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March 3, 2021

New Jersey Law Journal: Magistrate Judge Dickson Leaves Bench After a Decade. Here's What's Next for Him

After more than a decade as a U.S. magistrate judge in Newark, Joseph Dickson has returned to private practice at Chiesa, Shahinian& Giantomasi, where he joins the firm’s alternative dispute resolution practice.

By joining Chiesa Shahinian, Dickson returns to familiar surroundings: Before rising to the bench, he spent five years at its predecessor firm, Wolff & Samson.

Dickson says he considered other firms, but choosing a post judicial employer ultimately came down to his respect and admiration for Jeffrey Chiesa, a name partner and executive committee member. For about a year before Dickson’s judgeship, he and Chiesa worked out of neighboring offices.

“When we started to think about where we wanted to be, my wife and I, this really became a perfect fit,” Dickson said. “It’s like coming back home.”

Still, Dickson will encounter plenty of new faces at Chiesa Shahinian. The firm has grown by about 50 attorneys in the time he was gone.

“It’s the same firm, but a different firm,” he said.

In his new role, Dickson expects to specialize in resolving disputes that are filed in federal court. Much of his work as a magistrate involved bringing parties together to settle all kinds of cases, from slip-and-fall suits and auto accident cases to complex litigation, and he expects a similar variety in his new position.

Dickson becomes the first former federal judge to join Chiesa Shahinian, which also offers the mediation services of former Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello and ex-Appellate Division Judge Jerome St. John.

“All three of the judges in our firm are very distinguished, well-liked and respected,” Chiesa said. “We’ve been very lucky in that regard.”

Chiesa and Dickson clearly formed a bond during the time they worked in neighboring offices.

“We had a very friendly relationship. When you work next to somebody, you either like them or you don’t,” Chiesa said.

And when the two met at a social gathering about five years ago, Chiesa confidently predicted Dickson would return to the firm.

Dickson, 69, says he put in his papers to retire from the bench more than a year ago, and had always planned to return to private practice after his stint as a magistrate.

“It just seemed like the right time to go,” he said.

Dickson graduated from New York University in 1978 and Seton Hall University School of Law in 1981, and started his career at Stryker Tams & Dill in Newark. He moved to Whipple Ross & Hirsch in 1985, and in 1992 formed the partnership of Clemente, Dickson &Mueller in Morristown.

He took a position as a staff attorney for Catholic Charities in 1998 and joined Wolff & Samson in 2006 as a senior associate.

Being a magistrate judge, he says, is “a wonderful job, a great job for any attorney, especially one who is in litigation.” But he took the job when he was in his late 50s and he did not view it as a stepping stone to a job as a district judge.

The shortage of District Court judges in the District of New Jersey had some impact on magistrates but he described it as far less dramatic than the burden it placed on the remaining District Court judges.

Dickson said being a magistrate judge during the COVID-19 pandemic was “not as good as it was without COVID.”

Magistrate judges in New Jersey have settled cases at roughly the same rate as before the pandemic, but conducting settlement conferences and discovery hearings virtually left him feeling he had less control.

“It’s different when you’re subject to technology and whether or not the Wi-Fi is working or whether or not somebody decides to wear a suit that day,” he said. “I didn’t care if anybody wore a suit or not, but you did see some fairly underdressed attorneys from time to time.”