Q&A: How SCOTUS pro Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford and O’Melveny carved his own path

Stanford Law School attorney Jeffrey Fisher speaks to the media after presenting his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

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(Reuters) – Two weeks ago, Jeffrey Fisher notched his latest U.S. Supreme Court win, persuading the high court to overturn his client’s conviction and limit the scope of a federal computer fraud law in Van Buren v. United States.

With over 40 Supreme Court arguments under his belt, Fisher co-directs the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School, where he’s taught since 2006. He’s also special counsel in the appellate practice at Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers, which he joined in 2018.

Fisher spoke with Reuters about how he built his hybrid career in academia and private practice and what it takes to balance his Stanford and Big Law roles.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

REUTERS: What were you doing when you learned about the Van Buren decision?

FISHER: I was waking up, because I’m on the West Coast. The reality is, when I know decision days are coming, I purposefully sleep until 7 o’clock just so I don’t have to wake up and fret. It’s just a feature of West Coast living in Supreme Court practice that you can just wake up and either something has happened, or it hasn’t. And if it’s happened, as was the case (with Van Buren), your phone and email kind of explode.

REUTERS: You’ve argued many Supreme Court cases, you teach and practice with O’Melveny. How do you balance these roles?

FISHER: My primary job ever since I came to Stanford has been my professor role, and in particular teaching in the clinic. The special counsel role that I have, through O’Melveny for the past few years, has been kind of an adjunct to that. Sometimes that means that I’m working on things totally independently in the law firm. Other times that means, for example with the summer coming up right now, that I can pull in resources from different directions as timing dictates. So if the opening brief is written in the clinic during the academic year, but then the reply brief has to be written over this summer, I might be able to pull on their law firm resources for that. It’s a permeable barrier, in some ways.

The two things that (O’Melveny) really provides me, above and beyond just extra resources for the pro bono work I do, is a platform to handle some cases that are just impossible to handle in my clinical capacity, either because of the nature of the paying client or the timing. And it gives me a really wonderful opportunity, as I’m getting a little further on in my career, to mentor younger lawyers and work with other lawyers at different stages of their careers. I love working with law students. But working with people, occasionally even my own former students, five or six or seven years later, as they’re really developing a much more developed sense of their professional identity and skill set, that’s been a real huge pleasure.

I think that there’s the danger that I can be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have two, or even three, jobs. I have to try to manage that.’ But the flip side is that I learned early on that I wasn’t a person that was prepared to pigeonhole myself. I love the academic endeavors I get to do through Stanford, but I also wanted to practice. I love their clinic, but I also love the opportunity to do work in a private capacity, so it’s a trade-off between diverse engagement and sometimes having to guard against being overwhelmed.

REUTERS: Did you think this was how you would structure your career?

FISHER: A lot more serendipity than planning, I think, went into where I have ended up. And maybe there’s something in between, which is just following your heart and interests in the moment, (that) has always been a good recipe for me.

When I finished clerking for (U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens), my then-fiance and I decided to move to Seattle, which was not typically the first place an aspiring Supreme Court lawyer would go out of a clerkship.

I ended up going to a firm that was incredibly supportive of my various interests. And then I made some other opportunities of my own by getting involved with University of Washington Law School, which is in Seattle, and being part of the ACLU of Washington’s legal committee, and just finding things that seemed interesting and intellectually engaging, and then just building relationships.

The only conscious decisions I’ve made have been the ones not to necessarily pin myself down into one particular silo or another.

REUTERS: Are there any cases or moments that stand out as highlights, in the past few years or in your career?

FISHER: I was actually telling the story yesterday of (the 2014 decision in) Riley v. California – the cell phone search case – where we’re getting down to the end of the term, the students who worked on the case, we’re waiting for the opinion to come out, and coming into that oral argument, it was very nip and tuck from our perspective, like you just couldn’t tell where the court was gonna land in that case.

I still vividly remember waking up and looking, booting up the computer and seeing that the court had decided the case 9-0. I just couldn’t imagine it was a unanimous decision, like, what have they done, and I thought it must be some weird, narrow decision. And then as you pick it up and start to read it, the fact that we ended up getting a unanimous court for the broad argument we were making was an incredible moment and really such an amazing day.

You can only imagine how fun those kinds of cases are to work with the students, who have their own perspective on technology and privacy in their lives, and updating the law for their generation, in a sense, it’s just been so interesting.

(This article has been updated to show that Fisher has argued more than 40 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Read more:

U.S. Supreme Court restricts scope of computer fraud law

Sara Merken

Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

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Sara Merken