How a Judge Created Community for Court Workers

June 12, 2023

Keeping employees engaged and boosting morale was a challenge for law firms and legal organizations during the pandemic. But not for Northern District of Illinois Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who oversees Chicago and Rockford federal court workers.

The chief judge was less than a year into her role when the pandemic hit. She started sending daily emails to staff about workplace infections in the courthouse.

Initially, Judge Pallmeyer’s goal was to keep staff informed about what was happening — and hoping that employees would follow her lead on the court’s COVID response. Her updates, which disclosed infection rates at the courthouse without attributing them to specific individuals, provided context without adding stigma around contracting COVID.

Fearing staff would get bored with her updates and stop reading them, she began incorporating humorous touches and positive messages. And in addition to encouraging staff to vaccinate and mask, Pallmeyer got personal.

She infused her emails with some of her favorite poems, jokes, song lyrics, and authors’ quotes. One of her upbeat messages said, “Let’s focus, like the Temptations, on the positive: We have sunshine on this cloudy day.”

Judge Pallmeyer even shared her own poetry, including this haiku: “COVID is still here/ So are RSV and flu/ But we keep smiling.” Ultimately, her efforts transformed a routine email update into a source of community for the courthouse.

Judge Pallmeyer acknowledged her words of encouragement may sound parental: “At the risk of sounding more like Chief Mom than Chief Judge, let me say that I am genuinely proud of this court. I’m proud of the wonderful job we have done in limiting the spread of COVID within the courthouse and continuing our work here without interruption.”

Nearly three years of email updates came to an end when the national COVID emergency expired in May. Of course, her role as an authentic leader continues.

Her thoughtful communications demonstrate an effective way to foster community and strengthen morale at a time of significant uncertainty and anxiety. Her transparent, consistent communications showed federal court workers they could trust her — and the court’s COVID response.

Even if federal court workers didn’t share Judge Pallmeyer’s taste in music or poetry, they appreciated her continual efforts to inform and connect. Her updates were a constant at a time when a sense of community was more important than ever.

Check out Law360 for the full story of how Judge Pallmeyer’s authentic communications brought a courthouse together.