Career Advice for Women Lawyers

Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor are about as different as two women can be, yet both their lives offer meaningful lessons for women lawyers.

Lesson #1 – There is no glass ceiling

Becoming a Supreme Court Justice is the top job for any attorney. When President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the job in 1981, he proved to the judiciary, the Senate, and the world that a woman could do the job just as well as a man. In 2009, Justice Sotomayor became the third woman to serve on the court, followed in short order by a fourth, Justice Elena Kagan.

Justice O’Connor’s pre-SCOTUS resume included a prestigious post as Assistant Attorney General for the state of Arizona and a stint as a state senator. Before joining the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor worked as an intellectual property litigator in private practice and taught law at two law schools while working as a judge.

The careers of both these energetic women prove that opportunities abound for women who aren’t afraid to work hard.

Lesson #2 – Education is Worth the Sacrifice

Every woman lawyer knows the sacrifice that her education demanded. She had to get the best grades in high school to get into the best college. As a college graduate, she felt pressured to get into the right law school. As a law student, she had to get good grades to get the best jobs. Getting good grades means studying, and studying means sacrifice: taking time away from family, friends, pets, and parties.

Women who have had to finance their educations with student loans often wonder, as they sacrifice a substantial portion of their income to repay the loans, if it was all worth it. Justice O’Connor and Justice Sotomayor would answer that question with a resounding “yes!” Both women made sacrifices for education, albeit in very different ways.

As a child, Justice O’Connor’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother during the school year, far from the remote Texas ranch where O’Connor grew up. The young girl must have spent many lonely nights longing for her mother and father.

Justice Sotomayor grew up as the oldest child in a family that placed an “almost fanatical emphasis” on higher education. Sotomayor’s mother worked hard as a nurse so her daughter could attend Princeton and Yale.  Justice Sotomayor must have missed having her mother around after school and in the evening, while Celina Sotomayor worked extra shifts so she could afford to buy study materials for young Sonia in the days before Internet research was available.

Lesson #3 – Defeat Discrimination

Today, a female Stanford Law graduate can command top salary at any law firm in the country. When Justice O’Connor graduated from Stanford, the best law firm job she was offered was a position as a legal secretary. Frustrated, she took a job as a local government lawyer, then followed her husband to Germany for an Army assignment. She later started her own practice with a partner.

In contrast, Justice Sotomayor faced subtle discrimination as a Latina. Her initial scholastic efforts at Princeton were hindered by her having learned English as a second language, in spite of her mother’s insistence that she speak and write fluent English. Undeterred by a low grade she got on a term paper during her freshman year, Sotomayor redoubled her commitment to her studies and a few years later graduated summa cum laude from Princeton.

Women lawyers have much to learn from these trailblazing female judges. Although they have led very different lives and had very different careers before joining the Supreme Court, Justices O’Connor and Sotomayor have proven that women lawyers really can get the top job, if they are willing to sacrifice for their education and persevere against discrimination.