By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
LIVINGSTON STREET — Brooklyn Civil Court Supervising Judge Lisa S. Ottley was elevated from a judgeship at the beginning of last year to take on a supervisory role at the court she was elected to just two years earlier. Now, in her neat and tidy chambers, Judge Ottley said that all of her energy is concentrated on getting the job right.
“I don’t want things to fall through the cracks. That’s particularly important to me,” she said. “I am from a family of eight children. You have to be organized.”
Judge Ottley, 47, grew up in Flatbush and has spent her whole life living in Brooklyn — except for a few years in nearby Philadelphia, where she received her law degree at Temple University. Her father, from Trinidad, was a carpenter, and her mother is a retired nurse.
“[My father] had encouraged me to take the court reporter exam, because where he came from, being a court reporter was a really important job — they did all the reporting by hand,” she recalled. “So he was like, “Law school? That’s even better.’”
Ottley said that when she was growing up with seven siblings, her home was also a “revolving door” of all the young men in the neighborhood whom her father took under his wing to teach the carpentry trade.
“He lived an incredible life. He had an incredible work ethic, which he instilled in me,” Ottley said. “In his country he probably had an education not beyond his first year of high school. But he was a very intelligent, gifted man.”
Ottley’s parents were so involved in the community, she said, that they inspired her and her friends to start a teenagers’ block association.
“We were always told be involved in the community, give back to the community. If somebody’s hungry, feed them. The community was that type of community,” she said. “Some people still come knocking — holidays, barbecues — they come back and we always welcome them and say, ‘We want you here, it’s okay, we’re not going to look at you funny if you’re dressed in a different way.’ That’s what makes me happy.”
When Ottley pursued the study of law, it was with the same values in mind, she said.
“It’s not about me. If I have a resource or knowledge of a skill that I can give to someone else, that’s important to me; that’s fulfilling to me,” she said.
Ottley is so close to her Brooklyn roots that she made a last-minute change of law-school plans to stay close to home.
“Initially, I was in Texas, at Thurgood Marshall [School of Law in Houston]. As soon as I got there, I was like, ‘This is not for me. It’s too far.’ So I made an urgent phone call, and said, ‘Is my seat still available at Temple [University Law School, in Philadelphia]?’ Luckily, it was.”
Ottley said the advantage of being just two hours away was she could easily come home by bus or train, even able to go home on a Thursday and be back for classes on Friday.
Staying On Point
Ottley’s first job out of law school was with real estate attorney Anne Jaffe.
“She was fantastic. She always said to me, ‘You know, Lisa, you have to keep things organized. You have to stay on top of things. You mark down your appointments and deadlines 15 days ahead of time on your calendar. And then you mark another 13 days ahead of that,’” Ottley recalled. “She would send me to check on appeals every day, because if a decision comes down, you have to be ready. You always have to be on point.”
Judge Ottley’s chambers are filled with legal filings and cases, organized alphabetically, by type of case, and by date. There are a few decorations around her office, as well — like a doll of a judge handmade by a family friend.
“You see around my office things that, when I look up, they make me smile,” Ottley said, pointing to an oil painting of a dancer in one corner. “My nieces dance, so that reminds me of them.”
When Jaffe retired from the legal practice, Ottley decided instead of staying with the firm that she would set off in a new direction: to work in the courts.
“When Ann was retiring, she was more than willing to give me the practice. But I wanted to do something else outside real estate. I’m more of a people person, I care about making people see that they’re being heard,” Ottley said. “[Friends] were like, ‘Have you considered the court system?’”
Ottley followed her friends’ advice, going on to work for Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Bernadette Bayne, in the pro se part of Staten Island Civil Court, and then with Brooklyn Civil Court Judge Alice Fisher Rubin, before Ottley herself ran for a judgeship in 2008. Now she’s the supervising judge of Brooklyn Civil Court, which includes Brooklyn Housing Court.
“She hit the ground running,” said Brooklyn Housing Court Supervising Judge John S. Lansden. “She has an exceptional temperament and is on top of everything there is.”
Her boss and fellow Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association board-member, Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix, spoke about Judge Ottley’s flexibility. Hon. Hinds-Radix, the Kings County administrative judge for civil matters, recalled when Judge Ottley was once asked to temporarily serve in Brooklyn Family Court.
“She agreed without question and was very effective in the work she did in Family Court,” Hinds-Radix said. “She continues to be a shining star. She’s extremely capable; she has a great knowledge of the law, and she’s well liked by the personnel in the court.”
Getting In The Groove
Ottley is proud to supervise what she described as a hard-working bench: “The other day Judge [Dawn] Jimenez Salta finished motions early. She came down and said, ‘You need me for anything else?’ That’s so great — it can be 250 to 300 motions a day sometimes!”
Ottley also hears her own full calendar of trials, in addition to her administrative duties.
“Motions come to me regularly. If a judge calls in sick, I cover the part,” Ottley explained. “If a case comes in, and all the judges are assigned to cases, then I’m tapped to take the case. I bring it up here to [courtroom] 1202.”
Ottley said that when Housing Court judges had to go to a mandatory retraining, she took over that calendar, and said it was almost too fun: “I got in the groove of it. When the judge came back, I was still going. She was like, ‘Lisa. I’m back.’ I was like, ‘I got this.’”
Ottley admitted that she can get exasperated when attorneys refuse to compromise, for example saying that they can’t settle “as a matter of principle” when the proposed amount is $100 different from what they want.
“They always say, ‘Judge, it’s a matter of principle.’ I say, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s a matter of law. Honestly, you’re $100 apart. You honestly want me to pick a jury and get doctors you’ll be paying $6,000 a day to testify, over $100?’”
Ottley’s favorite cases are when she helps litigants resolve their personal disputes.
For example, extra security attended an unpaid rent case between a mother and daughter who threatened each other at a previous hearing. But by the time Ottley was finished with the case, the daughter had agreed to pay the rent, and both women had apologized to each other.
“There was a gentleman in front of me today pro se [representing himself]. He was at least 70 years old. And I took a lot of time with him,” Ottley said. “I’m sure some of the attorneys were like, ‘Okay, when’s she going to stop listening to this guy?’ I’m like, ‘Well, you know the law. He needs it explained to him’”
Sometimes, making sure that litigants understand their cases is more important that time management, Ottley says.
“You have to give people the opportunity to be heard,” she said. “If you do, then even if they leave here and they’re not happy, I honestly believe that at some point, it will click and they will understand.”