Women in Law

“Sixty years ago, Ruth Bader Ginsburg applied to be Supreme Court Clerk. She’d studied at two of [our] finest law schools and had ringing recommendations. But because she was a woman she was rejected. Ten years later, she sent her first brief to the Supreme Court- which led it to strike down a state law based on gender discrimination for the first time. And then, for nearly three decades, as the second woman ever to sit on the highest court in the land, she was a warrior for gender equality – someone who believed that equal justice under law only had meaning if it applied to every single American…”

One would be forgiven for assuming that a woman wrote this tribute to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is in fact by Barack Obama. It is perhaps apt that as the first American President of colour, he could relate to Justice Ginsburg on several levels, including that of being a lawyer.

Tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy

Justice Ginsburg’s work has influenced and inspired many women and men. Her legacy cannot be underestimated. Recent tributes include Sheryl Sandberg, who said:

“She was first in her class and she couldn’t find a job. So she did what brilliant, ambitious women have always done when the doors of power slammed in their faces: she found another way. She built a world-changing career fighting for women’s legal equality one case at a time, taking apart systemic gender discrimination piece by piece.”

Hillary Clinton, another woman who broke barriers in her early career and more recently with her presidential bid, also paid tribute to Ginsburg:

“Justice Ginsburg paved the way for so many women, including me. There will never be another like her.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legal Journey

Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933. She grew up in a low-income, working-class neighbourhood in Brooklyn to Jewish parents. Ginsburg’s mother, Celia, was of great intellect but her education was cut short and she worked in a garment factory. Celia was a major influence in her life. Perhaps this early childhood memory was what fuelled much of Ginsburg’s work throughout her career in furtherance of women’s rights.

Ginsburg was only the second female Supreme Court justice and a hugely significant one at that, who was a champion of gender equality.

Perhaps even more significant than her considerable achievements during her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice (which commenced in 1993 under the Clinton administration and continued for nearly three decades) was the work she did as a lawyer before ascending to the Supreme Court. She changed the course of American law for gender equality and left a sweeping legal legacy.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall: Two Role Models

When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, he compared her legal work on behalf of women to the work of Thurgood Marshall on behalf of African Americans. Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who also served as an Associate Justice and who argued the landmark case (before his appointment as justice) of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954). This case outlawed segregation in schools.

A comparison of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Thurgood Marshall shows that social change comes not just from elections and demonstrations (as important as these are) but also from battles fought in court. The landmark Brown case was arrived at by decades of civil rights cases argued by Thurgood Marshall as part of his involvement in the NAACP Legal Defence Fund. Marshall went on to establish the LDF as a separate entity from the NAACP.

As Marshall had done for civil rights as an NAACP attorney, Ginsburg did likewise to lead the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project to win historic court victories for gender equity from 1972-1980.
Marshall was noted for his ‘go slow’ approach to establishing more civil rights protections to African-Americans after founding the NAACP ‘ Legal Defense Fund in the 1940’s. This ‘building blocks’ approach, noted by Ginsburg of Marshall’s work, was what led to the court’s unanimous ruling in the Brown case. Ginsburg emulated this approach.

The parallels between Marshall and Ginsburg don’t only hold true for their legal careers, but also apply to their time as students.

Ginsburg who couldn’t secure a clerkship or law firm position despite having a top ranked degree, went on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and then ascend the Supreme court after 13 years of being a court lawyer.
Similarly, Thurgood Marshall was denied admission to his home state law school in Maryland on the basis of race. Marshall went on to serve on the federal appeals court in New York before becoming the nation’s first black solicitor general and thereafter being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Lindon Johnson in 1967.

