Margaret Marshall, Former Massachusetts Chief Justice, Discusses a Groundbreaking Career

Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 has had a career of “firsts.” She was the first woman to serve as general counsel at Harvard University, the first woman chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and the first woman to serve as senior fellow of the Yale Corporation.

Marshall, who grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era,  told a Yale School of Management audience that she broke through gender barriers by embracing opportunities to foster the change she desired in the world. “It’s the little steps that count,” she said. Everyone “can make a difference.”

Marshall spoke on December 4 as part of Convening Yale, a seminar series that brings scholars from across the University to share their ideas with the SOM community. During her 14 years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Marshall wrote more than 300 opinions, including the landmark 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

As an undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Marshall was elected president of the National Union of South African Students, a leading anti-apartheid organization. She agreed to stand for election, she said, because so many suitable male students had already been arrested or censored by the government in some way.

Institutions and individuals don’t like change. You have to lead towards a vision for the future that will enable them to change.

The experience introduced Marshall to the world of political activism, and she began cultivating the skills that she has used throughout her career. “Take any institution and figure out what the challenge is,” she said. “I love students who question authority. If you don’t have apartheid to confront, find something else. No matter where you are in the world, it’s not perfect.”

When she became chief justice in 1999, Marshall said, one of her biggest challenges was updating the internal administrative functions of the judicial branch of Massachusetts. “My most difficult administrative work was trying to take a rather fuddy-duddy branch of government and turning that ship around. That wasn’t so easy,” she said.

She didn’t have extensive management experience at the time, Marshall said, but she worked to create a culture of inclusion that stressed the openness of court proceedings, and one that valued the input of all judicial staff members.  For example, at the Supreme Judicial Court, she held regular sessions with clerical and administrative staff to explain the court’s work and to help them feel that they were part of the system of delivering justice.

“Institutions and individuals don’t like change,” Marshall said. “You have to lead towards a vision for the future that will enable them to change.”

At Yale now, Marshall said she is focusing on how to make a “great institution” even better. Yale needs a global mix of outstanding faculty, students, administrators, and staff, she said. “I want this to be the place to which every leading scholar in the world wants to come.”

Marshall likewise encouraged students to continuously improve themselves. She told them to keep in touch with professors, former classmates, and colleagues, who have their best interests at heart. “You can keep improving at whatever you do,” she said. “And the best way is to keep listening to the people who want you to succeed.”