was the first class to graduate more women than men as well). Being a part of this “first” was significant to me because it made me believe that parity and equality were real possibilities. Being a part of this “first” is something that has continued to guide my professional goals and my desire to always perform at a level which ensure women continue to be promoted and appointed at the same rate as men. I think having diversity on the bench is incredibly important and the contribution of different perspectives makes for better decisions. I’m proud of the fact that I was the first female general counsel to a Utah governor, I’m proud of the fact that four of the seven judges on the Court of Appeals are women, and I hope to continue to mentor, encourage, and promote qualified women whenever I can so that these “firsts” are simply common for all of us and especially for my teenage daughters.
Q: You’ve worked in a few different areas of law, including both in the public and private sectors. What have you learned from trying different legal specialties on your career path?
A: Having many different jobs and working with many different people over the years has taught me that the law is really a great profession and that the vast majority of lawyers in this community are hard-working, honest, and dedicated professionals. My experiences in private practice, as a federal prosecutor, as an executive branch lawyer, and as a judge have shown me that we all strive to do the best job we can, help as many people as we can, and strengthen and build this community. I’ve learned that being open to new opportunities and overcoming my fear of failure has allowed me to build a career that I love. For me, the highlights of my career have involved working directly with different people and feeling like I have positively contributed to their lives. One specific example was presiding over a mental health court when I was on the trial bench. To this day, my time with the mental health court is one of the best things I have done with my law degree.
Q: Outside of work, tell us about something interesting that you like to do?
A: My husband and I are the parents of five teenage daughters and each one of them is unique and amazing and I love spending time hiking, laughing, and learning with them. I love to go to Red Butte concerts in the summer, to go on “running” trips with my great group of girlfriends, and to spend time with my friends and colleagues. As the girls get older and begin to build their own lives, I hope to be able to do more traveling to far-away places.