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The topic of the panel discussion was “Women Advocates of the Supreme Court Bar,” and among the speakers were the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice and its first female U.S. solicitor general. But in spite of the accomplishments of Sandra Day O’Connor and Elena Kagan and the other panelists, the free-flowing discussion on Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., left the sense that full equality of treatment for women lawyers has not yet been achieved. Women still have to work “six times harder” said Georgetown University Law Center professor Wendy Williams, and Latham & Watkins partner Maureen Mahoney agreed that to become a top Supreme Court advocate women would still be better off avoiding “alternate tracks” like working part-time. Justice O’Connor said women are still underrepresented as Supreme Court law clerks — 11 out of 38 this term — and in the solicitor general’s office, and when she asked Kagan, “What are we doing about it?” Kagan did not offer an answer. At another point O’Connor guessed that some male justices don’t ask as many questions and are not as “out and out mean” with female advocates as they are with males. For her part, Kagan said that when women are being confirmed for office, there are “a set of questions women have to be very aware of” that are different than those asked males. She offered this answer when asked why senators asked Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor last year about her qualifications and judicial temperament — questions that might not have been asked of a male nominee. “You just have to show up as the most prepared,” said Mahoney. Noting that men still dominate the ranks of firm partners even though women form the majority of law students, Williams concluded, “I am impressed at how much hasn’t changed” for women in the legal profession. But it was not a somber event at the Newseum, co-sponsored by the Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association, in part because of O’Connor’s infectious “get on with it” stance against self-pity. When asked how to deal with the “boy’s club” in some legal circles, O’Connor shrugged and said, “Put on the best show.” Kagan’s answer: “Women’s clubs.” Mahoney told stories about when she clerked for the late Justice William Rehnquist in 1979. She asked a justice whom she would not name why he never hired female law clerks, and the answer was, “I’m not very comfortable with women in my office.” Later, when she had joined the solicitor general’s office, Rehnquist asked her why women in the office did not want to wear formal morning coats as men in the office do. “For women, the equivalent of a morning coat is a wedding dress,” Mahoney said, ending the discussion. Kagan said the women in the solicitor general’s office still have mixed views about morning coats, though most wear some form of it. She reported that before she made her decision against wearing one, she asked Jeffrey Minear, counselor to the chief justice, for advice. The answer came back to “wear what you’re comfortable with.” Kagan’s overall advice was to “be yourself,” and strike the work-life balance that suits you best. It’s not just the lure of family that takes women off the partnership track, she said, but also that “women construct much more interesting and varied professional lives,” taking new paths and detours that some men might not. Mahoney called it the “breadwinner mentality” that men still display, while some women want to pursue family, creating “a big gap in ambition after five or six years” at a firm. Progress has been great, though, to the point that Kagan, who has watched numerous Supreme Court arguments since taking office last year, said she has become accustomed to seeing women arrayed along with men at the counsel’s tables before the Court. But there was one big exception recently, Kagan said with a wry smile. That morning she saw “12 men in a row” sitting at the counsel’s tables, about to argue, with nary a woman to be seen. The name of the case? You guessed it: American Needle v. National Football League.

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