Lessons in Professionalism from RBG

Painting of Ruth Bader GinsburgLast Friday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. Ginsburg, affectionately known as RBG, was a trailblazing jurist who spent her career fighting for equal justice for women and other marginalized communities.

She occupied the roles of U.S. Supreme Court justice, gender equality pioneer, and pop culture icon with decorum and humility, striving to use her position of power to benefit those less fortunate. She once said:

“I tell law students … if you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill — very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself … something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”

Ginsburg was a model of civility and professionalism on and off the bench. She looked beyond her circumstances and ideological lines, using her talents and strategy of small purposeful steps to move the needle on gender equality for people across the nation. As Chief Justice John Roberts remarked at her memorial, “Her 483 majority, concurring, and descending opinions will steer the court for decades.”

Though the lessons we’ve learned from Ginsburg are many, we share a few below that have particularly resonated with us in the last few days.

Collegiality over conflict

Ginsburg’s unlikely friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia has been well-documented. Though the two were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the liberal Ginsburg and conservative Scalia formed a close friendship over common interests including their New York upbringing, the opera, and shared family dinners.

In 1996, when Ginsburg was writing the high court’s majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which struck down Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy, Justice Scalia shared his unfinished dissent with her. “It was a zinger,” she said at Scalia’s 2016 memorial service, filled with “disdainful footnotes.” But she appreciated the extra time to adjust the court’s opinion. “My final draft was much improved, thanks to Justice Scalia’s searing criticism,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg and Scalia’s friendship looked beyond partisan lines to see the wholeness of humanity. An individual’s morals, values, and worth are not fully encompassed by their political views or interpretation of the law. Scalia once said, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in response to Scalia’s death, Ginsburg quoted the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which was written about their relationship. “‘We are different, we are one,’ different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve,” she wrote. “It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

Don’t get angry, get strategic  

When Ginsburg was in high school her mother offered her the following advice: be a lady and be independent. Ginsburg’s mother, who died when she was 17, counseled her to master her emotions and refrain from responding to situations with anger. This advice was a lodestar for Ginsburg, who said, “reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

When Ginsburg graduated from Columbia University Law School at the top of her class in 1959, she was unable to get a job practicing law at a New York firm. In 1960, she was turned down for a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who, though impressed with her candidacy and recommendation from a Harvard Law School dean, wasn’t ready to hire a woman.

Rather than relenting, Ginsburg established a legal career dedicated to dismantling laws that supported the gender discrimination she faced. In 1972, Ginsburg became the first woman to hold a full professorship at Columbia University Law School. She went on to become the first female professor to earn tenure. She directed the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, where, as ABA President Patricia Lee Refo put it, she became the “architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s.” During this time, she argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning five.

Ginsburg saw herself as a “kindergarten teacher” educating the supreme court’s all-male justices about the structural discrimination women faced under the law. One way of doing so was by taking the case of a man, Stephen Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld wasn’t entitled to the social security benefits of his wife who had died in childbirth, benefits that would have been available to a widow. Ginsburg asked Wiesenfeld to attend the hearing – she wanted the justices to see who was bringing the case. The bench handed Ginsburg the victory, 8-0.

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” Ginsburg said.

Find balance

Though Ginsburg is known for her legendary work ethic — her husband Marty had to lure her home from her chambers for dinner — Ginsburg attributed much of her success to her life outside the law.

When Ginsburg began Harvard Law School in 1956, she was among nine women in a class of roughly 500 men. She was also a young mom. “My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane,” she wrote. “I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

Her passion for the opera also provided a reprieve from the demanding work of the court. “Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about legal problems,” Ginsburg said. “But when I go to the opera, I’m just lost in it. Loving it. And I don’t think about any legal brief.”

Ginsburg saw work-life balance as an issue of gender equality that still needed to be addressed. The structures of workplaces around the world continue to leave women behind. Women earn less than men with comparable education and experience, workplaces don’t sufficiently accommodate the pressures of raising children, and they lack effective ways to address sexual harassment, she wrote.

During a 2016 event hosted by the Association of Corporate Counsel, Ginsburg pointed to technological advancements that allow people to work remotely but commented that “firms don’t seem to be moving that fast to be flexible.” She urged men and women to come together to decide what type of workplace they want, then “make it known and illustrate by example that you can have a home life and a work life.”

Perhaps the workplace changes ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic will move the legal profession forward in addressing gender challenges in the workplace permanently. Ginsburg was hopeful. “I am optimistic, however, that movement toward enlistment of the talent of all who compose ‘We, the people,’ will continue.”

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