"Like playing with Michael Jordan": Three former Ginsburg clerks talk about what it was like working for the justice
SCOTUStalk Host Amy Howe spoke this week with two groups of former law clerks for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the first of these interviews, Kelsi Brown Corkran, Lori Alvino McGill, and Amanda Tyler share their memories of meeting Ginsburg for the time and working for a boss who herself was such a hard worker.
[00:00:00] Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!
Amy Howe: [00:00:03] This is SCOTUStalk, a nonpartisan podcast about the Supreme Court for lawyers and non-lawyers alike, brought to you by SCOTUSblog.
AH: [00:00:13] Welcome to SCOTUStalk. I'm Amy Howe. Thanks for joining us. Members of the public generally knew her as the Notorious RBG or as a tiny but mighty figure in the courtroom. For her law clerks, though, Ginsburg was a warm and thoughtful role model and mentor. We're so lucky to have three of her law clerks with us to talk about the time they spent working with Ginsburg as well as their relationships with her after they finished their clerkships. Kelsi Brown Corkran is the head of the Supreme Court practice at Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe. Lori Alvino McGill is an appellate lawyer who clerked for Justice Ginsburg during the October term, 2005. And Amanda Tyler is the Shannon Cecil Turner professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
Let's start at the beginning. Talk about how you came to be a clerk for Justice Ginsburg. What was the interview process like? You're all relatively young lawyers going to talk to Justice Ginsburg, who was not much of a small talker. What was the interview like?
Kelsi Brown Corkran: Yeah, so I was actually a little bit older. I was pregnant with my son when I clerked for Judge Tatel on the D.C. Circuit.
So I waited until after my kids were born before I applied to clerk on the court. It's pretty well documented that when Justice Ginsburg was recommended to clerk for Justice Frankfurter by the dean of Harvard Law School, that he was initially willing to consider a female clerk, but when he found out that she was a mother, that was just too much. He could not have a mother in chambers. And so she missed out on the opportunity to do a clerkship on the Supreme Court. And so that interview was just incredible in so many ways. I mean, to see her in person, I still am not over that. And it was almost a decade ago, and I ended up working with her for a year. But I can still remember walking into chambers and seeing her there in real life. But we ended up talking about my kids. I brought them up at some point and she smiled and asked how old they were. And then a few minutes later offered me the clerkship. And it was it was very special to me. I think it was a joy to her to be able to give that opportunity to so many of the clerks that she lost out on. And I was just one of many clerks who came to chambers, both male and female, who already had kids. So, it was a particular piece of it that was special to me.
AH: [00:02:51] Lori, how about you?
LAM: Well it’s hard to follow that story. But I have a couple of sharp memories from my interview process. The first was when I was extended the interview. I was working on the DC Circuit for Douglas Ginsburg. No relation, but they were friends.
[00:03:12] But they come from a very different ideological background, I would say.
[00:03:17] So the first thing I remember is DHC coming into my little part of chambers and letting me know that Justice Ginsburg had called him about me, and I was elated. Of course, I was really excited. And he said, but so here's the thing. I think she's going to call you and extend an interview. And I think if she interviews you, she's going to hire you. And he looks very serious. And I'm like, well, that sounds great. And he said, well, you understand, if she extends an offer to you, you have to accept that.
[00:03:53] And then he looks at me like, what, Lori? I just want to make sure that there's not some other justice who would prefer to clerk for me. I looked at him like, wow, you had no idea there was one of us here in chambers. And so I was a sleeper liberal with nothing to indicate as such on my resume. But so he was surprised, as surprised that I was excited as I was surprised that she was interested in the interview. The process was stressful, as you'd imagine. I was busy on the D.C. Circuit. I was also studying for the bar exam, and I remember studying a lot for the interview. And I got there and I could not have been prepared for the first question that she asked me, which was, Lori, we've had a lot of trouble with our panel. And I have to tell you, I just secured it was beautiful new grand piano for the West Conference Room. The reason we have a new piano is the old piano would not stay in tune. Would you mind going downstairs and playing the piano after we're done here and letting me know if it sounds OK? So, you know, on my resumé, I had indicated I was a pianist, but I was not prepared to play the piano for a justice of the Supreme Court.
