In addition to her impressive legal experience in politics, military, private practice, journalism, and more, Jill Wine-Banks has also been a woman of many firsts throughout her legal career. Tune in with ABA Law Student Podcast host Meg Steenburgh for an in-depth interview with Jill about her many “first woman” roles, her memoir “The Watergate Girl,” and her advice for today’s law students.
Jill Wine-Banks is currently an MSNBC legal analyst, appearing regularly on the network’s primetime and daytime shows.
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Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads from finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I’m Meg Steenburgh a 2L at Syracuse University College of Law JDi program. This episode is sponsored by NBI, taught by experienced practitioners. NBI provides practical skill-based CLE courses attorneys of trusted more than 35 years. Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com. Today, we are honored to have with us, Jill Wine-Banks. Jill holds many distinctions, too many to walk through here. However, I’ll run through just some of the groundbreaking roles she’s played in her career. Jill began her career as the first woman to serve as an organized crime prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. Four years later and with a winning record, she was selected to serve as one of three assistant Watergate special prosecutors in the obstruction of justice trial against President Nixon’s top aides. where she was again, the only woman.
Following Watergate and a brief stint in private practice, President Carter named Jill, general counsel of the U.S. Army. The first woman to hold that position. Following that time in the Pentagon, Jill return to private practice before being appointed as Illinois first solicitor general and then deputy attorney general. Again, the first female in that role. A national search then led to her appointment as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the American Bar Association. The first woman in that role, too. This experience led to a corporate career at Motorola and later Maytag. More recently, she was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to the judicial proceeding’s panels subcommittee on sexual assault in the military.
As one can only imagine, Jill has received many awards including several from the Department of Justice and the highest civilian award given by the department of the army. Presently, Jill is an MSNBC legal analyst and sought-after speaker. She writes op-eds for major media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and Politico. Jill also hosts two podcasts. She’s also the author of a memoir, ‘The Watergate Girl’ and has been featured in several documentaries and films including one currently in the works by Katie Holmes based on that memoir. Jill holds JD from Columbia University School of Law. What a remarkable career, what an honor to have you with us. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Jill Wine-Banks: Thank you so much, Meghan. It’s a pleasure to be here and hi, law students.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, reading your book about corruptions and lies and cover-ups, I want to go to the very beginning of your story, as an organized crime prosecutor, a Justice, the prosecution of mobsters and gangsters, how did that experience help you take on the White House? And then on your memoir, you speak of spy talk with hush money, dead drops and just quite the thriller.
Jill Wine-Banks: It is. Well, first of all, of course, I learned about Rico as an organized crime prosecutor and that seems to be relevant to many presidents, including Nixon although we didn’t use it for him. And I think we’ve learned how the mob talks. They talk in code. And so, that was good training. But really, it was just my trial experience in trying cases around the country that led me to be appointed to the Watergate team because Archie Cox, who was the special prosecutor was looking for people who had trial experience and who are young enough to have the stamina to work 24/7, and I was very lucky to be selected for that organization and for the particular trial within the prosecutor’s office, because we had a lot of opportunities, not just that trial. There were campaign contributions. There were dirty tricks groups. There were a lot of different elements within the office.
Meghan Steenburgh: I could not help but think of and find similarities and I know I’m not the only one, but two former President Trump as I was reading it, a switch of the names might have been telling a different story. Did you feel as though you were reliving Watergate while writing the book during the Trump Administration?
Jill Wine-Banks: The book of course started out. I just want to say with sort of two themes. One is a time when justice worked and democracy prevailed and the other was a time of sexism, extreme sexism and misogyny and discrimination, outright discrimination, which at the time was still legal.
There was no EEOC for women yet. And so, there wasn’t that protection. I mean, I was told to my face why we can’t hire you, you’re a woman and everybody else is a man and travels. We can’t possibly let you travel with a man. I mean, those were things that were said to my face and you can imagine what they were thinking that they weren’t saying. Sometimes it’s easier to fight the sexism if it’s spoken outright then you can. So, I think that I’ve had a lot of opportunities but that the background as an organized prosecutor was really — it could have been in any field if I had done criminal investigations and criminal trials. It didn’t have to be organized crime.
