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U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Stanley looks back on career

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U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Stanley described her 40-year legal career in one word — "fulfilling."

Thumbing through papers on her desk and eyeing the cardboard boxes against the wall, Stanley said she's not regretted being a lawyer or a judge.

"It's always been interesting. It's always challenged me mentally and intellectually. You can see I have a lot of paper on my desk. I'm in a completely different area of the law that I've never dealt with before and it really has me engaged," she said.

Stanley, who will retire from the bench on March 29, has had many firsts in her career — serving as West Virginia's first woman assistant U.S. attorney and the first U.S. magistrate judge. 

"Being first is largely a function of showing up at the right time when other people are ready to consider you," Stanley said. "So, I was kind of on that first wave of women coming out of law school."

Stanley grew up in Vienna, Va., a then-small town 15 minutes outside of D.C. She knew she wanted to be a lawyer starting in high school.

"There were some good TV programs that featured lawyers that I liked and there were lawyers in our neighborhood that I knew well," she said. "My grandfather was a lawyer, but he retired long since from when I was aware of it. So, I wasn't unfamiliar with it."

Stanley followed her dream and graduated in 1973 from the University of Virginia School of Law.

At that time, she was engaged and her fiancé had a summer job in West Virginia. Meanwhile, Stanley had a job elsewhere. After getting married, she started looking for a job in West Virginia.

However, her job search was not an easy one.

"None of the law firms here were hiring women. It wasn't done," she said, later adding a particularly frustrating experience.

"One of the places I applied for was up at the statehouse," she recalled. "I was told on the phone that they would not consider me unless I promised I would not have a baby for five years. That made me pretty mad."

Frustrated, Stanley kept up her search and had a successful interview at Columbia Gas Transmission, where she ended up working for a couple of years.

Yet, after she had her first child, she started her search again, seeking part-time work.

That's when she got the first job in her field, working as a part-time law clerk for U.S. District Judge Dennis Raymond Knapp.

"I did that for 18 months. Meanwhile, I was pregnant with my second child and in fact, I was seven or eight months pregnant and decided that was a great time to go job hunting," Stanley said with a slight laugh.

At that time, the Department of Justice encouraged U.S. attorneys to hire more women and minorities. Stanley made history when she was hired as the first woman assistant U.S. attorney in West Virginia.

For a period of time, Stanley even job shared with another new mother.

"I did that for 15 years and I loved it. It was a great job," she said.

At the time, there were not too many women in the courthouse, Stanley recalled.

"Everybody was as man — the court reporter, deputy clerk, all the marshals, all the probation officers — everyone was a man," she said. "I would often be the only woman in the whole room during a hearing. So, you can't help but feel like you stick out."

And being the first woman in these positions came with its own set of pressures.

"I set a higher standard for myself because I felt like I had to demonstrate that women were as good or better than men," she said. "So, I've always tried to be the best. I felt like if I didn't do well that it would be more difficult for other women coming behind me."

Add to that the lingering stress of day-to-day activities.  

"Well, I worked an awful lot," she explained. "Particularly when I was on trial, I would work an extraordinary amount of hours and not get much sleep," she said.

To de-stress, she would jog several times a week.

"And I found that if I was extremely well organized that I felt that I had better control over the case," she said. "That was another part of coping with the stress."

A job later opened as a U.S. Magistrate Court judge in Beckley and Bluefield.

"By that time, I had three kids. Two were in high school and one was in middle school. I was in Charleston and driving up the interstate to Beckley and Bluefield," she recalled.

Stanley became the first female U.S. magistrate judge in the state, happening at the right time in her life. And being a judge, Stanley said, was less stressful than being an attorney.

"When you're a young lawyer, you want to learn how to try cases and present matters to a jury, so that was great, but I also really got worn out and kind of burned out so that when I was in my mid 40s, it was a great time to go on the bench because I still got courtroom work but all I had to worry about was making decisions, and I can make decisions. I don't agonize over them for too long."

However, Stanley said even judges are human.

"There are some cases that keep you awake at night, where you have second thoughts," she said. "What I tell new judges is one of the wonderful things about being a judge is being able to vacate your own order. There are occasions where I said basically, ‘oops' and vacated an order or withdrew a particular ruling because I might have announced something from the bench saying we're going to do thus and such and then come in here and writing an order and getting the citations of law and realize, ‘this just isn't right.'"

"You can vacate an order or withdraw something," she added. "See, that's a nice thing. We all make mistakes."   

After 40 steady years of work, Stanley says she looks forward to free time in retirement.

"I really enjoy being outside," she said. "Since I'm retiring in spring, I have lots of gardening to do. I have a brand new bicycle and I'm also going to travel. I have a three-week trip to Spain planned and I'm leaving in April. I have two beautiful granddaughters I want to visit. I have lots to do."

Yet, Stanley will always remember the people she worked alongside.  

"Over these years, all the work has really been enhanced by the outstanding district judges that we have here," she said.