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They’ve Got Next: Appellate Fresh Face Sarah Harris

March 24, 2021, 9:31 AM

Sarah Harris’ first U.S. Supreme Court oral argument wasn’t typical.

With the high court closed for the pandemic, she’d argue over the phone and audio of the exchange would be broadcast live.

Harris was lucky though. It was November 2020 and her mentor, Lisa Blatt, had argued the first remote case in May. And she’d had a front row seat for how the Supreme Court powerhouse and fellow Williams & Connolly partner prepared.

In February 2021, it paid off. The justices handed Harris a 5-4 victory in a benefits case, Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Bd., that drew headlines because Chief Justice John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh surprisingly joined the court’s liberals in forming the majority for the railroad worker.

Her second argument also took place remotely on March 3 in Carr v. Saul, representing Social Security beneficiaries in an Appointments Clause dispute.

Blatt, who has argued more times at the Supreme Court than any other woman, could have handled both cases, Harris said. But the Supreme Court bar is terrible about promoting young attorneys, particularly women and attorneys of color, Blatt said, adding that “someone has to do it.”

Harris credits her success to Blatt, who she worked with at Arnold & Porter before Blatt moved back to Williams & Connolly to head its Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation group.

It’s the result of “working with someone who isn’t an argument hog,” Harris said.

A Practice Pivot

Harris said she wasn’t always destined for a life in appellate law. Originally, she planed to work as a government lawyer in national security.

In addition to her law degree, she has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in politics and international relations. And she wrote a book on the CIA’s covert operations during the early years of the Cold War.

Her clerkships piqued her interest in appellate law, including one with Justice Clarence Thomas.

But her first case working with Blatt got her hooked.

The case, Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, centered around a four-state water compact. Or, as Harris describes it: A “battle royale between Texas and Oklahoma over water rights.”

One of the states, Oklahoma, hired the firm after the justices signaled interest in taking the case by asking the federal government to weigh in.

So “from my first weeks at the firm in October 2012, I got to work on the response brief,” Harris said. Once the court did grant the case, in January 2013, “I was off to the races on our bottom-side merits brief,” she added.

“Lisa took a chance and trusted me with the merits brief drafting.”

Now she helps run Williams & Connolly’s practice with Blatt and Amy Saharia.

Both Harris and Saharia are “superstars in their own right,” Blatt said.

Telling a Story

Blatt lauded Harris’ brief writing skills, saying each is “distinctive and unique.”

She focuses on telling a story so that the case comes to life, Blatt said.

Harris said she loves the challenge of how to turn the facts and the law into a compelling story for the justices. But her win in her first go-round shows that she’s pretty good at oral argument, too.

Watching Blatt prepare for her remote argument was invaluable because it gave her a peak into the challenges of doing an argument remotely, said Harris, who gave birth to her second child in the month leading up to that argument.

The biggest challenge, Harris said, “is that, unlike in-person arguments, you can’t see the Justices faces to gauge their reactions, so it can be harder to read whether questions are friendly or hostile and whether your responses are persuading them.”

Another was getting comfortable with the technology. Harris said “it took a while to get the setup down for Lisa’s argument, but once it worked, I was much less worried about mid-argument technical difficulties.”

Thus Harris was able to avoid what happened to one advocate after their line cut off at the start of his presentation. “I assume you didn’t decide to rest on your briefs,” Chief Justice John Roberts teased.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com