Meghan Steenburgh: How did you find the confidence as a super young lawyer, four years out of law school to know the law, to make that transition into this politically charged environment, what skill sets aided you most in that gave you that confidence to stand up before clearly other powerful legal minds as well in the White House?
Jill Wine-Banks: Well, you have to remember, we were very young — Richard Ben-Veniste and I were both in our young 30s, Jim Neil who was the senior person was only in his 40s. So, we were young and we were up against the White House. I mean, the top people in the country in terms of law, the president of the United States but I have always had this attitude of just do it and if you think you can, do it. Don’t think too much about it. If I thought about all the things that I have done that if I had thought about I would have been too afraid to do, whether it was doing a parachute jump or whether it was appearing before the Supreme Court of the United States to argue a case. I would have had serious doubts.
If you read my book, you know that I did not grow up a super confident self-assured person that I always felt sort of out of it. And in fact, of course, now, I look back and say, well, yeah, actually I was. I was the only woman and so I wasn’t really part of the inner group and I’m am lucky that I found some — well, first of all, a fabulous mentor and Charles Roff, who was the head of — he was my direct boss and went on to become the fourth Watergate special prosecutor, and also the U.S. attorney and the White House counsel during Clinton and you could not have asked for a better mentor, but I also had friends who even though they didn’t know how to treat a woman in law – you know, do you open the door? Do you carry her briefcase? How do you treat a woman? Because they had no experience with that and the same was true of my secretary. In those days, we had actual secretaries who took dictation. And she said to me one day, “I just don’t know how to behave when I see you in the bathroom putting on lipstick, can I talk to you about that?” And I said, “yes”, but when I’m giving dictation, you treat me like any other lawyer in the office.
So, it was sort of figuring out for the first time, how to do things and with no role models and no one to consult. So, my proudest achievement is that I’m not the last woman. When I became the first woman, general counsel of the army, my successor was a woman and that to me means I didn’t screw up too badly and that I opened the door for another woman, which I have always tried to do.
Meghan Steenburgh: You know, that was one thing I was going to ask you, as a woman sitting in a class of — was it 96% male at Columbia? Who was your role model? How did you push through?
Jill Wine-Banks: Well, I went to law school to be a journalist. I did not intend to practice law, but there was so much discrimination in journalism that I thought, if I had a law degree, an editor would take me more seriously and would not assign me to the woman’s page which I was offered by many newspapers, but that I would get a job covering trials or something political. And so, I started with the intention of practicing law. My role models before law school were probably two people. Nancy Dickerson, when I first met her, as a freshman in college was Nancy Hanschman, but early pioneer, in television broadcasting and I just thought, “oh, she’s so glamorous and that seems like such a good job.” That was kind of my inspiration for entering journalism.
And then I read a book by Anthony Lewis who was a New York Times correspondent — colonist rather called ‘Gideon’s trumpet’. And I remembered reading on the back jacket that he had gone to Harvard Law School. What I didn’t know is that he went on a Nieman Fellowship after winning a Pulitzer Prize, but I thought well if he’s said great calmness, and if you wrote this terrific book, then obviously law school helped him. So maybe that’ll help me get the kind of job I want in journalism. And I am very excited to report that I actually got to meet both of them during Watergate – actually, I met Nancy Dickerson after Watergate at an event of Kennedy Center, but during the Watergate tapes hearing, I had told that story about how influenced I was by Anthony Lewis and the next day, I got a tap on the shoulder, I turned around and it was Anthony Lewis saying “I read what you said and I just wanted to say hi” and I was virtually speechless. It was, “oh my God. A man who influence me so much.” And so, I’m very — that was a lucky for me to have met both of them and as part of the MSNBC family, I’ve gotten to meet so many of my heroes. It’s quite remarkable. And for my podcast, the Ijen(ph) politics, which I do with an 18-year-old, who is just about to start his second year of college because we bring both perspectives of his perspective and my perspective to political issues.
