Twenty-eight years ago, Susan Soong ’94 arrived in San Francisco to interview for a staff attorney position with the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. In those pre-Google days, Soong’s knowledge of the Ninth Circuit was limited. But when she walked into the office of Molly Dwyer ’88 and saw a Buffalo Bills poster on the wall, somehow the stars seemed to align.
That serendipitous meeting has led to a long and fruitful relationship between Soong and Dwyer, both of whom have worked in the Ninth Circuit for their entire professional lives. (The Ninth Circuit also includes two other UB Law graduates: Hon. Jeffrey S. White ’70, senior district court judge and Mary Hurley ’87, a staff attorney in the Court of Appeals.)
Dwyer has been an informal mentor to Soong and an enthusiastic supporter, and the Buffalo connection—both are Western New York natives—has been a constant to treasure.
“I would wish for everyone in their career to be able to stumble across someone who, despite fundamentally different approaches to law and life, you just get along with,” Dwyer says in reflection. “I think we complement each other, and we just fell into this rhythm. I obviously wanted Sue to succeed and take advantage of her opportunities.”
“Molly has been integral in every step in my career,” Soong says. “She comes from a place of generosity and wide-open thinking; she’s really creative, and it’s been very helpful to me to see that I don’t have to do everything the way I’m instinctually wanting to do it.”
Both Soong and Dwyer now serve in high level positions in Ninth Circuit court administration, and the stories of how they got there are strikingly similar. Each started as staff attorneys for the Court of Appeals, and both stumbled across that job via a bulletin board posting.
For Dwyer, that happened in her 2L summer, when she had traveled to San Francisco for an internship doing civil rights work. Wandering into the federal courthouse, she saw a flyer looking for staff attorneys for the Court of Appeals. “It was just a total fluke,” she says. “I knew nothing about the Ninth Circuit.” She got the job and started with the Court of Appeals right after graduation.
Moving into managerial roles, Dwyer became a supervisor of staff attorneys—who do substantive legal research and drafting for the appellate judges—then chief deputy clerk of court. Now, as clerk of court for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, she oversees administration for close to 500 employees running four courthouses, including 29 active judges and 20 senior judges. “I help oversee the people who get the cases into the court, get the cases to the judges, get the judges to decide the cases and get the cases out of the court,” she says. “My skill set is problem solving, and that’s what I do. I call myself 976-Molly.”
There are a lot of curveballs: natural disasters, turnover on the bench. Keeping the court in business during the pandemic has been an enormous responsibility. “A lot of the circuits shut down or at least paused significantly,” Dwyer says. “We kept going the whole time. We’ve been streaming our cases live for years.”
It was as chief deputy clerk of court that she came across Soong’s resume – sent in response to a flyer outside UB Law’s Career Services Office – and hired her. After 15 years as a staff attorney, including supervising other staff attorneys for many years, Soong became chief deputy clerk of court, helping to implement its electronic case management and e-filing system. She also spent a yearlong residency in Washington, D.C., in a leadership program of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. She then left the Court of Appeals to become clerk of court for the Northern District of California, before moving into her current role last year as circuit executive for the entire Ninth Circuit.
It’s an enormous operation, comprising the Court of Appeals, the district and bankruptcy courts, probation and pretrial offices and some public defenders. Her responsibilities stretch as far as Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
“It’s an opportunity to serve the circuit as a whole,” Soong says. “This job is a lot about relationship building, and I think a lot about how to get input, how to hear from all the stakeholders who care about a direction you might be going or an issue that’s brewing. The work that I do is very administrative and very much about policy and court administration. Any leadership job is about policy, and the Ninth Circuit is a big public institution that serves our community.”
She and Dwyer have offices three floors apart in San Francisco’s federal courthouse, and they still bounce ideas off each other, taking advantage of what both acknowledge are their different managerial styles.
“She really opens my mind to being more generous or open to new ideas,” Soong says. “We’re opposite in personality, but I respect her very much.”