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Sotomayor reflects on her law career

Justice's visit to Penn ends a week of celebrations to open a new hall.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor converses with Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, at the dedication of Golkin Hall. ED HILLE / Staff
Justice Sonia Sotomayor converses with Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, at the dedication of Golkin Hall. ED HILLE / StaffRead more

There she sat on stage at the Irvine Auditorium, among friends and far from the political maelstrom of Washington.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who only last week sought with colleagues to unpack the legal complexities of President Obama's health-care overhaul during three historic days of oral arguments, arrived on Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania campus to mark the opening of a new building and unspool reflections on the law and the state of legal education.

Along the way, Sotomayor, who graduated from law school at a time when no woman had yet been named to the Supreme Court and when there were precious few female appellate lawyers, offered a brief tutorial on how to forge a legal career.

Some of the most important lessons learned in law school, and in a career, seemed to have more to do with human behavior than a law school text or a judicial opinion.

"I learned how to be humble ," she said. "Because there are a whole lot of smart people, and humility is important."

The setting for Sotomayor's remarks to hundreds of law school students, faculty, members of the city legal establishment, and others, was a 45-minute interview conducted by Penn law school dean Michael A. Fitts. His gentle queries served as the jumping-off point for Sotomayor's musings on the value of being a judicial clerk, the perspective a former trial judge can bring to the appellate bench, and the complexities and obstacles that women face in a profession largely controlled by men.

Like the trial judge she once was, Sotomayor seems to view these issues as exceedingly fact-sensitive.

Responding to a question from a female law student, she suggested the slights and disrespect sometimes aimed at women in the profession might be intentional - or not. How to respond is often a matter of understanding whether the remark was an intentional insult or an unconscious slight.

"It's nice to think that people do not intentionally discriminate," she said. "I am an eternal optimist." She urged young female lawyers to observe the styles of the men running the offices they work in, and to the extent possible and advisable, be like them.

Sotomayor's appearance at Penn on Thursday was the conclusion of a five-day celebration to mark the opening of 40,000-square-foot Golkin Hall, which will function as the heart of the law school campus.

The building, named for its lead donors, Penn graduates Perry and Donna Golkin, faces Sansom Street on the West Philadelphia campus. The $33.5 million project includes a 350-seat auditorium and courtroom. It was designed to more closely connect the other main buildings at the law school, including Silverman Hall, a 110-year-old Georgian-style building.

The project follows other renovations at the law school, including refurbishment of classrooms and the Biddle library, and new faculty offices.

Sotomayor, nominated to the high court by Obama, engaged repeatedly and at times forcefully with the lawyers arguing the Affordable Care Act last week. And like the other justices, with the exception of Clarence Thomas, who rarely poses questions to lawyers, she was eager to jump in front the start. She often cut short the lawyers with questions that anticipated where they were going before they got there. Thursday was a much more laid-back affair, with only one passing and oblique reference to the hearings ("what happened in Washington last week").

Instead, there was lots of practical advice for the law students. Sotomayor said she didn't have many regrets regarding her career but wished that she had clerked for a judge after getting her law degree.

"It is the best way to learn the law," she said. "You can learn more in one year of clerking than you learn in eight years of practicing at a firm."

In choosing law clerks, she says she pays special attention to the quality of writing, and she urged students to work on it.

"I have to read something that you've crafted that gives me a sense of your intellectual depth," she said.

And she shared her approach on deciding whether to sign off on accepting a case for Supreme Court review. Though she gives legal arcanery its proper due, she says she also checks out the trial record for a deeper understanding of the case.

Within 45 minutes, the conversation was done, Fitts thanked his guest, and the pair led a procession out of the building and walked toward Golkin Hall, where the celebration continued.

Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or