We have gotten to interview, just unbelievable people. I’m thinking Nick Kristof right now because he’s another one of my favorite journalist, but today, we talk to Malcolm Nance, we’ve talked to Secretary of State Albright, and we talked to her both about her books about fascism and about her book about pins, because I’m known for the hashtag Jill’s pins. And today, even though your audience can’t see, I do have on a Lady Justice pin, which seemed appropriate for talking to the American Bar Association.
Meghan Steenburgh: Absolutely. And I have read ‘Gideon’s Trumpet’, and I know that you have said before, this really should be a mandatory read for law school student. So, anyone who hasn’t it is a fabulous, fabulous, book. To go back to Watergate for a moment. The course of the case really turned — there were so many moments in time, but one of them was especially one of your witnesses and your ability to listen and think on your feet will also churning previous statements through your mind. You heard President Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods describes something that just did not make sense to you, and you could have missed the comment. You could have chosen not to challenge it. Do you remember it as a moment of — was it multitasking or just second nature at that point? Because it seems as though reading your book, one of the big takeaways for me, was listen while you are actively asking, and have all of this in your head, you’ve got to listen every single moment.
Jill Wine-Banks: Active listening is an essential skill for any lawyer. There is no question about it. And to sort of put in context, what you’re talking about. There’s so many elements of this story. Rose Mary Woods was Nixon’s assistant’s name who became a key character. The first time I questioned her was partly because I stood up for myself to get her as my witness because I felt that my partner, Rick was taking too many witnesses and I said, “I’m taking the next witness the White House calls” and then we’re sharing equally after that. And the next witness happened to be Rose Mary Woods who in the first tapes hearing about the Oval Office Taping System, was simply a chain of custody witness. She had handled tapes. We had no reason to believe she had done anything to any of them. And then after the first tapes hearing ended, and they’re seem to be nothing suspicious.
A few weeks later, the White House called us back to court and said, “Well, we just discovered a third tape that has an 18-and-a-half-minute gap, we can find no innocent explanation and only Rose Mary Woods can explain it. Well, she has been my witness for the first tapes hearing. So, of course, she was going to be my witness a second time and I had to violate the principle rule of cross-examination, which is never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. All I can do is say, “Tell us what happened” because all I knew is the White House has thrown her under the bus and said she would explain this missing 18 minutes and I had no choice but to ask her.
She certainly wasn’t going to talk to me off the record before I got her in court, and she did explain and as I listened, I went “This cannot be true. It just does not make any sense.” She said, I had my foot on the pedal under my desk so that the machine was rotating. This is a real to real old-fashioned tape machine and I am actually — I found evidence photos in my basement recently. (00:15:29) you but I can’t show because this is not unless I send you some pictures what this reel-to-reel machine looks like. And she said — so I kept my foot on the pedal and then I reached for the machine — if you can see it.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah. Maybe we can try to post that.
Jill Wine-Banks: Yeah. She said, “I hit by mistake the record button instead of stop.” And when you see the picture close up, you’ll see that the record button is very distinctly different because it’s the one dark key. Everything else is white, but I accidentally hit that key and I kept my foot on the pedal. Picture this, reaching six feet away to answer a telephone phone call and she had testified she had her left foot on the pedal and used her left hand to reach. Now, try doing that in your chair. If your right foot was on the pedal, you can reach a lot farther than you can with your left foot, your restrained by that. Anyway, she said that night, “It that doesn’t sound right.” So, I asked the White House to please bring in her equipment and we would do a demonstration in court.
