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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Slattery

SCOTUS Ladies Q&A

It’s the Eleventy-First of January. In hopes of breaking up the long, dark winter night, we’re bringing you a ray of sunshine, a glimmer of spring in the form of a SCOTUS Ladies Q&A. This month (is it still January, btw?), we sat down with Jaime Santos, a partner at Goodwin Law. We chatted about her recent Supreme Court debut, her involvement in the judiciary’s response to its #MeToo reckoning, and how she charted a unique path in appellate litigation.  


Jaime is a mainstay of the #AppellateTwitter crowd, which is where I first encountered her commentary on gymnastics as well as the law. 


A graduate of the University of San Diego and Harvard Law School, she clerked for judges on the federal district court in California and the Ninth Circuit. She climbed up (vaulted?) the ranks of Big Law and today serves as co-chair of Goodwin Law’s Appellate & Supreme Court litigation practice. Her work includes ERISA litigation, patent litigation, constitutional law, and product litigation. She’s earned accolades such as being recognized as a D.C. Rising Star by the National Law Journal, a Rising Star by Law360, and a Top 250 Women in Litigation by Benchmark Litigation. 


Here’s our interview with Jaime Santos. 


SCOTUS Ladies: What inspired you to become a lawyer? 


Jaime Santos: In college, I took a Criminology class with my favorite sociology professor, Dr. Rafik Mohamed. It was the first time I had been exposed to judicial opinions, and I found them so fascinating. Dr. Mohamed briefly mentioned in class how to put together case briefs, and just for fun I prepared them for every case we looked at during the semester so I could better understand the cases and how they interacted with each other. When I went to Dr. Mohamed’s office hours to ask about some of the interactions I’d noticed, he said, “You really need to go to law school.” And I eventually did—after working for four years in event planning first.


SCOTUS Ladies: How did you get into ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act] litigation?  


Jaime Santos: As is probably true for many appellate lawyers at large firms, my areas of relative substantive expertise map onto areas where my firm has had strong litigation practices, and therefore comparatively more appeals in that area. But for ERISA, the focus was intentional. About 8 years ago when coming back from maternity leave, I worked on my first ERISA case. Before then, I (like most people) assumed everything ERISA was a snoozer. But ERISA turns out to be a combination of lots of different fascinating things—administrative law, statutory interpretation, common law, complicated issues of preemption, etc. 

Did someone say administrative law?


Jaime Santos: And looking at the appellate landscape, I also noticed that many subject matter areas where there is a lot of appellate litigation—patent law, copyright law, antitrust, bankruptcy—were already oversaturated with extremely credentialed Supreme Court and appellate litigators. That wasn’t the case with ERISA. There was basically no dominant appellate lawyer who focused on ERISA cases. So I thought it presented me with a good opportunity to chart my own path as an appellate lawyer in an area where there is tons of litigation but not tons of fancy appellate lawyers already in that space.


SCOTUS Ladies: You recently made your SCOTUS debut. Tell us about that experience. 


Jaime Santos: It was definitely the most incredible experience in my professional career so far. I had an amazing and supportive team at Goodwin and at our co-counsel’s office—Rhonda F. Gelman, P.A., an immigration firm in Florida. In a small-world moment, the partner working most closely with me on the case who gave me tons of helpful advice through argument prep was David Zimmer, a good friend who was also my “big brother” on law review back in law school.


Willy Jay, who at the time was the co-chair of our appellate group, provided tons of helpful feedback on the briefs and at moots, and he was really fantastic about giving me as much guidance as I wanted while also giving me space to make the important strategic judgment calls we had to make. My primary goal during argument was to stay in the moment and really listen and engage, rather than try to recall a canned answer. I felt like I did that and represented Mr. Wilkinson to the best of my ability.


group of lawyers on steps outside court columns
Jaime and her colleagues on the Supreme Court's steps (photo: Goodwin Law)

SCOTUS Ladies: You’ve argued in more than half of the federal appeals courts. What were the biggest differences between an appellate argument and your Supreme Court argument? And do you have a pre-argument routine?


Jaime Santos: There are two big differences for me between Supreme Court and appellate arguments. First, for Supreme Court arguments, you know who’s on the panel while you’re doing the briefing, and there’s a lot more strategizing during briefing that focuses on the Justices and their beliefs and past writings on a particular topic or mode of analysis. Not so with appellate arguments—you sometimes don’t know until the morning of the argument who your panel will be.  