Professor Jonathan Entin clerked for Ginsburg when she was an appeals court judge and has written about the comparison between Ginsburg and Marshall in their work against gender and racial discrimination respectively. He notes that when Ginsburg began her work in the 1960’s she faced more ‘daunting’ prospects than Marshall in terms of legal precedent. When Marshall began his work challenging racial segregation in the 1930’s, the Supreme Court had already rejected some forms of racial discrimination (for example a Supreme Court ruling in 1914 had stated that denial of first class accommodation on trains to blacks violated the Fourteenth Amendment (McCabe v. Atchison, T & S.F.Ry 235 U.S. 151, 161-62 (1914).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Work on Gender Discrimination

However, insofar as gender discrimination, the courts were still behind the times. Even in 1961 the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously upheld the constitutionality of a jury selection system in Florida that discriminated against women on the grounds that “women are at the center of home and family life.” The observation reflected dominant social values at the time.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for someone who will be remembered as a warrior for gender equality, some of Justice Ginsburg’s most notable cases involved sex discrimination against men. Her first case in 1974, although unsuccessful, showed her willingness to work on behalf of men challenging gender discrimination. In this case a Florida widower asked for a property tax exemption that state law only allowed to widows. Ginsburg argued that rigid attitudes about sex roles could harm everyone.

Ginsburg sometimes said that one of her favourite cases as a lawyer involved a man whose wife died in childbirth, leaving him alone to care for their newborn son. In Weinberger v. Weisenfeld 420 U.S. 636 (1975)
Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court that the section of the Social Security Act that denied fathers benefits because of their sex was unconstitutional. She won the case unanimously.

Some 20 years after she won his case, Wiesenfeld subsequently testified at her confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court in 1993. Mr Weisenfeld recently commented on his long standing friendship with Ginsburg and the case she won for him saying that ‘[we] found out three justices discussed the case before they even heard it. They were discussing how disgusting it was that a male wanted to stay home and take care of a child.’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Work on Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Ginsburg wanted to shake up preconceived notions of the stereotypical gender positions in a family unit. In retrospect, this was decades ahead of her time.

It is interesting that she has inspired not just women but men in re-evaluating what the family unit should look like. One of Ginsburg’s clerk’s, Ryan Park, wrote a piece in The Atlantic Monthly, praising his former boss for inspiring him to become a stay-at-home father after completing his clerkship. He quoted her in saying that “gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children”

I find this quote particularly interesting and inspiring as it shows the considered view that Ginsburg always took: thinking more laterally than simply the case she was dealing with at the time. The forethought that a child’s view of their parents is as important in shaping their own thought processes as how their parents view one another’s role is really a very holistic one. Ginsburg didn’t just take this view as a bystander, her own marriage was very much modelled on equal parenting- something, which at the time she was first practising law, was the exception, not the rule.

Latterly as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg was famous more for her dissenting opinions than her majority opinions. She may have served as a more moderate liberal influence in a Conservative court during her tenure as a Justice, but the changes she championed as a young lawyer for gender equality were now there, enshrined in law.

Ginsberg’s comparison to Thurgood Marshall is both timeless and timely. Both fought for the marginalised in society. Ginsberg made it her life’s work to force the law to acknowledge and respect those who had not been heard and to enshrine such recognition in law.

In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s own words “Real Change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”.

Women in Law

 Justice belongs to the people. We should open up the justice system, demystify it without undermining the importance of the court. It is there to serve society and to serve you.”

Reminding us what justice is all about, four inspirational superstars of the world justice scene shared how they got to the top of their profession in the first place, what obstacles they overcame and who inspired them along the way. On 5 July 2018, Obelisk Support co-sponsored the first-ever event bringing together female Supreme Court judges from four different continents at Grays Inn in London. The judges were Baroness Hale President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Susan Kiefel Chief Justice of Australia, Georgina Wood former Chief Justice of Ghana, and Beverley McLachlin former Chief Justice of Canada. They were joined on stage before and after the discussion by Dame Linda Dobbs former high court judge, Professor Penny Andrews Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town, Genevieve Muinzer founder of Ad Astra Communications and Vice-Chair of the Foundation for International Law, and Dana Denis-Smith founder of The First 100 Years Project and CEO of Obelisk Support.