Now, you know, you can’t always do a demonstration, but Judge Sirica said yes. They brought the machine in and as she went to demonstrate, she said, “Well, the first thing I had to do was I had to take off my headphones so that I could hear the phone,” but she had already taken them off because she couldn’t hear my questions with the earphones on. They looked sort of like, what yours look like. She had them next to her thing and as she pointed saying, “I had to take those off,” she just barely moved her hand to point — her foot came off the pedal and the taping stopped. Perry Mason, I did it right there. He does it every night where he gets someone to say, “I did it. It wasn’t your client. I’m guilty.”
Well, it doesn’t normally happen in court, but there was — the press ran from the room because there were no cell phones, they had to go to a bank of payphones in the courthouse hallway to call in the story and she went, “Well, it’s different in my office. I did it there.” And I said, “Well, Your Honor, maybe we should adjourn to her office.” The White House didn’t object, her lawyer didn’t object and Judge Sirica said, fine. So, for the first time in my life, I was adjacent to the Oval Office in her office watching this demonstration where these photographs that I now have in front of me were taken. And the next day, they were the front page of every newspaper and news magazine. And she became pretty much a laughing stock because it was clearly not possible that she could have done what was called the Rose Mary stretch. And I will say that there was a good outcome for me because it led to my name being in the paper quite a lot. And my high school boyfriend saw it. And wrote to me, he is now my husband of 40 years. So, there are some good outcomes to this.
Meghan Steenburgh: We are speaking with Jill Wine-Banks. We’ll be right back.
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Meghan Steenburgh: And we are back now with Jill Wine-Banks, author, MSNBC legal analyst, podcast host and a groundbreaking leader for women in nearly everything she’s accomplished in life, your memoir, ‘The Watergate Girl’ now a movie option. Marvel comics featured you back in the day in the Incredible Hulk. Could you ever imagine these moments? What lessons do they hold for life?
Jill Wine-Banks: I could never have imagined this. I wasn’t the type of person that I would have thought this would happen to, and I still Marvel at this being true that I have access to interview people who I think are outstanding that I have conversations with Katie Holmes, who’s playing me in the movie that all of this is happening seems quite unreal. And I think the lesson of it is if I can do it, so can you and that you just have to be willing to try and one piece of advice I would have for women is that we know that women who have nine out of ten qualifications for a job often don’t apply for it because they don’t have ten out of ten. Men who have one out of ten think they’re qualified.
So, ladies, stop thinking that and just go for it. If you think you are interested that you would enjoy the job and you should think about what does it mean when I get to the office? What am I really going to be doing? Do I really want to do that? But if you do, and you think you can do it, you should. And you should volunteer for harder and harder assignments wherever you are to prove that you’re ready for advancement, but, you know, just do it.
Meghan Steenburgh: As someone who supports women’s empowerment, how would you suggest that we balance supporting women with opposing views, without getting personal, without tearing them down as an individual. I mean, it applies to both men and women, but women can be the harshest critics of each other. And that includes calling women harsh while saying way to go to the guy for asking equally harsh questions.
Jill Wine-Banks: Well, there’s several issues involved in what you’re asking and I know that I have seen evaluations of associates in a law firm for example, where the man is aggressive, sort of and a woman is a bitch. Sorry for using that language, but I’ve heard it in law firms as evaluations go for the same behavior and I think we’ve moved beyond that now where — you know, when I started practicing law, only 4% of all lawyers were female and almost of course, none of those were in trial work. Now, a law school class is — you know, half female entering classes of associates are half female. It has to change the dynamics, and of course, the law has changed as well, discrimination. When I started – jobs were advertised in newspapers in classified columns that said, “Help, wanted male. Help, wanted female.” And they literally distinguished between that.
