What Every Business Owner Can Learn From The Pioneer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg

This year I’ve been nearly entirely absent from blogging, because 1. COVID; 2. At the outset of 2020, I made an intentional decision to dedicate my time to mentoring, and was blessed with the opportunity to work with fantastic interns, and 3. I’ve spent endless hours having important conversations with my own mentor about everything from legal work, to the social injustices we’re seeing today. Regarding my mentor, as someone who has been a pioneer of race throughout his (professional) life, and who has stories of being mentored by a certain formidable figure by the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, engagingly in these conversations have been how I’ve chosen to spend my rare free time this year. 

This post is for my mentor, my mentees, those in the legal profession, and particularly those outside the legal community who may have heard of, but may not be as familiar with the legal titan that was Ruth Badar Ginsberg. Even if you’re not a lawyer, lessons from her life translates to any profession. 

A personal note:

The “life cycles” of my profession overall have continuously surprised me. Like any other young lawyer, I entered the legal profession wide-eyed and entirely inspired by the future. What I instead faced was a steep learning curve they didn’t teach us about in law school: how to be a respected member of my profession. 

More bluntly, the art of commanding respect as a (female) lawyer. Commanding, not demanding.

Over 1000 days into owning my firm, I still deal regularly with opposing counsels who refuse to speak to anyone other than my “male counterparts”. Recently, a letter I wrote to opposing counsel was criticized as “too abrasive…not worth of a response.” My male co-counsel read it verbatim in a negotiation, and that OC thanked him for being so “level-headed”. 

When my career began, I worked in a largely male-dominated industry. So dominated, that as I’ve shared before, one of the proudest moments of my career was the moment a judge with 50+ years on the bench (one of the first I appeared before), asked me to his chambers, so that he could “shake my hand, and thank a pioneer in an industry” that women like his own wife, and icons like RBG had fought for. According to him, at the time, I was one of less than 10 female practitioners practicing solely in my industry at the time. From day 1, there were no questions about what it would take for me to be a successful lawyer. It would never be about being the smartest. It was, and likely will always be: how do you practice law as a female without being a “female lawyer”? In other words, how to be professional and command respect, yet not attention. How to be firm, yet kind; strong, yet not “abrasive”; kind, yet not a pushover; enough, but never “too” much. Again, commanding rather than demanding. 

I chose to write this article now because I know that many of us have felt like the “other” when we are in positions of being pioneers. That can be starting out as the youngest doctor on a hospital rotation, to the youngest member of a firm, to business owners of every kind. 

Everyone wants to be a pioneer, but most forget that pioneers bear scars the rest will never fully see. 

I’ve always known I wanted to be a lawyer; I never planned on starting my own firm. Instead, I landed my hard-earned first job, and then experienced a life-threatening health crisis that nearly killed me, and made me face the real question of what truly mattered. 

As I’ve said before, “In my life, I’ve been applauded for being a pioneer in an industry, & in the same week, called too girly for being “weak” when I had to be a pioneer in a different way at Mayo Clinic. Starting this firm, I was applauded for being a “girl boss”….& “ called a “raging feminist”, just for my choice of career.

My journey has taught me that outside opinions are of absolutely no import. As long as you can do your job well, with integrity, keep blazing forward. 

In the exact same week I spoke to that judge, I experienced extreme acts of harassment. In response, I reached out to one of my best friends, whose mother is an absolute pioneer in the legal industry, for guidance. Never eschew mentorship from those who’ve gone before you. 

In the early days of my firm, people were mostly curious to just see what would happen. And then it succeeded…and the criticism rolled in. Family members stated that because I worked hard, I was a failure of a wife; and “no wonder I was sick”. Friends eavesdropped on conversations, and then accused me of being “too much a female lawyer”. To this day, that is the most flagrant insult that can be levied at me.

My goal since day 1 has been to do my job, to the best of my ability for my clients, without all the BS that distracts by who I am. This is where my mentor comes in, who has experienced what it feels like to be criticized for getting “handed rungs up the ladder” because he’s a person of color corporate lawyer, when in reality, it was (is) the exact opposite. This is where RBG comes in as well.

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

No matter who you are, I encourage you to read about RBG. Admittedly, my first introduction to her came from some of my favorite Constitutional law classes, and then an interest in the fact that my mentor knew her personally. However, I wanted to share a few of my favorite selections from her biography:

“To the end of her tenure, she remained a special kind of feminist, both decorous and dogged.”

NPR, “https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87

Again, you don’t have to even be remotely interested in the legal profession to learn something valuable from RBG, nor do you need to start a business, as is glorified so much online. As RBG demonstrates, you can be commanding without demanding; firm, yet kind; a trailblazer, yet considerate. Anyone can learn from RBG: 

  • You can be “tough as nails”
  • The work you may do now may feel small at times, but future rewards does not equal present unimportance 
  • You can work harder than everyone around you, with around you knowing it. And while you may not receive laud at the time, it will pay off 
  • You can be a pioneer, and a disruptor, a leader, all by leading by example, and without having to force your opinion upon someone
  • A moment of a meeting can display your kindness (a la my mentor)
  • Your legacy can be one of both kindness & grit

For more information about this legal titan, read more here, here, here, and here, as well as The Daily podcast: Part 1: The Life Of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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