MAUREEN MAHONEY – top appellate attorney and former Deputy Solicitor General
First of all, congratulations on winning the Chambers USA Outstanding Contribution to the Legal Profession award. When did you first decide to become a lawyer?
I was eight years old and made a very serious announcement of my decision during dinner with my family.
My father was a lawyer and I probably wanted to make him proud of me. It ultimately worked.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?
I hoped to have the sense of accomplishment that comes from working hard at work worth doing.
Has it lived up to your expectations?
Oh goodness, yes. I would have been more than satisfied if my career had only worked out half as well. I have absolutely loved being a lawyer. Overall, our system of justice is a beauty to behold, especially at the federal level.
How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?
By default. When I started practicing law at Latham 35 years ago, I had my heart set on a career as a trial lawyer. When my children were born, I realized that I was not willing to spend weeks away from home trying complex cases. I made the switch to appellate practice to minimize my business travel.
"Don't assume that a career in public service is more rewarding than private practice."
What do you consider to have been your big break?
I had a number of very lucky breaks, but my success as a Supreme Court advocate really began when Chief Justice Rehnquist persuaded the court to appoint me to argue a case. This was the first time in history that the court had chosen a woman for this role and fortunately the press coverage of my argument was very favorable. The chief justice opened many doors for me throughout my career and it made all the difference.
What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?
Large international firms now dominate the landscape but I am one of the many lawyers (and clients) who have reaped the benefits of that change. Latham was fairly small when I joined. The intimacy was fun but my professional opportunities improved markedly as the firm grew in size and stature. As a general rule, the largest, most successful firms are handling the lion’s share of the most challenging work. And intimacy can still be found within large firms at the practice group level.
What achievement are you most proud of?
It depends on the day. But today I am most proud of the fact that I only lost two of the 21 cases that I argued in the Supreme Court. There is definitely some luck associated with a win-loss record in litigation. But I would like to think that it also reflects, at least in part, the very intense effort I devoted to argument preparation in every one of my cases.
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
My career was practically perfect in every way. But I did want to serve as Solicitor General and was never selected.
What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
The esteem and affection of my colleagues at Latham. But the joy of winning cases is right up there too.
And enjoyed least?
That’s easy. Losing.
What law would you change, abolish or create?
I would abolish the use of elections to select state judges. We need to improve the quality of the judiciary in many states and that is one reform that could have a substantial impact.
Who is your legal hero?
If I had to name only one, then it would have to be my mentor, Chief Justice Rehnquist. But I truly admire all of the highly talented lawyers who have chosen to forgo the monetary rewards of private practice to serve on the federal bench. Judicial pay is far too low and judges have to make substantial personal sacrifices to serve our country.
What career would you have in your second life?
I would be quite content to hit the replay button.
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
The harder I worked, the luckier I got.
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
Don’t assume that a career in public service is more rewarding than private practice. That seems to be the prevailing view on law school campuses now but I do not think it is accurate. Some public service jobs, like the Solicitor General’s office, provide extraordinary professional opportunities. But many government offices do not offer the challenging work and excellent training available in large law firms (not to mention the compensation). I actually chose to return to Latham rather than spend my career as a deputy in the Solicitor General’s office because I (accurately) perceived that I would have excellent professional opportunities with a much better work/life balance at Latham. A career that combines private practice with some public service is, in my view, the best of both worlds. So take a long view when you choose your first job. It is generally far easier to leave a great firm to work in the government than to start work in the government and then join a great firm.
And finally, to those who hope to ultimately get into appellate law?
It is important to get the experience of serving as a judicial clerk on an appellate court, so make yourself competitive for that selection process. Most of the best appellate lawyers also clerked for the Supreme Court, so aim high. I also think it is ideal to handle a mix of trial and appellate litigation in your early years in practice. Learning how to try cases will make you a stronger appellate lawyer and permit you to handle a greater range of cases. By way of example, I probably would not have been selected by the United States House of Representatives to handle litigation challenging the Commerce Department’s plans to use sampling to conduct the census if I had not had some trial court experience. The case culminated in a Supreme Court argument but it started in a three judge district court.