3 Things We Learned While Clerking For Neil Gorsuch

3 Things We Learned While Clerking For Neil Gorsuch

We hold opposite political views and hail from different regions. Yet we stand united in our support of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Theresa R. Wardon and Katherine C. Yarger
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We are female litigators practicing in Denver, Colorado. We both had the pleasure of clerking for Judge Neil Gorsuch early in our careers. Despite these similarities, we are quite different: we hold opposite political views, experienced very different upbringings, and hail from different regions of the country. Yet we stand united in our strong support of Gorsuch’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In reflecting on this, many factors come to mind: chiefly, Judge Gorsuch’s brilliance, integrity, work ethic, and his exceptional mentorship. These characteristics inform the many lessons we learned throughout the course of our clerkships: absorbed in the heat of debate in chambers, over lunch, on the hiking or ski trail, or on an afternoon run with the judge.

These lessons shaped us as lawyers. For that, we are forever grateful. We share a few below.

1. Literature, Not Just Law

Judge Gorsuch reinforced the importance of accessible and clear writing, devoid of legalese. His opinions are analytically rigorous and  enjoyable to read. “Writing takes work,” he taught us, but we should never aim to “write like a lawyer.”

Good writing, Gorsuch instructed, is the product of continual practice and reading great books. He encouraged us to read widely, and often drew on the classics when drafting his opinions. For example, in In re C and M Properties L.L.C., Gorsuch stated, “This is a case whose duration and complexity might induce a faint feeling of familiarity in the wards of Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” and then quoted directly from Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.”

In another case, the judge employed linguistic flare to enliven an opinion about a discovery issue. Gorsuch wrote, “We view challenges to a district court’s discovery sanctions order with a gimlet eye. We have said that district courts enjoy ‘very broad discretion’ . . . .” (Lee v. Max Intern., LLC). As advocates, who now write to advance a position, we may not have as many opportunities to quote Dickens, but we still strive to make our writing clear, accessible, and enjoyable to read.

2. Don’t Blind Yourself to Your Case’s Weaknesses

Gorsuch was a trial lawyer, and he often shared entertaining trial “war stories” from his earlier days. He emphasized the importance of stepping back from the law and facts on your side to analyze the holes in your case and the facts and law supporting the other side. He cautioned that failure to do so would inevitably blind a lawyer to her case’s potentially fatal flaws, leaving her unprepared to address them.

As clerks, we saw examples of this in oral arguments before the Tenth Circuit. An advocate, passionately arguing his or her case, would be asked a question that he or she simply had not considered. The ensuing silence, followed by an admission that he or she “just doesn’t know,” or attempt to pivot to another topic, caused a lost opportunity.

Judge Gorsuch’s adeptness at seeing both sides of a case was a skill he learned as an advocate, but one that he also applies as judge. As a judge, he does not have a client or a side. His role is to view both sides with an open mind and do what the law commands.

3. Dig, Dig, Dig

Judge Gorsuch encouraged us to read and research until we could read and research no more. He demonstrated an endless desire to reach the crux of each legal issue before him. He warned against shortcuts and urged us to pursue a fulsome understanding of the nuance and complexity of the legal and factual issues in each case.

This strive for excellence and thoroughness influences our approach to lawyering today. Just as we learned to be prepared to answer Gorsuch’s inquiries, “Well, have you thought about this?” or “What about that?,” we now are prepared to answer the same questions from our colleagues and clients.

This discipline and drive that Judge Gorsuch employed so effectively as a trial lawyer and advocate has certainly influenced the way we practice. It is also one of the traits that makes him such a fair-minded judge—one who seeks to understand the history, scope, complexity, and differing viewpoints of the legal issue before him.

Because of these lessons, and many more, we are grateful to have worked for such a fine jurist. We hope Judge Gorsuch will become the next associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Theresa Wardon is a partner at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP. She graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and clerked for Gorsuch from 2008 to 2009. Katherine Yarger is an associate at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. She graduated from Duke University School of Law and clerked for Gorsuch from 2009 to 2010, and Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court from 2013 to 2014.

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