So, things have improved dramatically. I don’t think that the same things hold true, but I think you still have to be aware of the possibility that there may be some hold back from you and that you may have to find different ways of confronting it and one of the reasons I like memoir so much is that in the stories that are told there, you can see how people have overcome hurdles and I would say hurdles is definitely the other part of my memoir. It’s not just about Watergate and how the justice system worked. But it is about how hurdles were overcome. My internal hurdles as an insecure person, but also my hurdles as a woman who was discriminated against and I tell stories about sometimes direct confrontation and oftentimes just using humor and sometimes ignoring it. You can’t make a federal case out of every slight. And sometimes you just have to suck it up when the judge insults you in a sexist way, you can’t yell at the judge. You just can’t. I mean, just a man can’t and neither can a woman.
So, I think it’s not so true anymore, but it used to be that women at the top were viewed as I don’t want anyone else to challenge me. I want to be the only one. As I said, I’ve always worked to try to make sure I bring in a lot of women and that I opened the doors for other women, but that used to be true. I don’t — I really don’t believe it’s true anymore. And I think the same is true in terms of men mentoring women, or women mentoring women. It’s something that I think is essential, is that we mentor those who we can help, and men should do the same thing when they see a talented person, they should help develop that talent.
Meghan Steenburgh: You mentioned this earlier about following your passion and making sure that you try and you get out there and you do new things and one career move for you was to serve as general counsel to the Secretary of the Army. And there’s a picture in the book, which is fabulous. It must be 30 men in uniform with you at a huge conference table looks like at the Pentagon and I know I believe I remember reading a Watergate connection sort of led you to that ultimately, and the appointment from President Carter. You’ve spoken about liking the job responsibilities there. Did you also have in the back of your mind this groundbreaking and women need to be here; women need to be there?
Jill Wine-Banks: I didn’t. When President Carter was elected and the transition team started, I had a number of offers one was at justice one was at the White House and one was at the Pentagon. And when I looked at, as I said earlier, you have to think about what is the job. When you get to your desk in the morning, what’s going to be facing you? What are you going to have to do? And I just felt like the challenge of learning to understand the military and the issues that the general counsel deals with would be fascinating. And I also adored the secretary of the army who — I mean, I had only met him for the interview, but he was just very charismatic and he had been head of the EEOC, by the way before that and there was just something about I thought working for him would be really a pleasure. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The issues were phenomenal. I was able to do things like open military occupational specialties, which is the job you’re assigned to in the army, based on qualifications not gender. So, if you could carry a hundred pounds and march a hundred miles, you could be a radio operator. It didn’t matter if you are a man or a woman.
I also was able to abolish the women’s army corps through legislation, which meant that women could be, for example the TJAG, the head of the Judge Advocate General corps, which is a regular army general slot. A woman in the women’s army corps couldn’t be in that job because the women’s army corps only had two generals. The head of the army corps, women’s army corps, and the head of the nursing corps, and I thought that’s not fair. Women should be able to be, they can be judge advocate generals. Why can’t they be the judge advocate general? So, there were a lot of things like that that I was able to accomplish and women were being integrated into basic training and military academies then and I was able to oversee some elements of that and how fairly it was going. And I had some absolutely wonderful experiences and got to know for the first time in my life military people and come to respect, how good they are. And of course, that job is what led me to be able to be on the Pentagon committee looking at sexual assault which is highly relevant today, not just in the military, but — I mean, sexual assault has become a major issue for the whole Me Too movement and I think thinking about your job and your abilities, think about the things that you do — not what your job title is, but when I decided I wanted to become a corporate officer, I had to redo my resume and think about. “Okay, what have I managed? Why should someone hire me for business?” And my job at the American Bar Association really was managing the staff which at the time was about 750 people but it was managing thousands of volunteers without whom the ABA cannot function.
All of the people who write for the various magazines, all of the people give speeches at the seminars and programs. And you have to buy paper cheap and have a place to store it and then print the right things at the right time in order to be able to do pro bono services because how do you fund it? You have members who pay membership dues and you buy our publications and attend the seminars and the annual meeting. And I felt like, “Okay, I can write my resume in terms of those skills that I developed at the ABA and but even — as a lawyer, I supervised teams of lawyers and investigators. So, you talk about that as a management thing. That’s how I ended up at Motorola in the business side not as a lawyer for Motorola. And again, I loved my job at Motorola. I felt like I was really making a contribution. I got to work all around the world. My first assignment was Pakistan, which put me very close to the Afghan border, which is now relevant again to how I see events happening unfolding minute by minute as we watch the withdrawal of American troops.