What prompted you to enter the professions?

Georgina Wood said that if she had been asked at age 12 what profession she would like to enter, she would have said medical doctor. At home, she never had my parents say that it’s only women who can do such or such professions. Her father and brother helped her to find a way around in her career and she has now been a magistrate of judiciary in Ghana for 42 years, crediting this to the fact that she just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

For Susan Kiefel growing up in Australia, the situation was quite different. Young girls doing higher education had two options: teaching and nursing. Neither interested her and as she started her professional career as a PA, she worked for a group of barristers and watched their work closely. She was quite attracted to the camaraderie and decided that she would be one of them. Studying law at night, she went to the bar, inspired by true trailblazers in Australia such as Roma Mitchell and Joan Rosenove in the 1950s. In Queensland, there had only been one woman who followed in their footsteps and now, women represent 25% of the bar in Australia. She suspected being a judge was more intellectually rewarding than being a barrister or QC.

Beverley McLachlin grew up wanting to be independent and to do something different. In high school in grade 7, she was told she had a very high reading retention score but that she couldn’t do anything with that. After reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she was told “it’s a man’s world and you can’t make it.” However, a good friend said, ‘I think you would be really good at law’. So she wrote to the dean to ask for info and he wrote back, and admitted her to law school.

Baroness Hale’s headmistress told her that she wasn’t clever enough to study history and suggested economics instead. Though Baroness Hale wasn’t too keen on the idea, she was fascinated by constitutional history. Later, she was the first girl from a small Yorkshire school to go to Cambridge to read law. She met all these men who had great ambitions and thought she would as well. She did self-tuition correspondence course to become a barrister, studied two months and came top of the list. At that point, she had to choose between university and bar and chose the former. After a series of public appointments, she got a phone call saying ‘we’re thinking of diversifying the judiciary.’ By that, they didn’t mean women or minorities. They meant academics. Like baby judges. Was this something she would like to do? Of course it was. It was a full time judicial post and looking back, it never occurred to her that she would be any sort of judge.

Tell us about the most challenging time of your careers?

When Susan Kiefel started at the bar there was a custom of barristers paying visits to judges. There was only one that almost stopped her but she went anyway. In the 1980s, people smoked then and she was judge of a tense case with livestock auctioneers in their ranching garb. She asked if anyone smoked and if nobody minded. She then took a pack of loose leaf tobacco from her drawer and proceeded to roll her cigarette. There was a sigh of relief in the room.

Baroness Hale will never forget the terror of a bail abdication case when she was a barrister. The judge behaved disgracefully and tore petitions to shreds. She really felt sorry for the clients. The same judge offered her a cup of tea later and didn’t apologise. Judges behaving badly doesn’t go on nowadays like it did back then. It was challenging going to the law commission. Every bit of judging is difficult when you do it. 

After having graduated from law school, Beverley McLachlin went for interview for articles. She had a lovely interview with a gentleman she greatly admired. He said, ‘why do you want to practice law?’ Why was he asking me this? she thought; she had been studying for 7 years. The expectation was that if you were married, you could not practice law. You devoted your life to your husband and your family. She went anyway and got the job but almost thought she couldn’t. When you think you can’t get through, think again. You may be underestimating yourself. You just plough on. When she had a child, it was extremely stressful. Not because she thought she couldn’t do her job, but because she thought she was the worst parent in the world. Her son later said, ‘get over it Mom, you were great’. To be a good mother, you have to be a strong person and show unconditional love. Her advice to younger women is keep your head up.

