United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently visited two law schools in Florida. LegalTimes notes a few of Justice Thomas’s comments here and provides links to videos of his appearances.

Justice Thomas makes several good points. I believe they are equally relevant for law students and the general population.

My thoughts on his comments are below.


Justice Thomas chooses his law clerks “arbitrarily.” That means he hires based on his own judgement and preference.

Most employers are the same. At the end of any hiring process, personal preference is usually the deciding factor when there are multiple qualified candidates.

People work together closely. You spend more time with co-workers than you do with your family. If you are not seen as fitting into the group and being likeable, it will be difficult to get hired. If you want to be hired, it is just as important to be viewed as one of the team as it is to have the necessary skills and experience.

I shall write about Ivy League schools shortly. By hiring “third-tier trash”, the Justice states that he is avoiding the false nobility when staffing. Justice Thomas believes that those who attend Ivy League colleges become elitist in their thinking. Additionally, they tend to share similar thoughts and values because of the same academic experiences. Justice Thomas desires staff that have more diverse backgrounds as he thinks that adds value to his team.

In the business world, some employers hire employees who are like them or have profiles they know and are comfortable with. A Harvard graduate may prefer hiring Harvard students over those from other schools. A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) may prefer other CFAs over professional accountants or MBAs.

Part of this relates to a point above; by sharing similar experiences the employer feels that the recruit will fit into the team. Another part though involves in-group bias.

In-group bias involves giving preferential treatment to those who are considered as part of the same group. Not necessarily intentional. Someone with a CFA will tend to value their designation over other financial ones. Therefore, they may see other CFAs as more highly skilled than an MBA or Certified Financial Planner. Lawyers tend to overvalue other lawyers. And so on.

Other employers are more like Justice Thomas. They prefer diversity over familiarity. Not the politically correct concept of diversity. Rather, in finding employees that bring different, but necessary skills and experiences, to the organization. The goal is to have the whole exceed the sum of the parts.

I fall into the diversity category. I try to find staff that are the best for a position. But when there is more than one person, I try to bring complementary skills to my teams or myself. I always attempt to hire employees that best help me to succeed.

To hire someone simply because she went to the same university as I did makes little sense. At least to me.

Being a Good Lawyer (or Business Person)

Per LegalTimes, “Lawyers need to be honest, conscientious, and thorough, but most important of all is credibility”, Thomas said. “Your credibility is your calling card,” he asserted. Reputations spread quickly, he warned. “We’re way up there, but we have lunch. We talk.”

The same is true for any job.

If you cannot be trusted as an employee, you cannot go far in the corporation. End of story.

Reputations are a funny thing. You can create a poor reputation almost immediately. Once a negative reputation is formed, there is little leeway.

But if you develop a strong reputation, you can survive a few mistakes and still keep that reputation intact.

For example, one day you get a flat tire and are late for an important meeting. If you have a good reputation for punctuality, everyone will understand. However, if you have a reputation for lateness, you will get no sympathy. “It’s always something with that guy,” I can hear them say (as they roll their eyes).

Not necessarily fair, but reality.

And, as I mentioned in my post How Not to Get a Job, people talk. Even senior management. If your credibility is weak, everyone will know it quickly.

Senior Management

In the legal world, I would consider Justice Thomas as senior management.

The Justice can afford to be arbitrary in his hiring practices because he has a strong screening system.

In any business, one requires strong processes to succeed.

If you cannot trust your staff and systems, you cannot be successful. If Justice Thomas does not trust his staff and their processes to properly vet candidates, he cannot be certain that he is interviewing the best finalists. Then he will be unable to arbitrarily choose candidates. Instead, he will have to be more probative in his evaluations.

The Justice speaks of trying to spend time with students, rather than academics, when going to law schools.

In business, when visiting branches or other offices, senior management tends to associate mainly with other management or external parties. They might give a presentation to staff, have a question and answer session, then be whisked away to the next high level meeting.

I always try to spend time with employees at all levels.

It is the employees that do the work and they usually have excellent ideas and constructive criticism. New employees can provide competitor information on their former companies. Long time employees can provide background on clients and history on internal corporate issues.

When I was junior, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk with senior management. It made me feel as if I was an actual person and not just an employee that no one knew.

Hopefully when I met and discussed issues with junior staff, they also appreciated the opportunity. Staff that feel appreciated, I believe, are more productive employees. So meeting with them is a win-win for everyone.

As you climb the corporate ladder, do not forget those below your rung.

Finally, I find Justice Thomas an extremely interesting person. If you would like to read more about him, I suggest you read his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir. I found it an excellent read.

1 Response » to “Business Advice From a Supreme”

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