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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Sarah Harris of Williams & Connolly

July 14, 2021, 8:46 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
I argued and won my first two U.S. Supreme Court cases, both this Term—Salinas v. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (5-4 win in February), and Carr v. Saul (9-0 win in April). Going forward, Salinas will expand the availability of judicial review for railroad workers like my client Mr. Salinas, and Carr will give a thousand or so Social Security claimants another chance to establish their entitlement to benefits that can make life-changing differences for people whose disabilities prevent them from working. Arguing before the Supreme Court is thrilling; even better is winning cases that make a real-world difference. When the government makes decisions profoundly affecting people’s day-to-day lives, the government should be held accountable for its decision-making.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
Own up to your mistakes. I vividly remember being horrified as a newly minted lawyer when I realized that I had sent something to a client that contained an error. But I remember even more the partner’s reaction when I alerted him, which was to calmly ask me to tell the client that we were fixing something and were sending a corrected version shortly. Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone encourages associates to be honest when those mistakes happen and helps associates learn from them. It’s an opportunity to build trust and teach associates the skills they’ll need when they become partners. Owning up to any inaccuracies is equally important in oral argument; courts can always tell if you are weaselly, and taking a few seconds of rebuttal to correct any minor misstatements preserves your credibility.

How do you define success in your practice?
Not being an interchangeable cog. There is no shortage of exceptional Supreme Court advocates, and plenty of people rack up dozens of arguments. But as much as I like to win and as much as I love arguments, that cannot be the only point of practicing law. Other metrics—the more human metrics—paint a fuller picture. So I think of success in my practice more in terms of how many arguments we get for associates in a particular year; how many law students I was able to help with job advice; lines in particular briefs that seemed to resonate with others; whether the team on a particular case gelled. Success in my practice means figuring out my own distinctive voice and using it effectively.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
The 5-4 Supreme Court win in Salinas was a huge high point, both because my client, Mr. Salinas, has had more than his share of tough breaks in life, and also because the case involved interpreting a formidably complex statutory scheme. SCOTUSblog covered the outcome as something of a surprise, so I was pleased to prove them wrong.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
[U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Clarence] Thomas. His work as a jurist is, in my view, deeply underrated; it is careful, principled, and written to endure. He is certainly not in this business for accolades or approbation. One of the nicest things about the telephonic Supreme Court arguments is that everyone else has gotten to see how incisively he cuts through cases in his questioning. But the best lesson he teaches all of his clerks is the simplest: love your family. Go home to them and rejoice in their triumphs more than your own.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
Johnny Cash, “The One on the Right Is on the Left.” I’m from Nashville, where Johnny Cash is the all-purpose remedy for whatever life throws at you. This is one of my all-time favorites.

R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Checks all the boxes: nostalgic; full of fast-flying pop-culture allusions; pandemic-perfect.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com