When two alumni from the University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law were appointed to the Utah Supreme Court this year, the bench of the state’s top court became majority female for the first time in its history.
For Justices Jill Pohlman ('96) and Diana Hagen ('98), their appointments are the latest groundbreaking moments in pioneering careers.
As a fourth grader, Pohlman fell in love with the law while participating in a special unit on the justice system. The experience included a field trip to the courthouse where she got to see lawyers and judges in action and finished with her class participating in a moot court. Pohlman played the defendant and was found guilty.
“After seeing how the courtroom worked, I thought, ‘I love this,’” she said. “I loved the idea of people investigating and presenting evidence in an attempt to get to the truth. I also liked the idea of making arguments and using words to try to work out issues and resolve disputes.”
That was the moment when Pohlman decided to become a lawyer.
“A spark was lit,” she said. “I decided I wanted to be a judge as well. So I would tell everyone and anyone, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a lawyer and a judge.’ And now I feel so lucky to be where I am.”
Hagen’s decision to become a lawyer came later in her educational journey. At age 3, she set her heart on becoming an actress. She filled her time with speech and drama classes, debate tournaments, and theater performances, and even spent her first year of college as an acting major in Los Angeles. However, her mother’s desire for her to avoid student debt brought her back to Utah.
After transferring to the U, Hagen decided she wanted a more stable career than acting could provide and changed her major to speech communication with the idea that she could become a spokesperson or a public information officer.
As part of her major, she took a class on freedom of speech and discovered that she loved studying the law. One of her classmates told her about the LSAT, so she took the test and applied to law school on a whim after graduating in 1994.
“I ended up getting a scholarship to the U, which is the only reason I went to law school,” Hagen said. “I thought I didn’t have anything to lose, so I might as well try it out.”
During her first summer of law school, Hagen worked at Parr Brown, a law firm that had a media law practice. Her love of the work confirmed to her she was doing the right thing. And though it was different from her childhood dream, performing arts prepared her well for the career she chose.
“It helped me learn how to speak in public, how to articulate an argument, how to have a presence in the courtroom,” she said. “I used to get that in my evaluations a lot, that I had a good courtroom presence. And I thought, ‘That’s the stage presence I learned from theater.’”
Pohlman also attended the U for her undergraduate degree. She studied political science and communication and graduated with her bachelor’s degrees in 1993. Though she had opportunities to go out of state for her law degree, she chose to remain in Utah because of the scholarships she received.
“I am so glad I did,” Pohlman said. “I received a fantastic education at the U. I met wonderful people and I have been able to do everything with my career that I have wanted to do and could have done had I gone to one of those other schools.”
Attending the U allowed both women to graduate from law school, Pohlman in 1996 and Hagen in 1998, without the burden of large student loans that provided them more flexibility in their careers.
“Not having any student loans after law school allowed me to make a lot of different choices,” Hagen said.
One of these choices was to leave Parr Brown where she started her career to specialize in appellate work in the Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office. The job required her to take a substantial pay cut, about 30% of her salary. Later when she and her husband had children, their family was able to make the decision for him to stay home with them full-time.
“Both of those choices made a huge difference in my career,” she said.
Hagen and Pohlman each adopted hybrid work schedules when they became parents. Hagen worked from home three days a week and Pohlman worked a reduced schedule. Though their decisions were met with hesitancy from colleagues and supervisors who were concerned the plans would not be successful, the fact that they were given this flexibility allowed both of them to continue their careers in the law.
“Everybody invested in my career and we wanted to find a way to make it work,” Pohlman said.
After graduating from law school, Pohlman took a job at the law firm of Stoel Rives LLP in Salt Lake City. Before attending law school, her plan had been to become a prosecutor. Instead, she joined a business law firm and eventually became a partner.
“Occasionally, I would search on my computer to see what openings were in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, because something inside me would say, ‘you know, you did want to be a prosecutor.’But I loved what I did so much and I got to work with such amazing people that I never wanted to make the jump,” she said.
In 2016, Pohlman’s childhood dream of becoming a judge came true. Then Gov. Gary Herbert appointed her to Utah’s Court of Appeals. The next year, Hagen joined the court, making it the state’s first majority-female court.
In March of 2022, Gov. Spencer Cox appointed Hagen to the Utah Supreme Court. Pohlman’s appointment followed in August. In the 126 years since Utah gained statehood, Hagen and Pohlman are two of just five women to serve on the state’s highest court.
“We are so incredibly proud of our esteemed alumane—Justices Hagen and Pohlman,” said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of S.J. Quinney College of Law. “Not only are they the embodiment of exceptional lawyers who have made a profound societal impact, but they are blazing new trails for those who will follow. As the first female graduates of the S.J. Quinney College of Law to sit on the Utah Supreme Court, they are proof that an S.J. Quinney education prepares you for any legal job—including service on the highest appellate court in Utah.”
In 1982, Justice Christine Durham was the first woman appointed to the court. For the next 21 years, until Justice Jill Parrish was appointed in 2003, Durham was the only woman on the court. When she retired in 2017, she was replaced by Justice Paige Peterson, who is still serving on the court.
“That long history makes the recent appointments of Justices Hagen and Pohlman an occasion of great celebration for me,” Durham said. “The three women who now sit on Utah’s high court are distinguished, able and highly qualified. It is past time that our court reflects the significant accomplishments of women in the legal profession and on the bench.”
When Pohlman first considered applying for a position on the Utah Court of Appeals, she was worried the flexible schedule she had needed as a parent would put her at a disadvantage. But now she understands the importance of others hearing her story.
“You can work a reduced schedule and still be a great lawyer and do the things you want to do. It may look less traditional, but with supportive colleagues and a willingness to work hard, it can work,” she said.
According to Hagen, the flexibility she was given as a young lawyer saved her law career.
“Allowing me to find a way to strike the right balance, to know that my kids were being cared for and that I could be the kind of mom I wanted to be while still pursuing my career, that’s what kept me in the law,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here today if that hadn’t happened.”
Pohlman also said their experience brings a unique perspective to their work and influences the way they serve their community.
“I think it’s made us better lawyers and hopefully better judges now because we were able to have this other piece of our life,” Pohlman said.
This story was originally published in the University of Utah publication @theU. You can read it here.