‘Savor every moment,’ Ketanji Brown Jackson, my mentor, told me

Kentanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee facing the Senate confirmation vote this week, has an impeccable resume: two Harvard honors degrees and diverse and relevant experience. She also displayed impressive poise, temperament and knowledge during her confirmation hearing. But what is perhaps most notable about Justice Jackson are two things that her friend Professor Lisa Fairfax mentioned when introducing her at the confirmation hearing but which otherwise received little attention: her resilience and her commitment to those around her .

I saw these attributes about 20 years ago when we were the only two black employees in the legal department of a large Boston law firm. I was there my freshman year and she was a fifth-year employee, although she had only been with the company for a year when I got there. Someone at work once asked me if we were both African because of our names. (My first name is not African, but I am. Her name – Ketanji Onyika – is African, but she is not.)

She was a hardworking, detail-oriented and competent attorney. Even as a young lawyer she could take a complicated subject, break it down and explain it to you as if it were the simplest thing in the world. Jackson is simply one of the best lawyers I’ve ever seen.

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What I also remember about my time with Jackson are the sacrifices she had to make early on in her journey to success. She alluded to it at her confirmation hearing when addressing her daughters Talia and Leila: “Girls, I know it hasn’t been easy as I’ve been trying to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood bring to. And I admit that I haven’t always found the right balance.”

I know that’s true because when I first met Jackson she had a toddler and her husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, was an intern in surgery. Jackson had to tend a grueling job filled with long days and unpredictable hours in the office while making sure her daughter received the attention, care, and love she needed at home. As a young man I had no children at the time, but even then I saw how challenging it is to be at a high level and do everything at the same time. I couldn’t imagine how she did it all.

Although she had very little time left, she was willing to give space to support younger lawyers like me. Even though she was a colleague, I looked up to her (though not literally, since I’m a foot taller). In that first year of my career at a law firm where I didn’t know anyone before I started, Judge Jackson was someone I leaned on to help me navigate my new and unfamiliar workplace.

Our conversations often strayed from work to other aspects of our careers, including the importance of considering all my options rather than being tied to a particular path. She always emphasized the value of legal practice – as she did for three judges, including Justice Stephen Breyer – as the ultimate legal education. Although I initially balked at this career change because of the steep pay cut, I warmed to it when she told me how close she had become to her judges. Eventually, I took her advice and left the firm to work as a clerk for a federal judge in Boston. This federal judge later became a friend and mentor, just as Judge Jackson had predicted.

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By this time she had returned to Washington, DC to continue writing the next chapter of her great American story. I thanked her for the guidance and she couldn’t have been happier for me, even remotely. She kept reminding me to enjoy every moment of my legal career and I tried to heed that advice. To this day, I am grateful for her friendship and guidance in ways she probably doesn’t know or have never articulated.

Judge Jackson is someone for whom, in the words of the great Langston Hughes, “life wasn’t a crystal staircase” as she tried to balance the demands of work and home. But she insisted. And given the way her daughter, Leila, looked at her in this now-famous photo, her perseverance paid off. Moreover, it is Judge Jackson’s candid acknowledgment of her sacrifices that will speak to and inspire millions of Americans, especially many women who face similar, impossible choices between parenthood and careers.

I can’t wait for Justice Jackson to be confirmed – with no less Republican support – and take the oath as the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. It’s going to be historical. She will be the 116th judge in the court’s 233-year history. There were 108 white men, four white women, two black men, one latina, and finally – oh finally – one black woman. So let’s reiterate Senator Booker by saying loud enough for everyone to hear: She deserves this spot, she’s worthy, she’s a great American.

Sozi Pedro Tulante is a partner at Dechert LLP in Philadelphia and served as the City of Philadelphia Attorney from 2016-2018.

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