Amanda Reichek: Stretching beyond the comfort zone
Born and raised in a union family in Houston, Texas, Justice Amanda Reichek’s inspiration for her career and academic studies were in part derived from her unique environment as a child. Her grandfather worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone and was a member of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Her father worked as an installer for Southwestern Bell Telephone and was an active member of the CWA as well. Both were pro-union, and big believers in protecting workers and ensuring sustainable conditions within the workforce. Reichek’s mother was a stay-at-home mother who went to college to obtain her degree in Nursing, graduating from college the same year that Reichek graduated from high school. Her mother worked as a school nurse and enjoyed it until she eventually worked under an extremely difficult principal who was unconcerned with the wellbeing or interests of their employees. Reichek’s mother discovered she was eligible to join the teacher’s union and joined the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), a local union affiliated with the national American Federation of Teachers. Although the HFT represented school nurses as well as teachers, Reichek’s mother decided to start recruiting more school nurses, believing there to always be strength in more members. She grew the nurse membership from 38 school nurse members to over 120 in a few months, and was elected as Vice President of Nurses within her HFT Executive Council. Reichek’s mother continued to remain actively involved with her union, organizing a school nurse task force on a local and state level, and advocating for her fellow school nurses, students and parents by testifying at the Texas Legislature regarding school nurse rights within the workforce. Justice Reichek attended public school in Houston, which further exposed her to people from various nationalities and walks of life due to the diversity present within Houston. As such, Justice Reichek was confronted early on with issues regarding workers’ rights, immigration, equality, and socioeconomic status.
Although Reichek thinks she was predisposed to develop an interest in workers’ rights given her background, this interest initially manifested through a desire to work as a sociology professor. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science from Texas Tech University and continued her studies at North Carolina State University as a doctoral student studying systems of inequality and how they intersect. Although she enjoyed her studies, she became frustrated there was no outlet to take action within academia and chose to go to law school to become a worker’s rights advocate. She attended Texas Tech Law school where she earned her Juris Doctor and graduated with honors. While in private practice, Justice Reichek practiced labor and employment law, representing employees and labor unions. She is Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law, and has held numerous leadership positions within the legal profession, including Chair of the Labor and Employment Law Council of the Dallas Bar Association.
Currently, Justice Reichek serves as a Justice on the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals along with twelve other Justices including the Chief Judge for the Court. Appeals are heard by three-judge panels. Typically, each panel considers three civil or six criminal appeals per week. If oral argument is ordered in an appeal, the justices hold oral argument, and then have a conference to discuss how to rule on each case, and determine which judge will write each opinion. Some cases are decided without oral argument, but the judges meet to decide how to resolve these cases as well. Texas appellate courts also have jurisdiction over certain original proceedings, and the Fifth District Court of Appeals has a separate writ docket that considers these matters as well. These are cases where the filing party claims the trial court has done something that is a clear abuse of its discretion, and where the party does not have an adequate remedy on appeal. These cases are more time-sensitive and add to the complexity of the business of the court.
The assignment of justices to panels changes four times a year. However, because COVID-19 prevented most cases from going to trial in the lower courts over the last year, the number of appeals filed in the state’s appellate courts has declined as well. As a consequence, the Fifth District Court of Appeals will have only three rotations this year rather than the usual four. Justice Reichek remarked that when the pandemic hit it was fascinating to observe how her colleagues found creative new ways to modify their typical work patterns and routines to ensure the Court was able to continue to run smoothly within a pandemic during unprecedented conditions.
Justice Reichek advises young women aspiring to take on leadership positions to be willing to pursue and take “stretch assignments.” “When someone approaches you with an opportunity and your first instinct is that you’re not up to the challenge, you should consider doing it anyway.” This sort of attitude is what Justice Reichek credits her success to, noting that a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone and take on challenging new positions is a pivotal element to achieving success in the modern world as a young woman. Justice Reichek credits the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg with this idea, and this book is also one of Justice Reichek’s favorite literary resources for women. “There are many good lessons to be taken from this book, with the key one being that of ‘leaning in’ to that assignment or job that seems beyond one’s abilities.” For example, Justice Reichek was offered an opportunity to serve as temporary general counsel for a pilot’s union at a major airline. Although she was objectively qualified for the role, it was unlike her usual representation of clients. Reichek’s practice consisted of representing individual employees in lawsuits against their former employers, and her union work consisted of either “direct member services” where unions hired her to represent members at disciplinary hearings, or representation of unions in lawsuits. This opportunity was different in that she would be advising the union on an ongoing basis, as an institution. At first, accepting the position seemed implausible and her first instinct was to turn it down; but as she thought about it, she realized she could make it work and she accepted this “stretch assignment” despite her reservations. To this day, she considers this assignment to be among the most enriching of her career as it allowed her to develop and learn a totally different skill-set than the one she had used to that point.
She took another stretch assignment in her undertaking of the role as a Justice, noting that “going from a lawyer to a judge takes a lot-it’s a big jump, as you’re going from being an ‘advocate’ to being an arbiter of disputes. You have to put your advocacy skills on a shelf and be totally unbiased.” However, Justice Reichek did not let her initial intimidation bar her from taking up the challenge, and it is something she has not ever regretted.
Justice Reichek’s further advice to young women aspiring to be in leadership positions is to “try to exude confidence, even if you don’t feel confident at all – in other words, fake it till you make it.” Prior to joining the court she did not have many male colleagues, but that changed when she began her tenure as judge, as several of her new colleagues were men. Reichek recalls that she watched in awe as they approached oral argument as though they had been doing it their whole lives, while she and the other female justices held back during oral argument and were more reserved even though they were as prepared-and as qualified-as the male judges. “The male judges didn’t know any more than I did, but they seemed to have a certain confidence level where they weren’t afraid to put themselves out there, even at the risk of potential embarrassment.” In this sense, women can learn something from men. “We should be equally fine with falling down. We are so much more self-conscious than we need to be, and we beat ourselves up for falling short while men simply don’t do that.” Reichek observes “What you view as a mistake may not actually be a mistake, and even if it is a mistake, dust yourself off, learn from it, and move on.”
Furthermore, Justice Reichek noted, “Success is all about relationships. Instead of thinking in terms of who you know and networking for the sake of networking, it's important to think about actually getting along with people and taking an active interest in their lives. I think a key to success is how you treat others – and this extends to every single person you interact with.” She explains “I try very hard to treat my colleagues with respect and to understand their perspective, so when I explain my perspective people are willing to hear me out. It’s important to be nice in a genuine way and understand that everyone has something to teach you.” Justice Reichek found conferring with colleagues and mentors to be one of her favorite resources for obtaining support and guidance. She noted the value of listening to the guidance and experiences of colleagues and mentors, and to not be afraid to ask them about their success. “At least for lawyers, there is nothing more flattering than asking to pick their brain and asking how they got where they are. It's extremely important to talk to other people who have achieved what you want to. There is always more to learn from others.”
Justice Reichek is currently in the third year of her six-year term as a Justice on the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals. She noted that she immensely enjoys her current work as a Justice, and that there is still stretching and growing to go within her position, which keeps it interesting. She definitely plans to continue as a judge far into the future, and continue learning all she can to be the best at what she does.