[00:05:09] And I spent the entire forty five minute period with her not appreciating the experience. Or like really present in our conversation, but instead I was thinking, but my nails aren't trimmed and I haven't touched the piano in 12 months, and what could I possibly play for the justice that would be impressive. It turned out, mercifully, that after our conversation, she just sent me downstairs with one of her current clerk, Ginger Anders, who I knew from law school, and I was able to, in relative privacy, test out the grand piano and report back to her when she called to extend the offer that the piano was in tune and sounded great.
AH: What did you play?
LAM: I actually I played a pop song. I played Possession by Sarah McLaughlin because I hadn't played anything classical in a long time. But I had a keyboard in my apartment, and that was the kind of thing I was playing in those days. But I did.
AH: Amanda. How was your interview?
AT: [00:06:03] I was more nervous for that job interview than any job interview I've ever had in my life. And yet what was really nice, and I've heard the others say this as well, she put me at ease right away, and it really took it took a lot of the nerves out of the situation.
[00:06:19] My interview story is actually less about the interview and more about what happened immediately after. So very fortunately, she offered me the job at the end of the interview and I, of course, accepted on the spot. And I went back to the airport to fly back to Boston.
[00:06:34] I was in school still, and I called my grandparents from the airport to tell them I was very close with my grandparents and neither of them had gone to college.
[00:06:42] It became immediately apparent in the conversation they had no idea who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, and they didn't understand the enormity of this incredible opportunity.
[00:06:54] And so I then had to explain to them who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was. And I remember I said something to the effect of grandma, you don't understand. I was only able to go to law school because she changed everything in this country for women and for both genders. Really. Excuse me. And I remember my grandmother saying, my God, she sounds amazing. Amanda, I'm so, so proud that you will go and clerk for her. So this whole story connects back. It's not a story about me. I wrote the justice, a letter the next day saying how excited I was and how honored I was to be able to go and work for her. And I decided to tell her, write up a story about my grandparents and the conversation and specifically what my grandmother had said. The justice wrote me back and sent a card for my grandmother with a letter to my grandmother, which my grandmother then framed and hung in her living room. So that was pretty special.
AH: [00:07:51] That's a great story. What was it like working with her sort of on a day to day basis? I feel like, you know, the stories you hear from clerks about life at the Supreme Court, that different chambers have sort of different personalities, depending on the justice. What was it like working with her?
AT: It was great, but she didn't let anything slide. She had the most exacting standards and she herself had an incredible work ethic. And she was a workhorse and she never wasted a minute. She used every minute for constructive purposes. And so you had you had to measure up. You had to do your best. I wrote something up recently where I said working for her was like playing with Michael Jordan. She pulled you up and made you perform at your best level.
[00:08:43] I was not a pianist. I was an athlete. So I use sports analogies on my glory. She was she was a Michael Jordan, the Leo Messi, Megan Rapinoe of athletes in the sense that she she really made you rise to the occasion and meet her standards or certainly die trying, which I certainly did. The other thing, though was that just the meticulous care with which she took that she took with her opinions.
[00:09:12] So you would give her a draft and she would give it back, really marked up, but then walk through why she thought you should change this. And I'm sure Lauren anf Kelsi, you're going to say this, I was such a better writer at the end of it, although I'm still trying to measure up.
LAM: [00:09:28] I would agree with all of that. I mean, I guess I would add, at least when I was clerking, she ran her chambers in quite a formal manner. I remember exchanging handwritten notes and typewritten notes, sort of regular thing, instead of knocking on her door because we were all so respectful of her process. And if she had her door closed and she was working on something, you wouldn't want to interrupt. And she was sort of old fashioned in that way. And we all sort of abided by that, as you would expect. I think her working process sort of in her manner and being sort of earned her a reputation for being cold. I think some people who didn't work with her directly may have had the impression that she was being standoffish or too formal or not. Not a warm person, and I can't emphasize enough how different that is from the person who I got to know. I think she was a deeply shy person, which is somewhat surprising given her chosen profession and her being drawn to being the trailblazer, an absolute iconic heroine for justice. She was a very shy person, but when you got to know her, she was also fiercely loyal. And we saw that sort of in the day to day workings of chambers. And then after the clerkship in the way that she really took care to continue the relationships that she formed during that year with the clerk.
AH: Kelsi, do you have anything to add?
