We think there are some women lawyers and judges you should meet.
In this feature, we’re profiling pioneering women in the legal profession. These summaries are taken from a few of the extensive oral histories conducted by the ABA Women Trailblazers in the Law Oral History Project over the last 14 years, first under the sponsorship of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and more recently under the ABA Senior Lawyers Division.
The oral histories tell the stories of women lawyers and judges who’ve made history through their outstanding achievements in our profession and through opening opportunities for other women.
Their stories are both inspiring and poignant, and they speak to the indomitable spirit of these amazing women and their leadership in our profession. This is just a sample of the oral histories that have been collected. You can peruse all the unrestricted Women Trailblazers oral histories on the ABA Senior Lawyers Division website at https://www.americanbar.org/directories/women_trailblazers_project_listing.html.
Carol E. Dinkins: Making a Mark on Environmental Law
This pioneer became the first female law partner in Texas before she gained national prominence.
Carol Dinkins is truly a pioneer in the field of environmental law. At the time she graduated from the University of Houston Law Center with her law degree, the first of the environmental laws that emanated from the Nixon administration were just being passed. Dinkins became an expert on coastal and water issues and made herself indispensable to the state of Texas and, ultimately, to the country in the advancement of environmental policies and protections.
Dinkins was born in a very small town in Texas, and her family moved to Mathis, Texas, when she was very young. Her father was a lawyer, the only lawyer in Mathis until Carol’s younger brother became a lawyer and practiced with their father.
Dinkins worked at her father’s office at a very young age and when she was in the 8th grade announced that she wished to become a lawyer. From the time she was a sophomore in high school, Dinkins worked at her father’s law office in the summer when the regular secretary worked at her second job at the local gin mill. Her mother trained as a bookkeeper and worked part-time in the law office preparing income taxes.
One of Dinkins’ fondest memories was as the drum major for her high school band. Dinkins also reluctantly took piano lessons in high school but learned to love playing when she was asked to play the organ for her church. Although her school didn’t have a debating team, Dinkins and her best friend loved to debate, and after receiving their drivers’ licenses, they drove to other schools to enter debating contests.
One of only three female law grads
Dinkins attended the University of Texas, where she studied education. Between her freshman and sophomore years, she married her first husband, Ted Dinkins. Following graduation from college, Dinkins had her first child, and her second was born between graduating from law school and taking the bar exam.
Because her first husband was also in law school, Dinkins switched law schools after her first year to the University of Houston. Dinkins worked hard to become a member of the university law review and became an associate editor in her last year. She was one of three women who graduated in her law school class of 111.
From her association with the law review, which Dinkins highly recommends for any law student, her advisor, Professor Sidney Buchanan, recommended her to be an associate with the Texas Law Institute of Coastal and Marine Resources under Professor Eli Ereli. Although Dinkins had interviewed with Vinson & Elkins in Texas at the time, the firm only had one woman. Dinkins took the job at the institute. Dinkins loved property law, the water, and the coast and really wanted to learn a new area of the law so it would be easy for law firms to hire her.
Her first assignment was working on the Texas coastal management program, working directly with the state’s governor. Dinkins published one of the first articles on Texas seashore boundary law, still a definitive scholarly article on the subject.
One day a friend mentioned that Vinson & Elkins needed a lawyer to help with public finance. Dinkins interviewed for the job, but she revealed her desire to practice coastal and marine law. A partner at Vinson & Elkins stated that they didn’t have that practice but that if she was willing to do other things, they’d support her interest in the new practice.
The day she arrived at the firm, the partner announced that three of the firm’s clients needed help with coastal issues. Dinkins flew to Austin and was representing these clients before the state by herself.
Dinkins was considered for partner at Vinson & Elkins in her sixth year at the firm, but wasn’t elevated to the position. She says she doesn’t believe the decision was made because she was a woman. The managing partner came to her and assured her that she’d make partner the following year.
Dinkins remembers buying a red dress for the day the next year’s partner selections were made. In 1980, she became the first female partner at Vinson & Elkins and the first female partner at a firm in Texas. Dinkins was very proud to make partner, but she said she was even more pleased to be wearing a specially purchased red suit in contrast with all the male partners in the room. She remembers the promotion as being anticlimactic since it was business as usual from then on.
Moving to a national stage
Following President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Dinkins’ clients and friends began suggesting that she accept a federal appointment either in the U.S. Department of Interior or the U.S. Department of Justice. Dinkins had never contemplated such a career move, but she’d already achieved so much with her coastal and flood work that she’d gained a great reputation.
