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In-House Challenges And A Word Or Two On Sandra Day O’Connor

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s all in how you define a “win.” As a former AGC, there are numerous ways to win in-house. Yes, in-house counsel can help the client win money, keep the client from losing money, manage or avert crises, and, of course, satisfy the client, if their expectations are reasonable. Their job was to bring the money in the front door, and my job was to keep it from going out the back door in terms of verdicts and shudderingly expensive settlements.

But there are other wins as well. One is when you develop client relationships so that clients trust your advice and are willing to accept it. That takes time, but the rewards are worth the effort. If a client trusts you and your advice, then it becomes easier to persuade clients to take some steps, refrain from others, and manage their expectations.

What’s another win? The responsibility that in-house counsel has at the outset may take years for an associate at an outside law firm to shoulder. In-house counsel must hit the ground running, as there is little time, if any, for education. It is the essence of on-the-job training. The client assumes a certain amount of subject matter expertise, but the necessary and important people skills need polishing. That’s to be expected, as you don’t know who the players are, don’t know who makes the decisions (do you have any settlement authority?), and don’t know the various and sundry client politics. Those can take a while to learn, so the best way to approach this all is to watch and listen, listen very carefully. You will have plenty of opportunities to speak up.

And for all those out-house lawyers who think that in-house counsel have it comparatively easy, it’s time to get a grip. According to a recent Bloomberg Law report, in-house counsel outwork (not necessarily something to crow about) their outside counterparts.

While today there are more women lawyers than ever before, in practice, in government, and on the bench, before there was Ketanji Brown Jackson, before Amy Coney Barrett, before Elena Kagan, before Sonia Sotomayor, before Ruth Bader Ginsberg, there was the first, Sandra Day O’Connor. And to her credit, she has not been the last. Whether you believe that her judicial philosophy was too liberal or too conservative (you choose), she was and will always be the first, as so aptly titled in Evan Thomas’s book about her. As the number of women in law continues to increase, albeit still too slowly, today’s women lawyers and judges owe a huge debt to the late Associate Justice O’Connor.

Way back in medieval times (circa 1980), Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan kept a campaign promise: he would nominate a woman to join the all-male cohort of justices on the Supreme Court. In 1981, he nominated O’Connor to that court. In what is now looked upon longingly as the lost and last days of bipartisanship, she was confirmed by a vote of 98-0.

Young women lawyers, like me, were thrilled and delighted at O’Connor’s confirmation. It was, to many of us, a sign that the glass ceiling for women as lawyers and equals would be shattered. We were hopeful, starry-eyed, and thought that the road ahead for women lawyers would be smoother than it had been in the past. Maybe. The struggle continues more than 40 years after her confirmation.

Unlike her Supreme Court colleagues, O’Connor had been an Arizona politician before going on that state’s bench. She was a pragmatist, never choosing to go further than she needed in order to reach what she thought was the right result in the case. She did not think that “compromise” was an ugly word. She knew well what compromise meant in those days, but that’s no longer the case. Compromise today is a dirty word.

Resigning from the court to take care of her ailing husband (aren’t women almost always the caretakers?), she went on to create icivics.org to teach civics to secondary students. Civics? What is that? Precisely her point.

One of the many things I found fascinating about O’Connor was her seemingly effortless ability to juggle so many plates in the air at the same time. She was as committed to her husband and family as she was to being an associate justice with a killer workload. I always wondered how she did it, especially when she was diagnosed with breast cancer before the end of her first decade on the court. But she managed it. How did she accomplish all that she did when she had the same 24-hour day just like the rest of us?

While O’Connor might scoff at this characterization, she was an agent of change in so many ways. And thank goodness she was.

old lady lawyer elderly woman grandmother grandma laptop computerJill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].


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