Twenty-four massive ionic columns made of Italian marble lined the Court Chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States. Two American flags flew proudly at each end of a long bench, at which the nine Supreme Court justices sat in their signature black robes. Over the decades, the building has heard arguments of historic cases that forge the rules that govern the nation.
The year was 2009, and a fresh-faced lawyer appeared behind the central lectern in the courtroom.
“Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.”
Lindsay Harrison’s voice was steady — loud, confident. As if she’d done this a hundred times before.
But she hadn’t. This was her first oral argument as a lawyer in any court. Harrison was 30 — just five-and-a-half years out of law school and nine years after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from USC.
She won the case. It was a landmark case in immigration law that set the standard that asylum seekers will not be removed from the United States while their cases await judicial review.
Now, Harrison is working on an ongoing court case against President Donald Trump for his executive order on immigration in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. At the end of March, USC joined 30 other research institutions to file an amicus brief in the case.
But Harrison’s day-to-day work is far more chaotic that one might think for a constitutional litigator.
On a given day, she could be writing a brief, talking through arguments and strategy or participating in a moot court to prepare for arguments. She could be talking to her clients, many of whom include high-profile businesses and hospitality companies. But for her pro bono practice, she could also be found at an immigration detention center meeting with a client to see how she can help them get asylum. Or she could be at a prison with a death penalty defendant talking about their appeal.
It sounds like a lot.
“Yes, it’s really fun, that’s the thing,” Harrison said with a laugh.
A love for learning
“Fun” isn’t the word you would expect to describe the work of a Supreme Court and appellate lawyer. But Harrison, who graduated from USC in 2000, is an intellectual explorer.
“The great thing about being an appellate lawyer is that every day brings with it a whole new world to learn,” Harrison said.
Harrison has always had this mindset. On a debate scholarship at USC, Harrison studied political science, gender studies and film took Thematic Option classes and participated in the Judicial Council in Undergraduate Student Government. She eventually graduated from USC summa cum laude with honors. In some ways, her path to Harvard Law School, where she graduated in 2003, was inevitable.
“A lot of my political science classes had constitutional law or something legal to them, and those were among my favorite classes,” Harrison said. “I was pretty sure I was destined for law school.”
And yet, her professors at USC don’t remember her as an archetypal pre-law student. Howard Gillman, her former political science professor and now the chancellor of University of California, Irvine, didn’t have preconceptions of what Harrison would end up doing with her life and career.
“I assumed she would treat law school the same way she treated her undergraduate career,” Gillman said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “[A]s an adventure, where the path would reveal itself in the course of the experience.”
That idea of intellectual adventure colors much of Harrison’s approach to her studies at USC.
“She was curious about everything,” said Thomas Habinek, her former classics professor.
That curiosity goes hand-in-hand with passion, something that Harrison learned from her USC professors. She admired the enthusiasm that Tara McPherson, her former critical studies professor who has written four books and is working on a fifth, had for her work in academia.
“She taught me that your career can be fun,” Harrison said.
From USC to SCOTUS
At USC, Harrison got to engage in interdisciplinary thinking, exploring new fields and applying ideas across disciplines. In some ways, that’s not too different from what she does today. In Thematic Option, for example, students are required to build a depth of knowledge on a new topic in just one semester. Working on a new appeals case takes the same intellectual process.
“When you take on a new appeal,” Harrison said, “you’re looking at new industry or new area of the law — you have to learn it relatively quickly and you have to learn it in a degree of depth.”
Harrison also remembers the impact McPherson’s class on feminist media had on her.
“She taught me to read culture with a critical eye in a way that I hadn’t thought of before,” Harrison said. “I definitely use those skills as a lawyer when I’m reading a brief and thinking about the arguments.”
In law school, including her time as executive technical editor of the Harvard Women’s Law Journal and the executive articles editor of the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, Harrison explored this intersection of gender and law that she first learned about in critical studies. In one of her law review articles, she explored how the male gaze — a concept in film that posits men as viewers and women as objects — frames discussion in the law about rape.
Harrison’s time at USC wasn’t just limited to the classroom. Her voracious appetite for learning was met by a deep desire to improve her campus community — during the late 1990s and early 2000s, in which activism at USC was rare.
“In an earlier period when fewer students at USC were engaged in that kind of activism, Lindsay already thought of herself as someone who had political agency in the world,” McPherson said.
McPherson remembered that at USC, Harrison worked on political campaigns on campus, organized for LGBT rights and worked on Take Back the Night, an event to empower sexual assault survivors that remains a USC tradition.
Today, Harrison’s passion for bettering the community manifests in her work at Jenner & Block LLP, a firm widely recognized for its pro bono practice. That’s why Harrison, who expected that she would have left a big law firm like Jenner & Block for a nonprofit organization by this point, is still there.
“It was very important to me that my career allow me to contribute to the public interest,” Harrison said. “Both because I feel it’s important to contribute to advancing civil rights and constitutional law and because I find it intellectually interesting.”
Remembering her first oral argument, Harrison has the kind of maturity that allows her to appreciate the magnitude of the consequences of her work.
“Not only does history rest on your shoulders,” Harrison said, “but also in my case thousands of immigrants who had come to this country seeking asylum and were dependent on the United States not deporting them while their cases were being heard. It’s a huge responsibility.”
For someone whose work has touched so many lives, Harrison doesn’t tout her accomplishments. That attitude speaks to her confidence that is bold — but not loud.
“She exemplified how brilliance is most naturally associated with modesty rather than certainty,” Gillman said. “When those traits are combined with someone who had such a charming, idiosyncratic manner and unique sense of humor, you have the ingredients for becoming an unforgettable student.”
And yet, her goal — to forge a real impact on the lives of many, to change the history that will rest on the shoulders of the next generation — keeps her going. It drives her obvious, brazen commitment to her career, and to her life.
“She’s pretty fearless,” McPherson said. “To show up at a door of a professor’s apartment just to say hi — there’s no kind of shyness or hesitancy there.”
Harrison’s fearlessness is unmistakable. She speaks with the confidence of an intellectual risk-taker — someone who is so resolute in her purpose that she approaches her work with an unstoppable tenacity.
That’s the attitude that she is adopting toward her current case, the litigation against Trump for his executive order.
“That you have the power to impact that many lives is a huge, humbling experience,” Harrison said. “But it’s why I went to law school.”