The Republican governor of Texas had helped Reagan carry Texas, and he told the presidential transition team that he wanted Dinkins appointed to a position within the administration. The week before the inauguration, Dinkins got a call from the transition team to come to Washington for an interview.
The position was deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s land and natural resources division. During her interview, she was asked to delay her departure so she could meet with the attorney general designee, William French Smith. Texas governors Bill Clements and John Connally both called Attorney General Smith on Dinkins’ behalf, and it was rumored that Smith almost offered her the position at their first meeting. However, he waited until shortly thereafter to make the offer.
On the night before her confirmation hearing, Dinkins developed laryngitis. She was up for confirmation with Rudy Giuliani, Ted Olson, and Bill Baxter, all nominated for other positions in the Reagan administration. The Washington Post announced the nominations, giving Dinkins the lead in the story as the first woman appointed by President Reagan. Dinkins conducted her interview by answering written questions.
The lands division had a reputation as “the sleepy little lands division” because it did mostly condemnation work. When Dinkins arrived, however, it had expanded to enforcement of pollution laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which became known as Superfund, was passed in December 1980, and Dinkins was responsible for getting the program up and running.
Dinkins also helped develop the environmental criminal enforcement program. She remembers her work on the Love Canal, N.Y., and the Times Beach, Mo., toxic waste cleanups as being really challenging cases at Justice.
Dinkins was involved with some stressful times at Justice when the administrator and assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency were being investigated for mismanagement of the Superfund program. The assistant administrator was indicted and spent time in jail for perjury.
An independent counsel was appointed, and Dinkins and Olson were also investigated. The president invoked executive privilege over his communications with them, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The administration lost the case; however, by that time, Dinkins had decided to resign and return to Texas. She remembers that she was tired of commuting every week to Houston.
Eight months later, Attorney General Smith resigned but stayed on until his successor was confirmed. Ed Meese was nominated but was under investigation. Dinkins was in Washington, D.C., on client work and went to visit Attorney General Smith. He offered her the position of deputy attorney general.
At first Dinkins refused, but she was paged at the airport to take a call from Attorney General Smith, who insisted she take the job. Dinkins returned to Houston, and after talking to her husband and her managing partner—who both told her she couldn’t turn the offer down—she accepted the position in 1984 and was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
As deputy attorney general—the first woman to hold that office—Dinkins frequently attended cabinet meetings. But most of her work centered around the DOJ’s budgeting process. Dinkins took it upon herself to visit federal prisons and to participate on night drug interdiction raids with U.S. Department of Defense officials. She said she did this so she’d be better informed when she testified at Congressional budget hearings. She left the DOJ in 1985.
Giving back to the profession
Dinkins returned to Vinson & Elkins and continued to practice environmental law. She expanded her service to be a board member for the Nature Conservancy.
Dinkins was very active in the American Bar Association as well, including working on the Litigation Section’s Environmental Litigation Committee; the Section of State and Local Government Law; and the Section on Environmental, Energy and Resources. Dinkins chaired both the Litigation Section and the State and Local Government Law section.
She also served as a house delegate for State and Local Government and Environment and Energy, working on the Rules and Calendar Committee and the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. She was elected to the ABA Board of Governors.
Dinkins says she believes in the role the ABA has played in vetting appointments to the federal judiciary and believes the White House should receive those recommendations before a candidate is nominated. Dinkins has also been the chair of the ABA Journal’s Board of Editors.
In 2006, Dinkins was confirmed as the chair of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a White House-sponsored board. It was created by Congress to oversee government-wide coordinating activities to fight terrorism as they impact privacy and civil liberties.
Dinkins’ contributions to environmental law, the government, and the ABA are immense. She truly is a pioneer in the environmental law arena, and her accomplishments are legion. Her contributions at the DOJ and for the White House have had a dramatic impact on our country.
Dinkins has been able to balance her time with her children and family and her impressive work for her clients and the United States. She is a selfless and devoted servant to her community, and her reputation and contributions should be recognized as the very finest any person can contribute to the legal profession.
Shirley M. Hufstedler: From the Courts to the Education World
A woman so qualified that she learned there was no short list for a position for which she was being considered—she was the short list.
