With nearly a decade of bench experience, Duval County Judge Michelle Kalil is a Jacksonville native whose early drive to enter law fueled her to becoming a respected judge who is changing lives every day.
“I first became interested in the law in middle school, I was just fascinated by it. I did my eighth grade career day on being a Supreme Court justice,” Judge Kalil said. “The idea of studying law stayed with me all through high school.
“Maybe the show ‘L.A. Law’ had some influence then, too!” she laughed.
Pathway to the Bench
After attending University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, Judge Kalil represented clients in every aspect of criminal law during her more than 12 years serving in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit’s Office of the Public Defender.
Starting as an assistant public defender and becoming a division chief, Judge Kalil practiced her courtroom skills in front of many judges. She witnessed how defendants are treated in different courtrooms and observed the styles of various judges. She began to think about how she would handle a particular sentencing, what she might say to a defendant, and her dream of someday sitting on the bench in her own courtroom began to form.
Understanding that a well-rounded career would be helpful to achieving that goal, Judge Kalil launched her own law firm practicing criminal defense in San Marco. Quicker than she had anticipated, a door opened.
The retirement of Judge Harold Arnold proved to be an exciting opportunity. With her extensive law practice experience and courtroom skills and understanding, she was ready to transition from private practice and was elected in November 2012 to fill his vacant seat on the bench in January 2013.
In the Court
“While I’m serious about the work, I consider myself as having a more casual style in the courtroom,” said Judge Kalil. “I want to make it comfortable for those appearing before me. First-time offenders who appear before me have no idea what to expect and the experience can be intimidating and scary. I explain what happens as I want to help them understand how the legal process works in general. I take this approach whether they stand before me in the courtroom or appear via Zoom.”
During and since COVID, presiding over a courtroom has looked a little different and has proven to Judge Kalil to expect the unexpected.
“We used Zoom when the courthouse was closed to the public due to COVID,” she said. “I chose never to conduct my sessions at home, but would go to the court and present myself in my robe online.”
“However, defendants in criminal cases did not always respect that their time with me was a serious matter. Once, a woman defendant logged into Zoom with me while she was driving, using her cell phone! To make matters worse, I noted she was driving with a suspended driver’s license. I asked her to pull over, and when she parked, she asked me to ‘hold on’ while she walked in a store to go shopping. I had to make her realize she was in a required court session!
“I love that I don’t consider what I do ‘a job;’ I enjoy being in court so it doesn’t feel like work. I help those who appear before me to turn things around. I give them an opportunity to do what they need to do, and I see that they do it. I get letters of thanks that I made them do things while they were on probation and how it changed their lives; they are appreciative to be sober and working again. That is incredibly impactful to them and meaningful to me.”
For new and young attorneys and public defenders, Judge Kalil takes the responsibility to help train them as they enter her courtroom. “I give feedback, tell them what they did well, what to do different. I provide my trial orders in advance about what to do in my court. If they misstep, I will let them know so they learn from their mistakes.”
Service to Others
With a passion for serving others that bloomed during her involvement in Wolfson High School’s Interact club, Rotary’s high school program, Judge Kalil continues her leadership in the community. That early introduction to service continued through college and led her to become involved with the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville, where she has served on its board and plans to do so again.
“It’s important for me to help our city’s youth,” said Judge Kalil. She has served as a judge for Duval County’s Teen Court program and is joining Girls Inc. of Jacksonville as a board member this year.
An active member of Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association (JWLA), she was honored as the 2018 Woman Lawyer of the Year due to her commitment to the legal community and for being a role model for JWLA members.
You Got Served!
Judge Kalil is a force to be reckoned with on the court, as well. Her rivals find her to be a formidable opponent as they take a swing at her – with their tennis rackets.
A champion tennis player, Judge Kalil plays on the San Jose Country Club working women’s team, as well as their USTA team. In 2019, the USTA team qualified for the USTA League National Championships and was awarded third place in the country.
Advice for the Next Judicial Generation
Judge Kalil offers solid advice to attorneys considering a move to the bench: “Gain a lot of first-hand experience in all facets of trial work; attend trials, listen and learn (especially important for transactional lawyers who have no trial experience and face a more difficult path); take courses and seminars; and observe other judges.”