Georgina Wood started by reminding the audience that Ghana had had a tortuous past and 25 years ago, and has since voted constitutional democracy and enjoyed a period of peace. It’s rewarding to know that the judiciary has contributed to that peace. Although she supports women’s rights, she judges according to the law and the facts. When men come to her, they know they will get justice without gender bias. In one case, a woman died and her family rushed to the court thinking they would not get justice. As Court Justice in a developing country, when you make up your mind that you are going to protect the independence of the judiciary it is very rewarding. Unfortunately, there was some corruption but her judicial council was very independent and the other judges were removed. Having to deal with lack of resources can be challenging but if you do the best that you can given the circumstances, your work and your integrity will always work for you.

How have experiences in life influenced your judgment?

Beverley McLachlin grew up in a very diverse community with indigenous people, people of different European backgrounds, and they gave her an appreciation for the place of everybody in the world. Her parents believed that everybody should be treated equally and it has infused into her whole thinking.

To Baroness Hale, women do lead different lives from men. Women don’t do it by choice. People react differently to them. Women are often regarded as other. One does grow up with an appreciation that you are on your own. Women should not try to conform to male models to succeed in the law. She was the only one in her court who had spent all her professional life as employed — as opposed to self-employed. Most professional women have experienced humiliation, such as being turned down for a job when they’re the best qualified person for the job. All these experiences feed into how you judge and it is as it should be. Judges shouldn’t be only successful.

As a judge, Georgina Wood tried to add human experiences into her cases. There are some values that you learn early in life in school that shape one’s mind around what is right and what is wrong. One of them is equality and the law.

Susan Kiefer was brought up with Christian values. She has been working since she was 15. People and events shape her way of thinking. As a barrister, she was very interested in how different judges write and admired simplicity and conciseness.

What would you like your legacy to the law to be?

Susan Kiefer would like to be remembered for someone who promoted a style of judgement that made it easier for people to understand judgments and for judges to apply the law. That means, hopefully, fewer judgments. Putting vanity aside, she recommends an institutional approach rather than an individual approach.

Though legacies don’t last very long, Baroness Hale would like to be remembered as a judge in front of whom it is pleasant to appear, a judge with a lightness of touch. She would also like to be remembered for a handful of judgments that have made people think differently about the law.

Berveley McLachlin has been privileged to sit in a number of cases that have made people’s lives better in Canada. She is proud of those judgments, protecting human rights such as LGBT rights. She has tried to advocate that justice belongs to the people and would like to open up the justice system, demystify it without undermining the importance of the court. It is there to serve society and to serve you. She’d like to be remembered for better access to justice.

The people of Ghana would be the best judges of Georgina Wood’s legacy. She is a judge of integrity, some of her cases have impacted students. She wants to be remembered as someone who put integrity, hard work and merit above who you knew or the old boys’ circles. She wants to be remembered as someone who championed young women and children. We are not in competition with the men. We encourage girl porters to aspire to better lives.

Who inspired you?

When Beverley McLachlin was little, there were few women who became lawyers and did something of their career. There were very few role models. Women were not considered persons. In 1929, the Persons’ Case was issued by the judicial committee. Times are changing. The law had to change with society. My role model was these women who fought so long so hard to reach the Persons’ Case.

Baroness Hale was inspired by her own mother. She didn’t think so at the time. When she was 13, her father died. There was a marriage bar for teaching in the 1930s. Her mother dusted off her teaching credentials and became headmistress in their village school. She always wonders: ‘what would mother have said?’

Women in Law

“For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today.” Serena William’s on court interview after finishing runner up in the Wimbledon final on 14 July 2018 resonated with me. I have spent the past 8 years championing women back to work – when they believed they were ‘just a mum’, I believed they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Irrespective of their profession, I cannot think of a better role model for mothers to return to work than Serena – she acknowledged in the press conference that a couple of months before she didn’t know “how I was, how I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back; it was such a long way to see light at the end of the road.”  Do these questions sound familiar to new mums? Of course they do. But hearing the self-doubt that does not spare even a most accomplished athlete like Serena Williams is both familiar and refreshingly honest.

In a survey we carried out for Obelisk Support, all those we interviewed said they stopped work because when they became mothers they couldn’t juggle work and family and often they found employers not being open to flexibility.

