In a time rife with political tribalism and disruption, the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a moment to reflect upon what’s possible and a life well-lived. The Notorious RBG, as she became known in her later years, had cross-generational appeal and quiet power she wielded judiciously. How she lived her life and navigated her career, culminating in her seat on the Supreme Court, provides life lessons that transcend gender, political associations, and demographics—they are universal.
Erica Baird and Karen Wagner, two successful lawyers now retired, are co-founders of an online community dedicated to redefining retirement for modern women by confronting outdated concepts and defying stereotypes. The talk lawyer-to-lawyer about 10 Lessons Learned from the life of RBG.
- Find a job you love. RBG was rejected, again and again, including by New York law firms. But just think—if she had been employed in a law firm, she likely never would have ascended to the Supreme Court. And that was her dream job.
- Be strategic. Figure out where you want to go, and then, before you start, figure out how best to get there. RBG did that with her litigation strategy. Showing how men were hurt by sex discrimination was a more effective strategy than having only women plaintiffs.
- Be human. Separate your advocacy from your relationships. And do have relationships. RBG’s best friend was her fellow justice Antonin Scalia. She disagreed with him, fiercely, about pretty much every legal point. But they loved each other and bonded over music, and over dinners prepared by RBG’s husband. It was not a transactional relationship; it was a human relationship.
- Work hard. You must earn your victories. RBG started working hard when she was a new lawyer, and she never stopped. Look at the honor guard at the Supreme Court for her memorial, composed of people who worked as her clerks responding to 2 a.m. faxes and constant demands for more precise analysis, as long as she lived. They undoubtedly loved her for her humanity, but they also surely loved her because she made them better lawyers.
- Be precise. Words matter. The practice of law is a combination of analysis and communication. Communication is more effective when it is spare and clear. RBG’s writing was crisp and muscular. Any reader got her point.
- Presence matters. Justice Ginsburg always looked professional and elegant in her Armani suits and her long black robes. She was all brilliant lawyer and an all-powerful woman. And, like Barbara Bush with her faux pearls, RBG sent signals with her decorative collars.
- Find a good partner. Her husband “Marty” was legendary—an attorney in his own right, not threatened by a strong woman.
- Advocate with humor. As she did when she advised “It helps sometimes to be a little deaf,” or remarking that the Supreme Court will have a sufficient number of women-only when there are nine.
- Find something outside of your job to love. She found opera and lost herself in music.
- Work out. RBG, the documentary, showed RBG working out very strenuously. Like everything else she did, she went all out. If you do the same your lives will be richer for it.