So, it’s been a great career and all these things have just — they don’t seem logical when you talk about how I’ve flown from one place, but they are, there is a thread of what prepared me in job one for job two.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, since you just brought it up, I thought to ask it, as you watch the Afghan government fall and the Taliban takeover, what runs through your mind for the country as women?
Jill Wine-Banks: Terror. I was slightly encouraged by the announcement of the Taliban today that they would welcome women into the government. There was a post script that said under Sharia law and as someone who worked in Pakistan and had to do negotiating under Sharia law, I understand the restrictions and what that means, but it does sound a little bit more hopeful that women will not be enslaved. I don’t know any other word to use by our standards. Now, the Taliban is a religious organization, it isn’t a terrorist organization except for the people of Afghanistan, but the people are accepting them as representing the smartest and most educated of their religious leaders, and it’s not our culture. We can’t impose our culture. We tried for 20 years and we obviously have been unable to do that. But women have now had a taste of freedom, women have been able to be educated. They weren’t restricted to being at home all the time. And I don’t know how women leaders are going to react to having to go back to burkas and being home bound.
If a woman chooses that, that’s up to her. But a woman who chooses a different way, needs to have that opportunity and I hope America has announced that we will do our best to protect the women leaders, but we can’t separate– we can’t say, “Okay, if you’re a woman or a young girl, you’re welcome in America” because those people are mothers, sisters, wives, they have — you took all the women and little girls, what about the little boys whose mother would be among the people removed? So, I don’t know exactly what the answer is and Pakistan is, is I think more liberal than Afghanistan and has a much closer relationship to Britain and they had a woman prime minister while I was working there.
So, women had a different role in Pakistan than they have ever had in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or any of the many other countries but it is frightening and sad to me what’s happening. It was inevitable when we withdrew that the Taliban would take over. One would have hoped that the planning had envisioned a longer period for transitions so that people who needed to be housed in America are translators and other people who supported us as well as American citizens would have had time to get out the press conference. I don’t know if you saw today’s press conference from the Pentagon, but they feel safe that they have control of the airport and that they will be able to evacuate in a good way. The one question is, whether everybody will be able to make it to the airport, whether they’re safe passage from where they are to the airport, but so far, the Taliban have not interfered in operations or attacked any Americans or any American. Let’s call them allies and so that’s hopeful. I hope that remains and that we are able to evacuate. I can’t imagine that everyone who needs to be evacuated will be evacuated by August 31, which is the current final departure date.
So, I’m hoping there can be some negotiation with the Taliban that says — either you can have five different airports, not just one to start working from so that the evacuation happens faster or you don’t have to leave on August 31. You have more time so that there can be a process in place to safely evacuate people.
Meghan Steenburgh: That’s been very difficult to watch and reading about the negotiations and hopeful for the Taliban and what its stating.
Jill Wine-Banks: I remember Saigon and what happened in Vietnam and it looks exactly the same with helicopters flying away from burning Embassy building, but it also is evidence like Vietnam, was that we don’t pay attention to history. We in America. The French were in Vietnam for a long time before us, and we didn’t learn from their experience, the Russians and the British were in Afghanistan, and we didn’t learn from them. We came in and we’ve been there for 20 years and honestly, if we waited another 20, the departure would end up being the same and we have not — we haven’t changed the culture, it is still the religious culture that it was and we did temporarily allow for example, women to be educated, but I don’t know whether that will be a permanent change. Maybe it will.
