The Equal-Pay Advocate
Nicole Saharsky ’02 was lead appellate counsel for the U.S. women’s national soccer team in a case that resulted in landmark $24M settlement.
When the U.S. women’s national soccer team lost its federal equal pay lawsuit on summary judgement in 2020, it was a shocking blow. After all, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s president, the U.S. men’s national soccer team, members of Congress, sponsors, and many others had previously acknowledged that the women were not receiving equal pay.
When the time came to appeal, the women turned to Nicole Saharsky ’02 to champion their cause. A veteran appellate lawyer who has argued 30 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Saharsky and her team at Mayer Brown took up the appeal pro bono. Crafting a compelling argument that the ruling was legally wrong and “defies reality,” they pointed out that the women would have earned an additional $64 million over five years if they had been paid under the same compensation structure as the men.
The legal team bolstered their case with numerous amicus briefs, including those from the U.S. Men’s National Team and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A couple weeks before oral arguments, U.S. Soccer agreed to a settlement of $24 million in back pay and equal pay for all games going forward. The case was straightforward, not some abstract question of equal pay, Saharsky says.
“The women have been the best in the world for years, and they’ve won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. U.S. Soccer markets them as one of the best sports teams ever. It resulted in the team bringing in very significant revenue for U.S. Soccer—even more revenue than the men,” she says. “There was no rational justification for denying them equal pay any longer.”
It was a sweet victory for all involved. “The players have been fighting for this for years and they were overjoyed to get the settlement approved and so favorably,” Saharsky says. “When you can get what your clients want, that makes you happy.”
Appellate Law Pathway
Since law school, Saharsky has advocated for clients on appeal. She confirmed her interest in appellate law during a Bristow Fellowship in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Solicitor General. Seeking to gain more appellate experience, Saharsky entered private practice before returning to Justice in 2007 as an assistant to the Solicitor General. She spent a decade handling a diverse array of appeals and legal issues, from securities and national security to criminal and environmental law.
Saharsky achieved a lifelong goal to appear before the Supreme Court when she argued a case in 2008 on the interpretation of a federal drug statute. She invested enormous amounts of time briefing the case, preparing, and practicing her arguments. But the matter was so straightforward that her presentation lasted seven minutes instead of the allotted 30 because the justices had few questions.
No matter the case and the number of times Saharsky has appeared before the Supreme Court, she prepares to that level and more. It still can be intimidating. “Everyone gets nervous before each Supreme Court argument, even people who have done it lots and lots of times,” Saharsky says. “You just have to take a breath and center yourself because it is inherently a little nerve-wracking. Then you start talking and have a conversation with the justices and it becomes more natural.”
In one of her early appearances, Saharsky even shared a bit of knowledge she gleaned during law school. She used the term romanette—the small roman numerals like ii used in a list— eliciting a question from Chief Justice John Roberts on the meaning of the word. Saharsky learned it in Professor John Matheson’s corporate law class and was happy to teach the court about romanettes. It was just a small part of the practical and well-rounded education she says she received from Minnesota Law.
A ‘Formidable Advocate’
Saharsky joined Mayer Brown in 2018 as co-head of the firm’s Supreme Court and Appellate Practice. She appreciates that her appellate work today is just as varied, and she continues to represent clients before the Supreme Court. With hundreds of cases briefed and 30 cases argued, Saharsky is the second most active female attorney to regularly appear before the justices.
She has won the majority of her Supreme Court cases, garnering ranking and attention from Chambers USA as a “formidable advocate.” Finding appellate work an interesting challenge, Saharsky believes she has honed a successful approach that explains legal issues in a straightforward, common-sense way, backed by well-reasoned arguments. It’s been a rewarding career so far, with much more to come, Saharsky says. “I have had a number of cases where I think the decisions in our favor made people safer or better off,” she says. “The women’s national team case falls into that category—cases that have clear outcomes that make people’s lives better. It’s a nice feeling to know that you did that, and you can see that it really makes a difference.”
Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.