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LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2016: Hon. Van T. Willis

Part-Time Magistrate Judge; Senior Partner, Kightlinger & Gray LLP, New Albany; University of Kentucky College of Law, 1988

May 4, 2016

Van Willis is a pillar of his firm and of his community. In his nearly 30 years in practice, he has earned a reputation as an outstanding attorney, a fair and thoughtful judge and a civic-minded person. The business attorney assists clients with legal and operational challenges including workers’ compensation, copyright infringement and civil rights. In 2015, he was appointed to the federal bench, serving as a part-time magistrate judge presiding over preliminary criminal proceedings in the New Albany Division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Van generously gives his time and energy and believes in passing that commitment of service to the next generation of leaders. He sits on the board of directors of Goodwill of Southern Indiana and is president of the Governing Board of Floyd County Head Start. He is also active with several bar associations, including Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and the Floyd County Bar Association.

willis-15col.jpg (IL photo/Eric Learned)

What made you want to be a magistrate?

I clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Gene Brooks out of law school and have had an interest in being a judge ever since.

How do you balance your practice and your magistrate duties?

As a part-time magistrate judge, I have not had too many problems balancing the obligations. Our clerk is very good about trying to schedule my courtroom duties around my civil practice schedule.

Why did you become a lawyer?

I always had an interest in being a lawyer from an early age, but by the time that I had completed my undergraduate degree, I was somewhat burned out on school. I worked for a couple of years in low-paying, non-demanding jobs that were not very satisfying. At that point, I started thinking about the things that might be interesting enough to pursue. Going back to law school kept sounding like the best option.

If you couldn’t be a lawyer, what would you do for a living?

I am not sure. I would like to say a golf pro, but I would starve to death.

What was the most memorable job you had prior to becoming an attorney?

I worked for a month one summer while I was in college at a factory where my job was bagging pesticides. You could see the dust in the air at all times and of course, we weren’t provided any protective gear of any kind.

What do you learn whenever you take on a mentoring role?

I usually find out that I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

What’s something about you not many people know?

I’m a huge music fan. One of my prized possessions is my iPod, which has over 27,000 songs on it.

How has business law changed since you started?

All of the technology advances have changed the practice greatly. Clients want near instant results and constant access to you. The upside is that preparing and revising legal documents is so much quicker and easier. You also have access to so much more information than I could have imagined when I first started.

What civic cause is the most important to you?

One of my mentors and close friends died from leukemia. Afterward, I had the opportunity to serve on the board of directors of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for Louisville and southern Indiana. I still try to support them as much as possible.

What’s something that you wish you could tell your younger self?

I would tell myself to slow down and take your time before making decisions. Most of the regrets that I have from my younger years come from actions that I took with little to no forethought.

Is there a moment in your career you wish you could do over?

More than I can count.

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