The second big difference is that appellate arguments focus a lot more on precedent and the record, so you really have to know all of that cold. In the Supreme Court, the focus is more on first principles, the interactions between your position and other doctrines, and how your argument might play out in other cases. The focus of argument prep for the two types of cases is quite different as a result. 


My favorite oral argument tradition comes in the days before argument, when I like to go on ridiculous long walks outside (2-3 hours) and just talk to myself about the case, playing the role of both judge and advocate by asking myself hard questions, answering them, pushing back and asking follow-up questions, and practicing pivots. Something about the fresh air and the movement really opens up my mind and I feel really ready after I’ve done that a few times.


SCOTUS Ladies: Have you observed any notable changes in legal research and case preparation due to technological advancements? Have you tried Chat GPT?


Jaime Santos: Not for me—I still use pen and paper, case binders and highlighters, and notecards for key points and record cites I need to memorize. I have not tried ChatGPT, but I have thought about uploading all of the briefs for a particular case and some of the key authorities and asking ChatGPT to formulate oral argument questions. Maybe for my next argument!


SCOTUS Ladies: You’ve spent a lot of time writing and speaking about sexual harassment in the legal profession. How did you get involved in the reform effort?


Jaime Santos: I got involved in the reform effort when a group of then-current law clerks who wanted to work on these issues but felt like they couldn’t do so publicly invited me to join them in spearheading efforts to reform the judiciary’s approach to harassment allegations against judges. I continue to think that the judiciary shouldn’t exclusively police itself with respect to judicial misconduct, acting as judge, witness, and even investigator in judicial misconduct investigations—and I think it’s particularly problematic when circuits decline to refer investigations out to a different circuit for investigation and resolution.  


SCOTUS Ladies: There have been some reforms on this front, but what additional steps should the courts or Congress take to address harassment?


Jaime Santos: I don’t have a firm view on precisely what the right answer is. I can understand the judiciary’s concern with an IG [Inspector General] model, but that’s not the only option. Utah’s court system, for example, has a really interesting Judicial Misconduct Commission that includes judicial members, legislative members, attorney members, and public members. I really wish Congress and the judiciary could put together a working group to collaboratively discuss the potential options that would instill public confidence in how these types of investigations and cases are resolved.


SCOTUS Ladies: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what do you think you’d be doing today?


Jaime Santos: This is such a hard question. I really love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else. Maybe a gymnastics coach and judge? Or a sociology professor and part-time baker? Maybe an adventure tour guide?


SCOTUS Ladies: In your spare time, you do gymnastics. How did you get into this?


Jaime Santos: I was a competitive gymnast growing up and quit the sport when I was 17 and my body hurt all the time. Then, when I was 36, a friend of mine who competed with me in my teens suggested taking an adult gymnastics class. I couldn’t really think of a good reason not to do so, and so we started taking a class once a week. I was surprised at how much muscle memory I still had—there were tons of things that my body just picked right back up. And then … there were tons of things that my brain still knew how to do but when I tried, my body said, “Umm, I know you think you can do this, but you need to actually have abdominal muscles to make this work.”


My 10-year-old daughter Sydney is now a very competitive gymnast, and when we go to open gym together I am occasionally declared by her teammates to be “cool” because I can still flip. So that’s a major victory.


SCOTUS Ladies: Who is your favorite “SCOTUS Lady”? 


Jaime Santos: This is an impossible question—there are so many incredible women Supreme Court practitioners, not to mention the Justices themselves. I think my favorite oral argument styles that I cannot emulate but really respect are the styles of Sarah Harrington and Cate Stetson. Sarah is informal in a way that is incredibly effective—you just believe what she says because she doesn’t dress her answers up in a lot of fluff. And Cate is amazingly conversational when she argues. I could imagine her sitting at a dinner table with the Justices talking through her case.  


Another oral argument style that impresses me so much is the style of Elizabeth Prelogar and Lindsay See. They’re the type of advocates who just think and speak in perfectly curated and polished paragraphs; it’s clear when they argue that they have thought through absolutely every angle of the case. I also love that Lisa Blatt is unabashedly herself at the lectern; she is the epitome of zealous advocacy. Above all, I love how there is no one single style for a woman Supreme Court lawyer in 2024.

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Which legal luminary should we interview next? Send us your suggestions! 

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