KBC: [00:11:03] So I think appearing together, what Lori and Amanda said, Lori described, is exactly my memory of the pool memo process or bench memos.
[00:11:16] There is lots of handwritten notes back and forth, and we each had our own little kind of folder area where she would put her comments and then we'd bring them back to her. It was the one job I've had in my adult life where my good penmanship actually was an attribute. But then, as Amanda was saying, when you got to the opinion writing process, it was much more intimate. You would sit in her office. She would outline what she had in mind for the opinion, you would draft it, and then you would give it to her in a printed copy that was triple spaced. So there's plenty of room for her to kind of do her her edits by hand. And then when she was done, as Amanda said, you would be called into chambers and you would sit at her table with her and she would go over every single edit and explain why she had done it. And it wasn't for her benefit. It was four ours to kind of teach us how to become better writers. And so I will always be grateful for that.
[00:12:09] I think we all left the clerkship with this just master class on persuasion and writing and so grateful that she took the time to do that.
AH: [00:12:21] You've already talked about some really special stories, but you haven't. What is your fondest memory, perhaps of Justice Ginsburg as a mentor or a friend? Lori?
LAM: [00:12:33] Is it ok if I have two?
[00:12:39] I'll start with the one that's later in time. So the thing that sort of sticks with me and is the perfect illustration of how much she cared for her law clerks as people happened about a year after my clerkship, a little bit more than a year, I gave birth to my first child. And one of the only things I remember about that experience, because it was a long, drawn out kind of marathon that I got a phone call from the justice who was, I believe, in Italy at the time. She called my hospital room to make sure that she told me that she knew I had had a cesarian section after a long labor and that it was really important that I surrounded myself with people who knew how much help I needed and that it was a major surgery and I needed to take care of myself like nothing to do with them. And are you planning to go back to work? And what does the law firm think of this? Because it was completely about the care and feeding of a person that she cared about. And it was incredibly meaningful to me. And I think it sort of illustrates the person she was. The other memory I will share, I shared recently on Facebook with our friends, Dr. Buloch, who some of you know, I remember her saying to me at the end of the term, right after our law clerk musical parody, which I think is still a tradition of the court. I had the role of an advocate who was delivering her first argument before the court and the first argument before the brand new Justice Alito and Sasha had written up an adaptation of Frank Sinatra's Mona Lisa and the new lyric for Sam Alito, Sam Alito, You're my fifth vote. And so it was my job to serenade him in this little parody show.
[00:14:47] And at the end, she came up to me and she grabbed my hand and to look right at me and said, Lori, with a voice like that, how did you ever become a lawyer?
[00:14:59] And at that moment, knowing what an opera afficionado she is and how much musical opinion, I couldn't decide if it was a huge compliment or if she was telling me that I should have kept my night job.
[00:15:14] I still I tell that story with great fondness, and every time I see Justice Alito, we talk about it. It was a moment that was unforgettable.
KBC: [00:15:27] So this is not poignant, but it still makes me laugh.
[00:15:32] So in chambers, there's that we had our land line telephones. And if calls came from other parts of the court, there was a kind of a regular sounding ring.
[00:15:43] But if the justice called you, it was like a different I don't know how to describe it. It was like it was just a different tone. It was the justice calling. And we all would have this kind of Pavlovian response to that ring because it was why why is she calling? What's happening? What do they do? And not because of anything she did. She was always she was not a scary boss, but with someone that impressive, you just you wanted to do your best all the time.
[00:16:08] So this was when we were working with her to help her come up with questions for the Shakespeare kind of mock trial that is done every year. And you're supposed to come up with kind of funny things for her to ask about. And so I had put together some questions and I wish I could remember exactly what it was, but it was some sort of joke about George Clooney in his unrequited love. So I think this is right around when he had gotten married. And so the phone rang. That kind of jarring ring and I picked it up and she said, can you explain this part about George Clooney to me? And I was like, oh, well, justice, he's an actor, he's been in a lot of movies. And I kind of go on for a couple sentences. And she stops me because I know who George Clooney is. Just why is this funny? And I don't know that I had a good response. But, you know, with her, you just kind of never knew where she was at in terms of cultural awareness. And apparently I misjudged that one.
AH: [00:17:08] That's great, Amanda?
