A special screening of the celebrated documentary RBG, about the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a robust discussion of the conditions facing women in the law drew more than 200 UCLA School of Law students, alumni and guests to UCLA’s James Bridges Theater on Aug. 29.
The film captures Ginsburg’s determination as she goes from being a brilliant legal scholar shunned by law firms because of her gender to a masterful appellate litigator who advanced women’s rights by arguing and winning several key cases before the nine men on the Supreme Court in the 1970s, and then finally to her role as a member of the Court.
After the film, a panel discussion led by UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin picked up on themes from the movie and examined challenges that female lawyers and law students face today.
The event was sponsored by CNN, Participant Media and Magnolia Films, and presented by UCLA Law’s Documentary Film Legal Clinic — in which students provide pro bono legal services to emerging documentary filmmakers — and UCLA Law Women LEAD, a network of 1,700 alumnae and students.
UCLA Law Professor Kristen Eichensehr, who clerked for Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor, said that she entered a professional world where Ginsburg and others already had played key roles in dismantling gender discrimination laws. Today, she said, “The legal barriers are gone, but much more subtle issues remain and are in some ways much more difficult to address.”
Cheryl Lott ’04, a shareholder at Buchalter who handles corporate litigation and regulatory work, described the pervasive sexism she experiences in her professional life. Often, she said, court personnel or opposing counsel assume that she is a court reporter or a junior member of the legal team she is leading.
Kelli Sager, a leading First Amendment litigator and partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, noted that while women make up about half of all law students and have found success in the world of in-house counsel, there remains a paucity of women in leadership positions at major firms.
Kim McLane Wardlaw ’79, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, described the sexism she witnessed from members of the bench who were considering a case in which a 13-year-old girl claimed that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was strip-searched by school officials. The student lost in district court and before a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel. But Wardlaw pushed for the case to be heard en banc, resulting in a 7-4 decision for the student. The Supreme Court then took up the case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, where Wardlaw said the male justices made remarks that indicated their skepticism. It was Ginsburg’s advocacy, Wardlaw said, that drove an 8-1 decision in favor of the teen.
Finding mentors and champions, the panelists agreed, is key to propelling female law students to reach their potential. Future women lawyers and leaders, they said, should seek guidance from alumnae, professors or older law students; be aggressive in seeking clerkships and networking opportunities; and, as Ginsburg did, unrelentingly pursue the course that is meaningful for them.
Lott, who is a board member of UCLA Law Women LEAD and is president of the UCLA Alumni Association, pointed out that she was one of the few African-American and Latina members of her law school class. She said Ginsburg and other women have led the way, but there are miles yet to travel.
“Remember that we aren’t there yet as a society,” she said. “We always have to look back and see: Who else do we need to help to get forward?” She exhorted that the goal must be to “pull each other up together.”