In 2018, when my daughters were seven and four, I stared down the marble barrel of my white-shoed legal career. Lawyering while female always presented challenges but litigating while parenting had become cruelly Sisyphean. The reward for good work was more work; a plum assignment and exposure to the “right” partners meant seven-day weeks in war rooms preparing for trials that might last three weeks . . . or three months.
At the office, I apologized for stolen hours attending therapy for my special-needs child. At home, I felt guilt about the ways my unpredictable, unrelenting work schedule confused and shortchanged my kids. And in my press for a promotion, I had inadvertently slowed my husband’s own burgeoning legal practice every time I had a trial or major hearing. And so, exhausted, defeated, and convinced of my incompetence, I walked out of a prestigious law firm before grabbing the quintessential brass ring of law firm partnership —and gave up on practicing altogether.
I thought about that decision a lot when President Biden announced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee for the Supreme Court. Had I seen a speech then-U.S. District Court Judge Jackson gave at around the time of my Big Quit, I wonder whether I would have continued to see professional excellence and parental responsibility as binary. I wonder whether I might have stopped blaming myself and instead blamed the structure of Big Law and its omnipotent billable hour.
Judge Jackson’s admirers have long marveled at how she presents “the entire package.” When Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, introduced Jackson to the Senate Judiciary Committee upon her 2012 nomination to the federal bench, she noted Jackson brought a “top-of-the-mark academic background, practice in the criminal law, the civil law, and mediation, and in the directly relevant and important skill of sentencing.” And that was before Jackson served eight years on a federal trial court and roughly a year as a federal appeals court judge on the D.C. Circuit, often seen as the country’s second most significant court.
Naturally, one might conclude that Judge Jackson, with both undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, and not one but two lower court clerkships before clerking for Justice Breyer, plotted her ascent meticulously, accumulating professional titles and expertise as methodically as she collected debate trophies as a Miami high schooler.
But if Judge Jackson is to be believed — and as a former litigator and mother of two, I find her entirely credible — one would be mistaken. Instead, in a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia, Jackson characterized her path as more meandering, even accidental, than strategic. Her vast and varied legal experience, or what pundits have labeled her professional diversity, is the product of “a professional odyssey of epic proportions.” She was, as she told those Georgia law students with humility, humor, and candor, “something of a professional vagabond, moving from place to place as my family needs and circumstances changed.”
And as she “literally moved from job to job to job,” she never checked either of two boxes traditionally found in the backgrounds of federal judicial nominees: Law firm partner or prosecutor. Instead, she lasted only a short while at her first major law firm and expressly opted out of the partnership track at a second. While engaged in criminal justice, her deepest involvement prior to joining the federal bench was as a staff lawyer for, and then a commissioner of, the United States Sentencing Commission.
Were her roles intellectually demanding? Without question. But were they physically depleting in the masochistic way lawyers often equate with achievement? Probably not.
Judge Jackson’s nomination to the Court is many things: historic, transformative, and yes, radical. But it's not radical in the way Senator Lindsey Graham, who critiqued her nomination as the triumph of the "radical left," imagines it is. What’s radical about Judge Jackson’s nomination is how, with patience and confidence in her aptitudes and interests, she took off professionally. In a field that rewards the always-racing hare, she chose the way of the smarter, steady tortoise. Indeed, of her own stint as a young lawyer with a newborn and a husband finishing his surgical residency, she admitted:
I don’t think it is possible to overstate the degree of difficulty that many young women and especially new mothers face in the law firm context. The hours are long. The workflow is unpredictable. You have little control over your time and your schedule, and you start to feel as though the demands of the billable hour are constantly in conflict with the needs of your children and your family responsibilities. ... There are many women who can make it work. Some are quite well suited to the pressures of law firms. I discovered early on that I was not.
If I was going to make my life work, as a lawyer and also have a family, I needed to use my legal skills in a more predictable, more controllable environment. That was a realization for me: the understanding that if I was going to leave my baby and go to work outside the home, I needed to find a law job that was not only fulfilling, but was also compatible with the needs of my family.
And it was that realization, not any calculus about how to get short-listed for the Court, that led Judge Jackson to her varied jobs as a mediator, a public defender, an in-house government lawyer, an appellate litigator in private practice, and ultimately, a judge. But by 2017, with her daughters in their teens, her “center of gravity on the work-life balance continuum ha[d] actually shifted” to “even longer hours than [she had had] at the firm,” in part because her daughters were older, but also because she explored what “suits me.” Finally, she said with relish, she had found work “that is challenging and interesting and that I care about enormously.”
Last Friday, Ketanji Brown Jackson fulfilled her lifelong dream and cemented her place in history. That it was because of the unexpected zigs and zags in her career and a family-first ethos, not in spite of them, is not lost on this recovering lawyer.
Lisa Rubin is the off-air legal analyst for The Rachel Maddow Show, where she too has found work that is challenging, interesting, and that she cares about enormously.