February 17, 2021 Chair's Column

A Tribute to the Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Power of Sponsorship

By Maureen Mulligan

The Commission on Women in the Profession is pleased to be able to offer this commemorative issue of Perspectives celebrating the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We hope you will save this and share it with your colleagues and friends. All women lawyers who are members of the American Bar Association (ABA) receive Perspectives as a membership benefit. If you are enjoying Perspectives, the research, the webinars, and other programming created by the Commission on Women in the Profession, encourage other lawyers to join the ABA so they can share in our work.

It is undeniable that the late Justice Ginsburg transformed the legal profession, the Supreme Court, and the fabric of American society through her tireless advocacy for gender equity. She was a brilliant legal scholar who left a mark on American jurisprudence both in her role on the Court and as an advocate. But her legal career is also an exemplar of the importance of sponsorship necessary to achieving advancement in the profession—both giving and receiving. No one reaches the peak of her own power alone. At an online tribute to Justice Ginsburg shortly after her death, I remarked on the speech given by Justice Ginsburg when she was honored with the Commission’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award in 1993. Shortly before the Brent Award ceremony, Justice Ginsburg was confirmed to the Supreme Court. At the same time, President Clinton also nominated a number of women as judges to other federal courts. Justice Ginsburg did not make mention of her own appointment but made it a point to call out and congratulate her colleagues who were nominated for the federal judgeships. You will see in the articles in this issue of Perspectives how she sponsored, recognized, and promoted women lawyers throughout her career.

It is worth noting that there might not have been a “Justice” Ginsburg without the sponsorship of a professor who advocated on her behalf for her first employment out of law school. When Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959—first in her class—she was a young mother who could not get a job. Employers explicitly refused to hire her because of her sex. Gerald Gunther, one of Ginsburg’s professors at Columbia, made a deal with Judge Edmund Palmieri to get Ginsburg a federal clerkship. Gunther told the judge that, in case Ginsburg didn’t work out, he could recommend a male former student who was currently working on Wall Street to take her place. However, if Judge Palmieri refused to give Ginsburg a chance, Gunther would never recommend another Columbia student for a clerkship. We all know how that worked out.

This is an important story that illustrates the importance for both men and women lawyers to sponsor and champion those coming up behind them. Just being an accomplished lawyer (or law student) does not necessarily get us to the next step. All of us can be sponsors, no matter the number of years in the practice of law. Remember the importance of sponsorship. My message to young lawyers is to get out and meet people. Making friends in the legal profession will make you a better lawyer. We learn from our collaborations. The Commission on Women in the Profession has a wealth of materials for ABA members that show us how to sponsor each other in the profession. Do not miss out on these amazing toolkits. Go to http://www.ambar.org/women to see the Commission’s recently released publications and time-honored research. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work lives on in all of us and through the work of the Commission on Women in the Profession as we strive to aid women in their advancement in the practice of law. Rest in Peace, RBG; you will forever be in our memories.


By Maureen Mulligan

Maureen Mulligan is a partner at Peabody & Arnold LLP in Boston, Massachusetts, and chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.