AT: [00:17:13] Oh, my gosh, so many memories. And one of the really fun things is getting together right now with other clerks and hearing their great stories. Share these. When I was clerking for her, as Kelsi's story mentioned, you would sometimes help her prepare for the many, many speeches she was invited to give.
[00:17:32] And I clerked for her before she was the notorious IBG and she was in huge demand then. I can't imagine after being a clerk, but she was giving one speech excuse me about the progress women had made in the workforce.
[00:17:48] And she called me and she wanted me to work with her on it. And she said, you know, this is really incredible that she said this, said, you know, I'm much older than your generation and I don't really have a handle on what the current issues are.
[00:18:03] So will you go around and get together with all the women law clerks and talk to them and come back and give me a real sense of what the biggest issues are that you and your peers in your age cohort, in your career cohort facing and thinking about and worried about. And I thought that was pretty amazing because she kind of wrote the book on how to figure out how women, you know, can succeed and overcome barriers. And she built so many roads of equality. But she was one constantly still trying to to open up those opportunities and break down barriers. And too she was and this is this comes out in her jurisprudence. She was trying to understand the experience of people who weren't in the exact same position as her to other stories. I mean, I could tell certainly more, but to others that immediately come to mind. She cited me once in an opinion, some of my scholarship. I was very, very excited. It was the first time I was cited by the court. I remember I'm laughing because I told my spouse and he said it doesn't count if it's Justice Ginsburg. She was just being nice. That's kind of our marriage. But she autographed the opinion with a really sweet inscription, one of the slip opinions, and sent it to me because I think she knew about was the first time I've been cited so that I have it framed in my office.
[00:19:23] It was really, really sweet. A final story is just there was a period I'm so moved by Lori's story and there was a period in my life where I had I was going through something that was very, very difficult. And it was parallel to something that she had been through in her life around the same time. And there were some difficult months. And in the middle of that, she reached out. She she knew and she reached out. She wrote me a really beautiful letter about how I couldn't see it now, but that decades later I would look back and actually find much to appreciate from the experience once I got to the other side. And one she was right, of course, because she was profoundly wise and two that was incredibly kind and generous because of the parallels. I knew there was wisdom in those words, and it really carried me through some very difficult period.
AH: That actually sort of touches on my next question.
[00:20:22] So I guess I'll start with Kelsi. Lori and Amanda have both talked a little bit about sort of their relationship with the justice after they left the clerkship. And you all can, of course, talk about more.
[00:20:36] But so what was it like? Does it change once you leave the court and you're no longer the clerk? You're a former clerk?
KBC: [00:20:43] Yeah. You know, she was very accessible. So you could always any time you wanted to email her secretary and asked to come visit her.
[00:20:54] And as Lori and Amanda point out, she would reach out to us when she knew things, significant things were going on in our lives. So after I had my first Supreme Court argument, it wasn't long before I got it. I got a note from her about what a great job I had done. And when I came into chambers later, she kind of grabbed my hands and she said, oh, you were super, she loved the word super.
[00:21:18] But what really changed for me was my ability to be present in the moment with her during the clerkship.
[00:21:24] I just felt like I always wanted to to do a job and to impress her and to live up to her standards. And I remember being in chambers one time and just sitting with her maybe a couple of years ago. And we were talking about travel and the kids and what she was up to. And I said, I just remember thinking in my head, this is extraordinary what I'm getting to do right now to just sit with her and talk for 30 minutes. And so I think that was the real difference, know, thinking, gosh, we don't cry when I say this, but I think the last time I saw her was in the winter before the pandemic started. And I had moved for someone's admission that day. If you go to the court a lot, this is something where you stand up and you just you get a script that tells you what to say. And there's not a lot that goes on. It's always granted by the chief justice. But I went to visit her afterwards and she said completely deadpan to me, you did a super job moving for admission. And I laughed. I said, thanks, justice.
[00:22:32] But she was clearly being sarcastic because there's not any way to mess up looking for someone's admission.
[00:22:38] So I will always remember that fondly.
AH: She always paid attention to those in a way that most of the other justices didn't show respect…
KBC: For any of us who appeared before her, whether it was moving for admission or arguing, you would always get a little smile for her, just a little recognition to kind of build you up on your standing at the podium, which is special.
AH: [00:22:59] Lori and Amanda, do you have anything you want to add?
