Advice From Chief Justice McCormack
I had the honor of going on one on one with Bridget Mary McCormack as part of my Lessons in Leadership series in Thrive Global. Bridget is the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, a position she has held since January 9, 2019. Prior to her election to the court as associate justice in 2012, she was a professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. She taught criminal law and legal ethics and oversaw the law school's clinical programs as associate dean of clinical affairs. Her academic work focused on practical experience in legal education.
Bridget launched and worked in a pediatric advocacy law clinic focusing on children with health problems, and a domestic violence clinic. She founded of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, the first innocence clinic in the country that exclusively handles non-DNA evidence cases and has exonerated 18 people so far. Her sister is the actor, Mary McCormack, and her brother is the writer/producer/actor, Will McCormack.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Adam: What is something that would surprise people about the life of a state Supreme Court justice?
Bridget: I expect people would be surprised to learn how broad and how important the administrative work of the court is. People hear about some of our decisions in cases and I suspect they assume we read and write a lot. Which we do. But the Michigan Supreme Court is also constitutionally responsible for the administration of all of the courts of the state. This means we have a great responsibility to shape how those courts serve the public. And by making our trial courts more accessible and more responsible to their communities we have a tremendous opportunity to improve those communities and make a difference in people’s lives.
Adam: What are the defining qualities of an effective Supreme Court justice? What are the defining qualities of an effective Chief Justice?
Bridget: An effective Supreme Court justice is an excellent listener, a careful reader, and a committed non-partisan. The most effective justices are first and foremost good colleagues – willing to change their minds when the law requires it and willing to lose friends and elections as a result of doing the job we took an oath to do.
An effective Chief Justice has to master all of those skills, as well as a set of administrative skills to be able to lead the administrative work of the court to improve service to the public. That means the ability to motivate a team to work at their very best, supporting and encouraging every member of the team and taking responsibility for the team’s setbacks.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Bridget: An effective leader is able to motivate each member of her team to perform at his or her very best, which means putting them in the lanes they are strongest in, supporting them, and giving them credit.
I work on my leadership skills the same way I work on other skills I seek to constantly improve, like writing, public speaking, relationships and biking, with practice and asking for help from friends and family and colleagues. I talk through the thorniest challenges with colleagues and friends, and I practice the basics of conscious leadership daily. I approach each day’s leadership challenges with curiosity, candor, and a willingness to take responsibility.
Adam: How did you get here? What experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?
Bridget: My path to the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was atypical. I was never a judge before being elected to the Supreme Court.
I spent a good part of my career as an advocate for people who couldn’t afford to access the legal system, as well as teaching about that subject in law schools. I love innovative models for solving complicated legal problems and especially valued working on those problems with smart law students. My decision to run for the Michigan Supreme Court when there was an open seat in 2012 was, frankly, somewhat old-fashioned. I thought I could be effective on the court, and add a perspective that isn’t often reflected in the judiciary given my practice background. And so without ever having run for any elected office, I set out to run for statewide office and I won.
My experiences representing people who have a difficult time being heard in our justice system have had a tremendous influence on my approach to leading that very system. We can make sure that justice is available to everyone, and we can treat people with dignity and respect. It’s the people’s justice system after all.
I believe I have grown as a leader every time I have encountered a setback. Learning from having something go wrong is critical to succeeding. Being a teacher, a lawyer, an administrator, and parent have all contributed to how I approach what I do now.
Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills?
Bridget: Failure is the key to success. It gives us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and our processes in ways we could not otherwise. I view setbacks and challenges as opportunities, and they come along pretty regularly.
For one example, while the Supreme Court is ultimately responsible for administering the courts of the state, we rely on the judges in our trial courts to do the important work every day to deliver justice. Having never been a trial court judge it should not have surprised me to learn that my input and ideas about the critical work done by these judges would be viewed skeptically. And the cooperation of those judges is crucial the success of any reform, so I had to make sure to earn their confidence instead of assuming they’d view my ideas as good ones because I thought so. It caught me off guard, and gave me an important challenge to confront. I welcome it.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Bridget: The three tips I have for leaders in all of these areas are: 1) Approach everything with curiosity; there is always something to learn from any situation. 2) Candor can be really hard but is always worth it; the workplace where candor is the norm is going to be a successful one. 3) Gratitude is an incredible fuel; it benefits the person expressing it as much as the person it is directed to. Whenever I feel it (which is a lot) I try to remember to express it.
Adam: You have a sister and a brother who have both made in Hollywood. What have you learned from their experiences that has helped you in your career?
Bridget: My brother and sister are both master storytellers, and each is wickedly funny. They are also extremely well-liked by their peers and colleagues and those personal relationships have played an ongoing role in their professional successes as well as their professional satisfaction. Those are universal lessons. Good humor and collegiality will take you awfully far in any industry.
The full interview can be found at https://thriveglobal.com/stories/bridget-mary-mccormack-chief-justice-of-the-michigan-supreme-court/