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November 10, 2014

Lean Hard into Battles Worth Fighting for Someone Else

Vanessa Ruiz

I grew up in Puerto Rico, speaking Spanish. I attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where I majored in philosophy. Although I considered grad school, the pull of law in the 1970s as an engine for social justice—coupled with a sense of fairness and respect for individual human dignity ingrained in me by my father—drew me to the law. Five years after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center, I had an opportunity to argue (and won) a pro bono civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court during Sandra Day O’Connor’s first year as the first woman justice of the United States.

For 15 years, I practiced in large firms, as in-house counsel, and as cofounder of a small firm. I then moved to public service, becoming the chief legal officer for the District of Columbia. In 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated me to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest court of the nation’s capital.

Do not be fooled into thinking, however, that this has been one long easy ride. I had no grand plan, and I have had setbacks. Mistakes I made hurt. Being a professional woman, a mother, and a wife was hard when I began, and—regrettably—we still have no societal safety net for families. But I have become the person I am as a result of these experiences—both the good and the challenging—and no alternative universe exists where we get a do-over. So, learn and persevere.

Although far from done, at this vantage point I can reflect on what has been important and useful, and what has not. Unsurprisingly, I found myself as the only Hispanic or woman in a number of my career experiences. And, I am still the first and only Hispanic to serve as D.C. chief legal officer and appellate judge in the District of Columbia courts. It is a distinction of which I am proud, but I would prefer, by now, to have it overtaken by subsequent selections of Hispanics.

It took time for me to realize that my attempt to blend in was not only uncomfortable and unproductive, but ultimately impossible. I came to understand I had to be and do what I knew best if I was to make a difference. I am friendly, cheerful, and optimistic, and I like to laugh. But I do not go with the flow if I believe it is misdirected. I also work hard and am persistent—which I must if I am going to stick to my beliefs and hope to prevail.

I have learned that achieving a position of authority implies a responsibility to use it for good. Being a judge provides opportunities to shine a light on pressing issues in the justice system, to mentor others, or simply to be a role model to those who will follow—especially those who may look or sound like me.

As a judge, I am necessarily constrained by law in the appeals I adjudicate. But lessons learned in the cases I decide can help inform how law is administered, lawyers are taught, and some of society’s problems can be addressed in a more just manner. These lessons also can suggest changes and affect resource allocations to ensure meaningful access to the courts for those without legal representation, with limited English proficiency, who don’t know their legal rights, or who are simply too scared to come to court. The opportunity to discuss and address these larger questions with colleagues here and abroad has enriched my perspective and made me a better judge.

You have no doubt been advised to “pick your battles” and to “lean in.” Pick battles not because they are safe wins, but because they are worth the effort. Similarly, leaning in is necessary and must be learned. Most accomplished women have had to lean in big time to counter headwinds. The real question is: what are you leaning in for?

The battles worth choosing are those that are for someone else, not for self-promotion. They are hard fought, require courage, and entail risk. Those battles are the ones you want to lean into, hard.

Vanessa Ruiz

Vanessa Ruiz is a senior judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. She is a past president of the National Association of Women Judges, chair of the Board of Managerial Trustees of the International Association of Women Judges, and a 2009 Margaret Brent Award honoree.