Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remembers the pressure she felt when she enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1954. As one of just nine women in a class of more than 500, she felt compelled to be aggressive.
"We were accustomed to being in the spotlight," she said. "We took it upon ourselves to convince our classmates and teachers that we had everything it takes to be successful in the legal profession."
For Ginsburg, who transferred to and graduated from Columbia Law School, the challenges didn’t end there. After most her of her applications for law clerk positions were turned down, she found work for a judge only after one of her mentors convinced the judge that her duties as the mother of a four-year old would not interfere. She found out later that the judge had a back-up arrangement with a potential male clerk, in case she failed.
Speaking at a four-person panel on women and the Supreme Court at the Georgetown University Law Center on Wednesday afternoon, Ginsburg credited much of her career success to her aggressiveness and drive. However, she also credits her family’s support, especially her husband.
"He became a super chef. I haven't made a meal in 30 years,” she said with a laugh.
Sidley Austin partner Virginia Seitz, an appellate lawyer who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, said she was born into her profession.
"My career began when I came out of the birth canal. Law clerks were my babysitters," said Seitz, who father was an appellate judge. “Law clerks were my babysitters."
She challenged the women in the audience to be confident in their legal work, and “avoid using female defense mechanisms.” As a mother, she said hard work has been the best way she has been able to maximize her often-limited time.
"I'm aware of the stigma of working part time," she said. "I try not to take my kids as an excuse for not taking a project."
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld partner Patricia Millet, who has argued 28 cases before the Supreme Court, credited her career accomplishments to ignoring the traditional routes to success.
"Nobody told me you are not supposed to apply for the solicitor general’s office if you hadn't done appellate work," she said. “There are no barriers, just do what you want to do and fight for it."
Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan, who at Stanford founded the nation’s first law school Supreme Court litigation clinic, began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She said organization’s diverse culture and its policy of allowing lawyers to argue cases all the way to the highest level was key to allowing her to overcome gender barriers.
She said women still face difficulties when aggressively trying to find potential Supreme Court cases. Specifically, she said that though most women have no trouble filing amicus briefs, building up the nerve to demand cases from other lawyers at the appellate level is another story.
"I don't know if it starts in junior high when boys go to girls and saying will you dance with me, but I find it hard to call people up and say ' you got to do this,’ “she said. "There's a difference with women with self promotion."