3 Lessons I learned from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I had lunch with former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My agency invited Justice Ginsburg to speak at a celebration, which was to be followed by lunch. My position as the Deputy General Counsel not only oversaw the legal department, it was also responsible for managing the event planners, who were responsible for ensuring every aspect of the event ran smoothly.

All of the invitations went out like clockwork without any issue.  The invitations included a return card so that the recipient could indicate whether they preferred the chicken or vegetarian entrée for lunch. 

One of my employees didn’t know what to do with one response that came back and brought it to me. In neat handwriting on the card was “Salmon, no sauce. Steamed asparagus, no butter.” “Who did this come from,” I asked? She told me it came from Justice Ginsburg. The problem was that we had not contracted with the vendor to serve fish, nor had we selected asparagus as the vegetable option. I told my employee that we would be serving salmon and asparagus to one guest at the lunch, even if it meant I had to make it at home and bring it in.

The day of the event was one I’ll never forget. I did not have the opportunity to sit and listen to Justice Ginsburg’s entire presentation as I needed to float between the room where she was speaking and the luncheon room down the hall where we would dine together afterward. Everything was coming together beautifully. We opted not to have assigned seating, but to allow people to pick their seats around assigned tables. As the crowd gathered in the room, waiting for the esteemed guest to find her seat, my staff and I waited on the side of the room to make sure everyone was comfortable. Once everyone had a seat, there was one seat left for me – right next to Justice Ginsburg. Her good friend sat to her left and no one sat next to her, not the head of my agency or the second in charge, both of whom were in the room. As I approached the table, Justice Ginsburg patted the seat as if she had been saving it for me and invited me to sit down. I was right next to her and dined with her. Here’s what I learned that day.

Ask for what you want

The next few minutes were a blur for me. I’m sure I introduced myself to Justice Ginsburg, at least I hope I did. To be honest, at that moment, I was more concerned with her meal. I think I held my breath until her plate hit the table and I confirmed that the caterer got her salmon and asparagus lunch correct. Whew. I turned to her and wanted some confirmation that her meal was right, but she was deep in conversation with the guests at the table about her experience on the Court. I took the thumb’s up from her friend next to her as a sign that I could exhale and relax now.

Invest in your physical and mental health

Not once, did she pause to engage in small talk about the food, the décor, or the weather. She did, however, talk about her workout routine, I think because she wanted to remind us of the importance of keeping our minds sharp by keeping our bodies healthy. She shared how she had a daily workout scheduled every morning at the Court with her trainer. To hear this busy Justice consumed with some of the most pressing issues in our Country prioritizing her health was impressive. I took note that I should probably figure out how to do the same as my health was often my last priority.

See the person instead of the issue

Then, she moved on to a topic of interest to her and one that she thought might be of interest to others at the table, collegiality in the legal profession. All but one person at the table were attorneys and this was, indeed, a fascinating topic. I grew my wings in litigation and as a young woman the legal profession was not a place I would ever use the word “collegial” to define. In fact, most days it was more like a “dog-eat-dog world” at best. I leaned in to be sure I could hear her quiet voice now as most in the room had finished eating and conversations were becoming louder. I loved how she talked about her colleagues with admiration and care, even though she disagreed with them on legal issues. Somehow she could see through the issues and see the person speaking. By doing so, she was able to gain respect for her colleagues.

As Justice Ginsburg got up to leave, I was struck that I didn’t always agree with her legal positions, either, yet, I could respect her as a person and that was an important lesson for me that day. I was grateful for this event with Justice Ginsburg as she taught me to ask for what I want, invest in my physical and mental health, and see others instead of the issues at hand.

Work with me

Are you wondering how to ask for what you want in your career? Or, perhaps, you’re trying to figure out how to work with a colleague who has such a contrarian view to yours. I help women gain the confidence to make the ask and build bridges where that seems to be impossible. Click here to schedule a time to talk with me.

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