Alan Pendleton seemed on a meteoric ride to fame and fortune. An All-American diver who graduated magna cum laude from Bemidji State and cum laude from Drake Law School, Pendleton left a prosecutor's job for positions with two of Minnesota's best-known law firms.

He was on the verge of a very lucrative paycheck and career. But something seemed wrong. He recalled advice he received, first from his father and later from Winona County Attorney Julius Gernes and, finally, from attorney Jim Schwebel of Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben.

"All three told me that the secret to a successful and fulfilling career was to focus not on financial reward, but rather on following your heart and passions, wherever they may lead you," he said.

"If you follow that simple rule and are lucky enough to spend your entire professional life doing something you love and feel passionate about, then you will never work a day in your life."

Pendleton recently received the 2012 Minnesota District Judges Association Outstanding Judge Award for his commitment to improving the judicial system and promotion of judicial efficiency.

Today, he continues to live and breathe the legal system hours after he has removed the black robe he wears in his Anoka County courtroom.

Pendleton, a judge since 1999, designed, coordinated and obtained funding for the construction of Minnesota's first e-courtroom -- a fully integrated electronic courtroom that used a multifaceted electronic display system.

He has spent years developing training programs and conducting seminars for attorneys and judges. He has written a law-school textbook on criminal trial advocacy, authored articles on legal and constitutional issues for several publications, and edited and published the Anoka County Law Enforcement Training Update, one of Minnesota's largest law-enforcement training newsletters.

He recently completed a new publication, "Motor Vehicles: Stops, Warrantless Searches, Seizures." And he created and continues to maintain a biweekly judicial training e-mail service that is received by 85 percent of the state's judges, numerous law firms and the University of Minnesota Law School.

For Pendleton, the road to the bench in Anoka began in the Lester Park neighborhood in Duluth, with stops in Kansas, Bemidji, Des Moines, Winona, Minneapolis and Elk River.

His father was a CPA office manager, his mother a homemaker. But it was a summer's visit to a relative's home near Kansas City that changed his life.

"He was partner in a big law firm," he said of the relative. "Took me around and then sat me down and told me a little about what he did," he recalled. "It just stuck with me.

"I began thinking in high school about law school. I already was aspiring to getting a judgeship."

Before diving into legal waters, Pendleton went to Bemidji State because, in part, he was impressed with the school's swimming program. He excelled in the 1- and 3-meter diving events. In 1976, he was named an All-American.

At Drake Law School, he was convinced that he wanted to be a trial attorney. After graduation, he worked for Winona County's Gernes, a legendary trial attorney. Pendleton was a sponge, absorbing Gernes' every nuance for three years. Pendleton tried several cases and was certain he wanted to make prosecution a lifelong career. But he wanted to do so in the Twin Cities.

He contacted Robert M.A. Johnson, who had just become the Anoka County attorney and ultimately made Pendleton the first assistant county attorney he hired in 1984. Among the criminal cases Pendleton prosecuted were child-sex crimes. This was during a period in the 1980s that accusations of child abuse were rampant in Scott County, attracting intense media coverage. The cases had become a hot topic throughout Minnesota. Pendleton knew that the cases he tried in Anoka would be monitored by many. He seemed to thrive under pressure.

"I was trying cases constantly," he said. "For a young attorney, this was nirvana."

After three years, he wanted to expand his legal skills. He worked civil litigation cases for the Minneapolis firm Robins, Zelle, Larson and Kaplan, where he specialized in insurance defense and product liability litigation. The following year, 1987, he was hired by another Minneapolis firm, Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben, where he specialized in personal injury, wrongful death and product liability cases.

"It was a different world," he said. "I was still single and I traveled all over the country. I was starting to make pretty good money at Schwebel.

"But I wasn't in court as much as I was as a prosecutor. And I missed it. Jim Schwebel told me to follow my heart. He said that if you're not passionate about what you're doing, the money's not going to matter."

He returned to the Anoka County Attorney's office in 1988.

"I had young attorney friends who thought I was insane to go back into public service," Pendleton said. "I had a lot of sleepless nights. I took a pretty substantial pay cut. But I had to follow my passion."

He would become the senior assistant county attorney in the felony trial division. But he never forgot his ambition in high school -- he wanted to be a judge. He applied for judgeships throughout the 1990s. And in 1999, Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him to a judgeship in the 10th District, the state's second largest. He took the bench in Sherburne County.

"When I got there, the calendaring systems were antiquated and the courtrooms had no electronic displays built in," he said. "Well, I'm sort of a technology geek. These were things I wanted to work on."

He asked the Sherburne County board to free up funds that could be used to design the state's first electronic courtroom outside of the federal courthouse. When he won approval, Pendleton rolled up his sleeves and sat down with the architects.

"I wanted this courtroom to be a trial attorney's dream," he said.

Then he started doing public tours, to the delight of attorneys who welcomed his innovative courtroom ideas. He'd already garnered a statewide reputation because of his newsletters. Now, other counties were checking Pendleton's courtroom designs.

In 2008, Pendleton was transferred to Anoka County. He still relishes his time behind the bench. And writing his newsletters. And his handbooks.

"It's a tremendous amount of work, but I do it because I love it," he said.

"I've been blessed. Oh, not by this honor, which I was not expecting at all and means a great deal to me. I'm tremendously honored to be part of this profession, to be a small part of the legal system. The recognition embarrasses me a little. It's the system that I love."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419