Blind Catholic Lawyer Laura Wolk Discusses Breaking Barriers and Amy Coney Barrett’s Mentorship
The young lawyer, who gave moving testimony on behalf of her former professor, speaks about clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas and about how her Catholic faith has helped shape her career.
Laura Wolk, an attorney in Washington, D.C., became the first blind woman to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court last year when she clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas during the high court’s 2019-2020 term.
Wolk, who is Catholic, earned a B.A. in psychology at Swarthmore College in 2009 and spent three years doing social work in Philadelphia assisting low-income individuals with disabilities. She subsequently decided to pursue a law degree and graduated summa cum laude in 2016 from Notre Dame Law School, where Judge Amy Coney Barrett was her teacher and mentor. After graduation, Wolk clerked for Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Judge Thomas Hardiman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
In a moving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wolk discussed how Judge Barrett helped her get the assistive technology she needed in law school and also gave her confidence and encouragement when she weighed whether or not to apply for a clerkship at the Supreme Court. Wolk told the Register about Judge Barrett’s mentorship, her thoughts on the confirmation process, and how her faith has influenced her life.
Tell me about your experience clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court and some of the highlights and the challenges of that.
I’ll start with the highlight: It’s just having the opportunity to work for him. He’s a fantastically kind person, so warm. He cares about his clerks so much: He calls us his “kids,” and it’s really a family-type atmosphere. Justice Thomas was the chairman of the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] for eight years, and this was before the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act), and he took accessibility extremely seriously. He did a lot of work to make the EEOC more accessible, and he’s able to intuit things that might be difficult; a lot of people, you need to tell them things that might be an obstacle for you.
That made working for him just a total joy because I knew that if an accessibility issue ever did come up, I didn’t have to worry that he would think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have hired this clerk,” because he totally understood that there was a huge difference between my own work ethic and anything that might happen because of accessibility. That really allowed me to focus 100% on the work and not being nervous about being the first blind person who was at the court in a really long time.
The first time anybody is trying to do something, there are unexpected hurdles; and the court was like that — it’s a very old institution, and there’s a lot of things that they still do by hand or they still do on paper, and it’s very slow to change. I had to talk to a bunch of people, and I had to work really hard to make the processes work, but the people at the court are so kind.
You discussed Judge Barrett’s mentorship and support of you at Notre Dame Law School. What are some additional things you want people to know about her?
I think the biggest thing about Judge Barrett is that she really can understand what people are going through even if she hasn’t experienced it firsthand herself. I told the story about the first time I met her, but that was the first of so many examples of when I would go to her just to talk things through or if I was feeling like I was experiencing discrimination. She has this really unbelievable ability: She listens so well that she allows you to express yourself fully. I never once experienced her saying something like, “Well, maybe that’s not quite right” or “Maybe you didn’t interpret that correctly.” She always was like, ‘Well, what can we do with this? What can we do with this stuff that you’re telling me?” And that was really validating to me. It felt like she was really listening to my own story. There’s so many examples of this, and a lot of them do have to do with disability, but a lot of them don’t.
She’s just 100% present, and it’s so rare that we experience that in our world because we are all so busy and there’s social media, but when you do experience it, it’s radical to be that heard.
When I was thinking about deciding to apply to the court, I was worried because I thought maybe I could do it intellectually but I was really worried about, “There’s so much reading, and there are so many cases; and what if I can’t be on 100% equal footing with my co-clerks?” It’s hard because you don’t know what it’s actually going to be like and people who have clerked, there’s only so much they can tell you, because they’re bound by confidence; and they can’t share too much of the internal workings.
I was on the fence, and I thought if I go to Judge Barrett and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking: Here are my worries. Do you think they are legitimate or do you think I should go for it?” and if she said, “I think you should go for it,” then that was the go-ahead I was looking for because her judgment is so sound. That was a really meaningful conversation with her when I did go to her; and she said, “I think it’s worth a shot; obviously, we don’t know what could happen, but it’s worth a shot, and I will support you.” So I do in some very real way credit her for having the confidence to apply and eventually getting the clerkship.
What are your thoughts on Judge Barrett’s confirmation process?
I thought she did so well. I kept hearing the word — even by folks who are not happy about her nomination — that she’s “gracious”; and that’s it. I mean, I think that really came across. The big way that this came out to me was most of the Democratic senators asked the same question, over and over and over again. And I think anyone, even people who are looking to criticize her, would have found it acceptable if at a certain point she said, “Look, I’ve already answered this question, if not to you then to your four other colleagues,” but she never did that. She answered the questions like they were asked to her for the first time and treated the senators with a lot of respect. I think that it caused them to treat her more respectfully than perhaps might otherwise have been the case.