The Taliban is sounding much less strict than I remember 20 years ago when they were killing people on the street because their beard wasn’t long enough for example, so it wasn’t just women. I just want to point out that men suffered as well.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, one phrase in the book that I have taken away to is leading life with that sense of purpose and that you mentioned as in the attorney general’s office and as a Watergate assistant special prosecutor that you really felt that sense of purpose. How do you know when you have it? How do you chase that?
Jill Wine-Banks: You know, it’s sort of like the definition of pornography. You know it when you see it. It’s very hard to define. But I know when I have felt that I was making a contribution. I just made my first trip post COVID and it was to Memphis which may sound like strange. Why would I pick Memphis? Well, complicated story, but one of the things I did there was to see the National Civil Rights Museum. And I now know that one of my purposes is to rededicate myself to civil rights and to voting rights because you can’t go to that museum and come away with any other feeling and it’s just I can’t tell you why I feel that passion. But I do, I feel it’s my obligation. I have the legal training and I am going to do what I can to make sure that the Voting Rights Act passes, that the John Lewis Act passes, that the filibuster is eliminated, if that’s what it’s going to take and that I will use — I’m lucky to have a platform and I have followers on Twitter on my podcast that I will use those platforms to try to convince people. And you had asked earlier about, how do you talk to — you were asking in the context of women who don’t support women and I think it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg said there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women, but it’s much more than that because in today’s world with the social divisions we face, and with the media divisions — if Richard Nixon had had Fox News, he might still be — will not still, but he might have served his full term. He might not have been forced to resign.
I think the disinformation and misinformation and lies that are broadcast about COVID about the stolen election are very dangerous to our democracy, because people actually believe it and they’re acting on it, they’re voting on it and I will keep speaking truth to power as long as anyone will listen. I have tried to engage in conversations with Trump supporters and unfortunately, it always develops when they start saying “Well, it just is.” And I said, “Well, tell me a fact.” Tell me something that is better now because of Donald Trump or tell me what supports that point of view you’re saying this is true, but what’s the evidence? And as lawyers, that’s how we deal. We deal in facts, we deal in evidence, we deal in putting together a persuasive case and it’s sort of falls apart when the other side isn’t dealing in facts, if they’re dealing in conspiracy theories. There is no way to persuade them and we can laugh but it isn’t funny. We have to keep trying to get the facts out there.
Meghan Steenburgh: One thing of many that’s thrown me for a loop is that in law school and professional responsibility, you learn that you don’t leave your law license at the door. So as a politician, you walk in the Capitol Hill, you still must honor that code to be truthful and to not misrepresent. What needs to change to remind lawyers of their obligations?
Jill Wine-Banks: Well, there have to be consequences. I think what happened to Rudy Giuliani — he’s been (00:39:45) in DC and in New York. Now that was for lying in court documents, which every lawyer knows. You cannot lie to the court, but I think you are right that lawyers are forgetting they also can’t lie to the public.
So, when Rudy Giuliani holds a press conference, and spouts lies when Sidney Powell
does that when Jenna Ellis does that, they have to be held accountable by bar associations for spreading untruths. And the same thing is true for politicians. They can lie on the floor of the Congress because they have immunity there. But when they give a speech and you may remember that Mo Brooks went to court to try to get Department of Justice to defend him in a defamation case and the court said, “This wasn’t part of your job. You were giving a political speech. It was campaign-related and that’s not part of your job. That’s explicitly excluded from your job. And so no, we won’t represent you and you are liable for whatever you did in that capacity.” And I think consequences matter holding people responsible and in Illinois it’s a sort of unrelated example, but there was a school that said, they would not require masks and vaccines, et cetera. Illinois said, “Well, fine, you can do that, but your students will not be able to participate in any Illinois sporting association events.” And their diploma will not be from a certified school. You will not be certified. And all of a sudden within instant, the school said, “Okay, we didn’t mean to do that. We will follow the mandate of the governor.”
