Sandra Day O’Connor leaves two legacies as she departs the United State Supreme Court. the legacy that will garner the most attention in today’s weblogs and tomorrow’s history books, of course, is that of her quarter of a century as the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice. But Sandra Day O’Connor leaves another equally important and even more inspiring legacy that will likely be overlooked. That is O’Connor’s legacy as an attorney who according to today’s conventional wisdom, made all the wrong career moves and yet amazingly, wound up at the top of her field.
These days, career experts will tell you that starting a solo practice
or taking time off to raise kids (and possibly, following a spouse’s
job is potentially another career-ender) will send you down the path to
nowhere. But look at O’Connor’s experience (tip of the robe to Underneath Their Robes for coverage of O’Connor’s personal side and this link to her Oyez Biography from which the below excerpt is taken):
Failing to find suitable work in private practice, O’Connor
turned to public service. She accepted a job as the deputy county
attorney for San Mateo, California. When O’Connor’s husband graduated
from Stanford a year later, the army immediately drafted him into the
Judge Advocate General Corps. John O’Connor served in Frankfurt,
Germany, for three years with Sandra by his side. While in Germany,
Sandra served as a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster’s Corps.
When the O’Connors returned to the U.S. in 1957, they
decided to settle down in Phoenix, Arizona. They had their three sons
in the six years that followed.
O’Connor again found it difficult to obtain a position with
any law firm so she decided to start her own firm with a single
partner. She practiced a wide variety of small cases in her early days
as a lawyer since she lacked specialization and an established
reputation. After she gave birth to her second son, O’Connor withdrew
from work temporarily to care for her children. She became involved in
many volunteer activities during this time. She devoted much of her
time to the Arizona State Hospital, the Arizona State Bar, the
Salvation Army, and various local schools. She also began an
involvement with the Arizona Republican Party.
Yikes! Imagine what a career counselor would have to say about those career choices! But keep reading and look at where they lead:
After five years as a
full-time mother, O’Connor returned to work as an assistant state
attorney general in Arizona. When a state senator resigned to take an
appointment in Washington D.C., Arizona Governor Jack Williams
appointed O’Connor to occupy the vacant seat. O’Connor successfully
defended her senate position for two more terms and eventually became
the majority leader, a first for women anywhere in the U.S. In 1974,
O’Connor decided to shift gears and run for a judgeship on the Maricopa
County Superior Court. State Republican leaders urged her to consider a
campaign for the governorship in 1978, but O’Connor declined. A year
later, the newly elected Democratic governor nominated O’Connor to the
Arizona Court of Appeals. Not quite two years later, President Reagan
nominated her as the first woman to Supreme Court as a replacement for
the retiring Justice Potter Stewart.
O’Connor’s experience bears out the following lessons: First, that
solo practice can provide career options where others don’t exist and
second, that stepping off the career path to raise children won’t kill
your career if you don’t let it.
O’Connor made these choices at a time when women had few options available. Today, starting a law practice has never been easier and can be done with little up front investment. Moreover, with technology and weblogs and all types of networking actitivies, we
have more ways than ever to keep abreast of legal developments and keep
our hands in the law if we decide to step away from practice to raise children. The problem is that because today, we women have so many options available, we also fee we have so much more to lose if we don’t follow the tried and true paths to success. But Justice O’Connor’s career reminds us of how much we can gain from a more circuitous route.
Now, even as some of her aged colleagues remain on the bench in what is no doubt an exhilierating but most grueling position, Justice O’Connor steps down, once again to honor family commitments. Justice O’Connor, we thank you for giving twenty five years of service to our nation - and more importantly, we salute you for showing us purely by example that the less travelled road can still carry us to the most amazing destinations.
Update: (7/2/05 – 10 pm) - One of O’Connor’s former clerks, Linda Ross Meyer writes in this op-ed piece that Justice O’Connor’s recognition of the pragmatic consequences of the Supreme Court’s decisions on ordinary citizens will be sorely missed with her departure from the bench. I wonder whether O’Connor’s days as a shingler are partly responsible for her sensitivity to how legal decisions impact individuals. If so, then perhaps what we really need to maintain the diversity of the court isn’t another woman or person of color – but another former solo or small firm lawyer.