Isaac Lidsky, corporate speaker, author, entrepreneur and the only blind person to serve as a law clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court (Scott Watt)
Isaac Lidsky, who in 2008 became the first blind U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, has authored a book that comes out March 14 urging everyone to make choices in life with their “eyes wide open”—a phrase that happens to be the title of his new work.
A childhood television star and TED Talk speaker with more than 2 million views, Lidsky said in an interview this week, “You are the master of your reality and in every moment, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are choosing who you want to be and how you want to live your life.”
To illustrate the point in his book Lidsky, 37, tells revealing stories about his own choices, including his clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and his subsequent unhappy stint as a Big Law appellate litigator in London and New York. Here is an excerpt, written in present tense about his time at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld from 2009 to 2011:
“I do not enjoy my job. I detest the obligation to keep track of my time in billable six-minute increments and the enormous pressure to work as many of those increments as is humanly possible. Worse, I work as a junior member on teams of lawyers assembled to produce work I used to complete alone in less time. As far as I can tell this arms race approach to litigation adds bureaucratic and political complexities while degrading the quality of the work we produce. In all events, my job bears little resemblance to my previous professional experiences, the ones that purportedly made me such an attractive hire. It feels like my eight-year legal joyride earned me a top position as a corporate chauffeur.”
In the interview with The American Lawyer, Lidsky hastened to add that he is not faulting the firm in any way. “I want to be clear,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are meant to be litigators, enjoy it, find it rewarding, are good at it and succeed. I have no problem with that. That’s great for them.” But for himself, Lidsky said, “No part of me is designed to be a Big Law litigator. That’s just not who I am.” A spokesman for Akin Gump declined to comment.
What should others who share Lidsky’s dislike of Big Law life do?
“I hope they read the book and they act on it,” Lidsky said, “because it gets back to being unaware of the reality we create for ourselves. I have this conversation all the time. We tell ourselves that change is impossible, it’s impractical, it’s irresponsible. It’s just foolish. Meanwhile, your life passes by.”
Lidsky’s life is all about plowing ahead, first through a charmed childhood as an actor—he played Weasel on the NBC show “Saved By the Bell: The New Class”—and then through adversity when he, like his sisters, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that leads to blindness.
That did not stop Lidsky from attending Harvard College, then Harvard Law School, followed by a clerkship with Judge Thomas Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Then came a stint at the Civil Division of the Justice Department—where he made several appellate arguments and did enjoy his work.
But his father, Miami lawyer Carlos Lidsky, had planted in his son the idea of becoming a Supreme Court law clerk, even though by then he was blind. After several tries O’Connor, by then retired, said yes in 2008. (Clerks for retired justices are shared with sitting justices and Lidsky was assigned to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
“She is a remarkable human being, a phenomenal woman,” Lidsky said of O’Connor. “She was just so good to me in so many ways, starting with hiring me, frankly. My blindness just wasn’t an issue for her.”
But O’Connor was also very protective, it turned out. In the book, Lidsky tells of a trip O’Connor took to Philadelphia, where she was sitting by designation on the Third Circuit and speaking at the National Constitution Center. Lidsky took a train to Philadelphia and planned to relax after the events at a cigar bar. O’Connor was intensely interested in how he would get around, and said “Nonsense!” when he told her he would take a cab to the hotel.
So, whether Lidsky liked it or not, he was ferried around by court staff and U.S. marshals. O’Connor insisted on having him join her in the motorcade back to the hotel and dropping Lidsky off at the bar, even though she disapproved of cigars. Lidsky felt his autonomy slip away.
“I adore Justice O’Connor,” Lidsky wrote. “I want her to understand my strength, my independence, my confidence and comfort living as a blind man. I want her to admire me, not baby me.”
O’Connor wrote a blurb for the book: “Because of his exceptional experiences, Isaac has much to teach readers about his practical yet expansive approach to life.”
After the clerkship Tom Goldstein, then leader of the appellate practice at Akin, hired Lidsky, first for a stint in London, where Lidsky’s wife Dorothy wanted to pursue a graduate program. They returned to the United States earlier than planned when it became clear they were about to have triplets.
It was in Akin’s New York office that Lidsky realized that practicing law was not for him. “My job is a liability to my health,” he wrote in the book, again in present tense. “The hours are long. There’s an intense competitiveness to the work, in terms of both the politics of the firm and the arena of high-stakes litigation. Some of my colleagues seem energized by it, but I find it stressful and draining.” Goldstein declined to comment.
Lidsky made his next choice by reinventing himself, personally and professionally. He left law completely and found, along with his Harvard College roommate, a business to run—an Orlando, Florida, company that builds the concrete foundations of new homes. That soon brought its own challenges, Lidsky said. “About three months in we realized that the financial data we had meticulously analyzed on this business were absolute nonsense—garbage in, garbage out.”
Bankruptcy loomed, but over time Lidsky was able to turn it around. In 2016, he wrote, the company was highly profitable, with $150 million in sales, up from $11 million in 2011 when he took on the company. He has more than 300 employees.
With speaking engagements and promoting the book over the next year or so, Lidsky is taking a break from the construction business, and is not sure what will come next. “I would bet that I will be back in business at some point,” he said. “I do think I’d like to write another book at some point, but I have no idea what I’ll be doing come 2019. I love that.”
One thing is certain, though. Lidsky won’t choose to return to the legal profession. Without hesitation, he said, “I have not missed practicing law for a law firm for an instant ever and I will never do it again.”
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