That was a consequence that got to them. So, we need to calibrate consequences so the people’s behavior will change. I hate to say it, but in terms of vaccine, I think that death hasn’t motivated people. If that doesn’t motivate people, you still have people who have a loved one who has died, who says, “I still won’t get the vaccine.” Even though there’s absolute proof the vaccine means you could get sick, but you won’t die. And if that doesn’t work, I’m out of ideas for what will make someone say, “Oh, yes, I need that vaccine.”
The Delta variant seems to be moving some people to realize how dangerous this disease is and that the virus spreads more easily and can kill you. And so there has been an uptick in vaccinations and unless the country gets vaccinated. We are going to continue to have shutdowns. We are going to continue to work from home. We are going to continue to have to wear masks and — I’m vaccinated, but I wear a mask if I go out into any indoor public space because I don’t want to take the chance. I don’t even want to have a slight fever from this. Why should I? I’m protecting myself and I am protecting even the unvaccinated from the possibility that I could spread the virus. I don’t want to infect anybody. I don’t want that on me. And the unvaccinated are the ones who are in the hospital now. What’s the number? 95? 96% of all the people who have been hospitalized are unvaccinated. There’s a fact. That’s a fact. This is not political. It’s not Democratic-Republican. It’s a fact but people who are vaccinated aren’t getting sick enough to go to the hospital. So, we have to get lawyers. We talk facts. Let’s stick with facts.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, throughout this podcast, you have sprinkled so much wonderful advice in there, but I will ask you for that one final piece of advice to law students and young lawyers. You’ve seen a law from so many angles from the affirmative like let’s go get them to the negative in terms of prosecuting corrupt lawyers, what’s your advice to law school students?
Jill Wine-Banks: My advice is to keep your options open to keep your mind opened. When I was in law school, as I said, I started out wanting to be a journalist, but then I found I really liked moot court and I like trial practice and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of fun. I’ll try that.” But I was very defensive oriented. But when I got a job offer from justice and I knew that that was a place where I would have the best trial training and best experience and be able to — if I went into private practice, I wouldn’t try cases for years and years and years whereas here, I’d be trying cases right away. So, I switched my political sort of view and said, “Okay, I’ll be a prosecutor” and then I found I really liked prosecuting because you are focused on doing justice. You aren’t focused on putting people away. You want to make sure that you have the facts and the evidence and that you’re doing what’s fair and just and right, and I would have never thought I’d end up a corporate officer.
But as I followed my heart, it was where I wanted to be. And that was because I had some experience at the ABA that led me to see that I really liked managing things, and I enjoyed that. And I think everybody has to just think about making career changes, and taking risks and doing that. And who would have ever thought that like 50 years after I graduated law school, I’d end up being a journalist and having that wonderful opportunity and it’s partly because I was writing the memoir and met someone at an artist retreat in Lake Forest, Illinois called Ragdale who said, you know, I just read about a course in how to write an op-ed. And I think you must have something to say this was right after Trump had been elected. So, I took the course, and three days later, Comey got fired and I thought, “Well, I have something to say about that.” So, I wrote an op-ed, it got published, NBC saw it and said, “Come on, we’d like you to talk about it” and that’s how my new career started. And that was in 2017 so it’s now four years that I’ve been doing this and having the best time of my life. It’s fantastic.
So, it really is taking a chance being willing to take a little bit of a risk as long as you think you can do it. I mean, when I first went to NBC, I didn’t know what it was going to be like, it’s not something I had ever done before, I went down to the studio and I was like, “Okay, what do I do? How do I do this?” And you just– you sort of just do it and it echoes back to my same thing about saying, “Just do it.”
Meghan Steenburgh: Jill Wine-Banks, author of the Watergate Girl, legal analyst on MSNBC and a leader and role model for countless. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Jill Wine-Banks: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. You’re a great interviewer. You should think about this as a career path.
Meghan Steenburgh: Thank you. And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoy this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcast. You can also reach us on Facebook @abaforlawstudents and on Twitter @abalst. That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenburgh. Thank you for listening.
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Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com