LAM: [00:23:02] I will. I'll just add a quick one to what Kelsi just said, which is every time I had a reserved three chambers, she made a point to make eye contact with me when she entered the courtroom and gave me that same supportive little smile, which, you know, of course, delighted me every single time. I guess the other thing that I will say that that kind of changed about my relationship with RBG after I left chambers like healthy, I became less focused on am I doing a really good job right now in my interactions with her?
[00:23:38] And I think it was long after the clerkship that I learned, you know, one of the most valuable lessons that she taught me and and stays with me to this day was that even Justice Ginsburg knew, and knew well, that we cannot do all things well at the same time.
[00:24:00] And it was from that teaching that I had the strength to step away from my long term career and spend more time with my children. This is what I'm doing now. And it is also from that teaching that I know that when I choose to step back into the ring as a practicing lawyer or something else, that I will be fully capable of doing that very well again, but that there is a time for all things and we can't be everything all at the same time. And I think she would be the first to admit that she leaned on Marty when she needed to be the primary parent at times in her career.
[00:24:42] And I think that that is probably one of the most underrated but important parts of her legacy for her women who are trying to be parents at the same time as having fulfilling careers.
AH: [00:24:56] Amanda?
AT: Yeah, I'll pick up on what Lori was just saying. I had the great good fortune to host her several times at various law schools where I've taught. And I remember I asked her, my students, they're always coming in and asking for advice. How do you find the work life balance? I have students that ask me what should I look for in a partner? So when I was interviewing her in front of the whole UC Berkeley law school community last last fall, I asked her what her advice was and she said, and this is exactly, of course, the story of her marriage with Marty.
[00:25:30] She said choose someone choose a partner who thinks your work is as important as theirs. And it was really sweet because I was able to draw her out and have her connect directly with my students, which was a really special moment. So many of them told me afterwards they so appreciated that. But I also want to say a word about that visit. She was originally supposed to come to Berkeley the prior winter when she broke her ribs and they discovered the lung cancer event was to honor one of her best friends, Herma Hill Kay, who'd been faculty member, the second woman faculty member, and the first woman Dean at Berkeley Law. They wrote a first case book on sex based discrimination, had a wonderful friendship, and Herma had just died. So we had launched a new memorial lecture in Herma's honor. And the justice was so devoted to giving, to appearing for the event that even in the original schedule she would not cancel. I kept calling her saying, you cannot come. You need to focus on your health. You cannot. She said, I have to honor Herma, I must do it. And it was only when I think the family and the doctor said, no, you need to cancel all your events for a while, that she finally relented. And then immediately, once she got to the other side of that difficult period, she said, All right, Amanda, when are we doing this? We have to honor Herma. And she did come out and I'm very grateful. But she was you know, it was a struggle. She wasn't at full steam. And I was just in awe of her every moment of that visit, because the the will that drove her to want to honor this friendship and the and the special person in her life was truly was truly inspiring.
KBC: [00:27:] Picking up on the last thing Amanda just said about her fierce desire to honor her friend.
[00:27:21] I think what I carry with me is just the inspiration of the justice’s work ethic. And I don't she was not a workaholic. She was a life aholic. Everything.
[00:27:35] There was no moment wasted from the moment she got out of bed until the end of the day. She was intentional in every way.
[00:27:41] And the reason she was able to be so extraordinary in her work, but also so committed on a personal level to her clerks, to her friends, she made time for her workouts. You can't do all of that if you are unintentional about your time, if you're kind of just dawdling or and so I having seen her go full steam for eighty seven years, not a moment was wasted.
[00:28:09] And I take that with me. When I get up in the morning, I try to live my life the same way so that I can be the parent and mother I want to be and also fully committed to my job and try to get that workout in and try to make the phone call to the friend. You can live a whole life that way and get a lot done. It's tiring, but it's so rewarding. And so when I when I'm sorry, I start to feel tired, I think of the justice and I don't want to waste any time either.
AH: [00:28:36] That is a wonderful way to finish. Thank you, Kelsi Corkran, Lori Alvino McGill and Amanda Tyler for joining me to talk about the personal side of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
[00:28:50] That's another episode of SCOTUStalk. Thanks for joining us. Thanks to Castext, our sponsor and to our production team, Katie Barlow, Katie Bart, Kal Golde and James Romoser.