Last week, Obelisk Support turned 8. I founded the business to change the way work was outsourced in the legal sector to be more inclusive and for sure, not to alienate a fantastic talent pool – mums. Our mission from the outset, was to empower lawyers to get back to work from home and thus to make sure that talent remained active in law.  About 80% of our 1,000+ consultants are women looking to balance personal responsibility and work, and many would not have thought working flexibly would be an opportunity available to them in their chosen profession. Since 2010, we have seen the stock of working mothers rise and rise and it is great that last week we had the most visible returner mum to date take to the global stage in Serena Williams, just 10 months after having her baby girl.

With a little help from Serena, here’s what I learnt in 8 years of championing lawyer mums back to work:

#1 Take the Opportunity

One of our first client jobs involved a mum of 3 coming all the way from Bristol to work for a couple of days in London. She needed to cut her teeth on a routine corporate due diligence transaction to able to measure her level as a lawyer; she had been out of work for 7 years and was keen to earn some of her money to spend on Christmas presents, as it was just around the corner. Taking the opportunity was the best decision she made – not only did she secure further assignments with Obelisk, while working from home, but with time she ‘graduated’ into a permanent role in a local firm.

#2 Take it One at a Time

Especially when returning on a freelance basis, taking it one job at a time is a great approach not just to understanding how clients work, but also how you want to work. There are new ways of working that allow you to test the water before committing to a full return. Sometimes the flexibility is offered after a settling in period, once the client gets comfortable with the lawyer skills set and communication style. Getting back to doing even an ad hoc piece of work can help pave the path for a higher volume of work.

#3 Stay In the Game

There is no doubt that having a longer career gap makes clients ask more questions, and a lawyer can find it harder and harder to explain away the gap. Some businesses carry out ‘gap analysis’ of CVs that go as far as needing to prove the number of children by providing their birth certificates! If this doesn’t persuade you to stay in the game, however little, I don’t know what will. However, that’s not to say that we haven’t had returners such as Jane that show a long gap doesn’t make your return impossible.

#4 Work On Your Game to Get Better

Some clients refer to returning mums as “rusty.” Newspaper headlines welcomed Serena back in similar fashion earlier this year when she first competed after having her girl. But it didn’t take long before the ‘rust’ was shaken off and she made another Grand Slam Final.

If you have the will to work, then you can improve the skills and keep getting better. Excellent advice for those that think the law changes so quickly you can’t keep up and therefore it’s better to stay out. You’d be amazed how quickly the knowledge returns with a little positive focus on improving all the time.

#5  Continue On Your Own Path

Many mums don’t have their sights set on a career ambition when they first return. Whilst board positions or leadership roles could come, the pressure of achieving too quickly can also be a reason to drop work altogether. So take your time, as long as you stay on the ‘path’.

#6 Don’t Make Any Excuses

Once you decide to return, and businesses make decisions that rely on your presence and contribution, it is only fair that you take work on a ‘no excuse’ basis. Being professional is critical to success and your attitude at work can create the best or worst impression for a client. Once you commit, be reliable and understand that you are dependable at work and at home.

#7 Your Priority is Your Baby

I know of no parent that doesn’t agree with Serena in this respect. By being open, she has yet again given permission to working mothers to talk about their kids. We are no longer living in a time when kids need to be hidden out of sight but similarly, she said that she is disciplined in separating work from her time with the child. She has set a clear timetable to make time to train in the morning after which she spends the bulk of her time with her daughter.

#8 Be More Ready

Before starting a role, it is important to prepare –read about the client and the type of law, ask questions and be ready. Understand what you wish to achieve and how you need to fit in to do the best you can during an assignment.

Ultimately, The Choice is Yours

You can be whatever you want to be if you want to go back to work – and there’s no pressure to do that as having a child is a completely full time job. But to those that do want to go back to work, “you can do it, you can really do it.”