The Alumni Interview: Patricia Millett

Patricia Millett When going before the Supreme Court, “know the case cold,” advises Patricia Millett, ’85 LAS, a partner with Akin Gump in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Katherine Lambert)
The woman who has argued more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any other female attorney discusses the justices, service and tae kwon do “therapy.”

My father was a history professor. When I was 3, he got a post at Southern Illinois University, and we settled in Marine, population 900, right in the cornfields, 35 miles east of St. Louis. I loved growing up there, but when it came time for college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere big, and my first choice was the University of Illinois.

My college classes were exciting and inspiring, especially my courses on the Constitution and civil liberties. I had a fantastic experience in the Study Abroad program, going to England and working for a member of Parliament named Bruce George, who set a great example of what a representative in a democratic system should be. It was a wonderful experience.

After law school and two years in private practice, I joined the Office of the Solicitor General, which acts like a law firm whose sole client is the U.S. government—not the individuals, but the institutions and their rights and interests. It’s where I developed my expertise in arguing appeals, which is now my entire practice at Akin Gump.

About half my practice is devoted to cases being heard by the Supreme Court, which is a unique forum. A major reason is that the justices seldom change. Years can pass, and you’re still talking to the same nine people. That means that you have to get to know them and their developing jurisprudence. Studies show that your chance of getting the Court to even hear your case improves if you use an experienced appellate attorney because they know how to frame the cases and issues.

Nothing distinguishes the Supreme Court from other courts more than the way oral argument is conducted. Since justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the bench, the questioning has increased, and those questions are tough and specific. An attorney has to be ready.

My first case before the Supreme Court in 1997 involved child support and state welfare agencies. I had acquired some experience in oral argument in appeals courts, but just the idea of standing up before the Supreme Court made me feel nauseous, let alone thinking about the complexities of the case. It was very intimidating. And when it came my turn to speak, almost as soon as I opened my mouth, I got the crossfire treatment from the justices. But once that happened, I felt much more comfortable because then I was thinking about nothing but the case, and I just responded.

It was much easier to answer the justices’ questions about the law than to answer my own questions about who I was and what I was doing there.

Success at this level involves preparation—you have to know the case cold. Half my practice involves Supreme Court cases, but that translates into one or two clients per year. So it’s a really deep dive for every client. For each case that I argue before the Court, I do two moot [simulated] courts. It’s as close as you can get to the real thing.

I still feel an awesome sense of responsibility whenever I appear before the Court. Usually, somewhere in the 72 hours before an argument, I find myself looking at people walking around or riding bikes, and I’m thinking, “There’s got to be a better way to make a living.” And then the day comes, and before long the argument is over, and I’m exhilarated and exhausted. By evening I’m usually feeling post-argument stress disorder, replaying the hearing in my head. So I do tae kwon do and work off the emotions. The first time I went to tae kwon do after an argument, I couldn’t believe how much wood I shattered. Now I’m a black belt.

Have I ever had a bad day on the job? I’ve had plenty of days when the justices were all over me and were not buying anything I was selling. But a bad day would involve not doing my absolute best for my client. So, no, I haven’t had bad days like that. My job is to fight as hard as I possibly can, and then, even if I get chewed up and lose, I can say that I have done my job—for the client and for the process.