What was the experience of testifying before the Senate like, and what kind of feedback did you get on it?
It was a really surreal experience. I really did not expect at all for as many people to pay attention or find it meaningful as ended up finding it so, and that was very touching to me. I felt like all I was doing was being asked to stand up for a friend, and it was amazing to me to see how it was so positively received by almost everyone. There were a few negative comments, but not really by people who know me, and so that’s all that matters in my perspective.
How has your faith played a role in your life and career?
I’m Catholic, and I take my faith very seriously, and it has definitely played a role in what career choices I’ve made and what areas of the law I want to spend my time practicing. The entire reason I went to law school was initially because I had started getting really interested in issues of bioethics. It does have this interesting cross-section with disability, in terms of there are many pro-choice people who themselves have disabilities and are very uncomfortable with assisted suicide and abortion based on disability and other issues because it’s a little too close to home.
I had an interest in those types of issues and the Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame puts on a conference every year; it’s called the Vita Institute, and it discusses all those types of issues from a variety of different disciplines. I went to that in 2012; it was three years after undergrad, and I was really struggling with thinking what would be next, and I met Carter Snead there. He is now the director of the Center for Ethics and Culture; he’s also a professor in the law school. I had never heard anyone give a talk about these bioethics issues from the perspective of the law, and I found it fascinating. I talked to him afterward, and he basically just gave me the hard sell. He was like, “You seem really interested in all this stuff, and here’s all the things you can do with a J.D.”
Once I decided to go to law school I just knew it had to be Notre Dame, because I very much wanted that formation not just in how to be a good lawyer, but how to be a good lawyer who knows how to integrate her faith and to practice her faith through what she does. Notre Dame Law School has so many examples of Christian and Protestant and Catholic professors who model it so well. Some of these things people have said about Judge Barrett, her service — it’s exemplary in her, but it’s not unique. Many of my dearest professors who have remained friends are very similar in modeling for us, especially in the law — how the enticement of money and power and those sorts of things are really not the ends that we should be pursuing; that no matter where we get in life we need to always remember that we’re dealing with human beings, and we need to treat each other with the dignity of creatures made in the image and likeness of God.
What would your advice be to young Catholic women looking to embark on a legal career?
The most helpful part is having community. I think one of the most important things to do is to reach out and find other Catholic women, because it’s sad but true: If you take certain positions, people will say mean things to you or go out of their way to tell you that you’re being harmful and hateful. The stronger your friendships are, the easier it is to see that those comments don’t speak to who you are, to how God sees you. But if you don’t have that robust community, it can be easier for those lies to get into your psyche and your heart.
Judge Barrett gave our commencement address when I graduated from Notre Dame, and the whole speech was modeled off the quote from Teddy Roosevelt “Comparison is the thief of joy”; and so I think about it all the time, and I thought about it a lot watching Judge Barrett, because in some ways, really, you look at her and think, “I could never do that.” And many people couldn’t; she’s just extraordinarily gifted. So I think the other thing to keep in mind is that, just like no two humans are the same, no two women are called to witness in the same way. Currently, I’m single and I have no children, and my life is very different from Judge Barrett’s; but I also have a disability, and I’m working in private practice, and I’m able to talk more freely about my faith, so in some ways there’s things that I can do that other women can’t do.
I think it’s just realizing that you have a role to fill that no one else can fill, and you don’t have to be looking to what other women are doing to judge your successes or your failures.
You talked about often having to be a “self-advocate.” What are some basic things people can do in the Church and more generally to assist in meaningful ways?
The biggest thing that most people can do is to just put aside any awkwardness you might feel and go up and say hello. People should not feel ashamed if they feel awkward or they feel like they don’t know what to do. That’s normal, because it’s coming from a good place where you don’t want to offend someone or you don’t want to inadvertently say something condescending or paternalistic; but I’m just telling you that accidentally saying something condescending or paternalistic but coupling it with, “I see you, and it’s good that you’re here” is much better than saying nothing at all. I think a lot of times people let those feelings of awkwardness prevent them from coming up and talking.
If people want to help and they want to be helpful, it is always better to say, “Would you like any assistance? How can I help?” than to come up and say to someone, “Let me show you to where a seat is.” There’s two points. The first is the person might not actually need assistance finding a seat, and it’s helpful to let them tell you how they require assistance. The second is that if you make a statement like that, you’re kind of, this is all very unintentional and subconscious, but you’re creating a boundary that says, “I can help you, and you’re a receiver of my assistance”; whereas, if you just come up to someone and you ask them a question, it’s a lot easier to open up the conversation to say, “Oh, I don’t actually need any help right now, but what’s your name?”