Shirley M. Hufstedler was a true trailblazer in the practice of law and in government. She was born in 1925 and had vivid memories of the Depression and its effect on families. Hufstedler was extremely bright and graduated from high school at age 16 and from college at age 19 with a degree in business.
Hufstedler’s father was an engineer and worked on construction projects in Denver. But the Depression forced the family to move very often, seeking federal government construction projects under the New Deal. Hufstedler decided she wanted to be a lawyer and, in the first class after World War II, she was accepted at Stanford University Law School.
Hufstedler was very good friends with the World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Through Pyle, she got to meet Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard, the married acting couple, and was offered a position as their secretary in Hollywood. Lacking any interest in staying with the entertainment business, Hufstedler chose instead to go to law school.
Hufstedler was one of five women to enter the first-year class at Stanford, but three of the other women dropped out after the first year. She then became one of seven women admitted to the bar in California in 1949.
During law school, Hufstedler said she never felt the men treated her differently. All the students had come through quite a bit by the time they reached law school, and she said the men never were disrespectful of her. Hufstedler loved reading and writing from a very early age and was the editor of her high school newspaper. Naturally, Hufstedler applied for law review at Stanford and was selected. She ultimately became the articles editor.
Striking out on her own
Hufstedler met her husband, Seth Hufstedler, when they were in the same class at Stanford law. Seth was number one in the class, and Hufstedler and future Secretary of State Warren Christopher graduated fifth. The couple married right after graduating and studied for the bar together before there were bar review courses—both passed.
Seth got a job in a Los Angeles law firm, but no one would hire a woman lawyer. Stanford had recommended that Hufstedler take a job as a probate secretary. She refused and opened her own office in Los Angeles. She started writing briefs for other lawyers who learned of her abilities. She also tried cases in municipal court since most lawyers didn’t wish to do those cases. Volunteering at the legal aid clinic also gave her a lot of trial experience.
Hufstedler’s real break came when one of her law professors left the school and became a senior advisor to the state of California in an original-jurisdiction Supreme Court case, Arizona v. California. Hufstedler became one of four research attorneys who researched and wrote briefs for California Attorney General Pat Brown. Hufstedler spent time both in San Francisco working with the attorney general’s office and in Washington, D.C., litigating the famous and seminal water-law case.
Drawn to the bench
Through Hufstedler’s work with Brown, she was appointed in 1961 to the Superior Court in Los Angeles when Brown became governor. Hufstedler worked in the pre-trial and law and motion divisions, where she first developed the concept of a tentative decision, or “notes,” as she called them. Having tentative decisions streamlined the decision-making process and speeded up handling of the caseload. Hufstedler ultimately headed the Superior Court Appellate Division.
In 1966, Brown appointed Hufstedler to the state’s court of appeal. This was a new division in the Second Appellate District, and Hufstedler was an associate justice. She remembers fondly one very complicated case in which she laid out the elements that must be proven in a trade secret case.
Hufstedler was on the court for only two years before she was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson to be on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Hufstedler believes it was actually Lady Bird Johnson who influenced her husband to nominate her.
Hufstedler remembers that the circuit’s presiding judge was very nervous when he interviewed Hufstedler since she was the first-ever female judge on the court. He announced that he’d have to construct a female restroom for Hufstedler.
However, Hufstedler knew quite a few of the judges on the Ninth Circuit bench since they had been superior court judges or had practiced in Los Angeles. That made the transition easier. She soon became very close friends with the presiding judge.
A chance to make a difference nationally
After a trip to the Himalayas, Hufstedler received a call from then-Vice President Walter Mondale, who invited her to Washington, D.C., to be considered to head the new U.S. Department of Education. Hufstedler discovered that there was no short list for the appointment—she was the short list. She was invited to meet with President Jimmy Carter, who wanted to announce her appointment that same day. Hufstedler begged off, saying she needed to tell the members of the court about her appointment.
Hufstedler remembers her time at the Department of Education as very busy and hectic. She basically had to create the department from scratch and deal with all the budget issues. There were 157 programs from other departments that were moved over to the DOE, and Hufstedler had to create budgets for them and argue for their existence with the Office of Management and Budget.
She was working 18–20 hours per day to get the department running and stayed at the job until President Carter left office. In the year-and-a-half that Hufstedler was secretary of education, she got back to Los Angeles only once for a weekend.
Since leaving the DOE, Hufstedler has lectured and been a visiting professor at many law schools. She has received too many honorary degrees to mention and was a member of the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament, a position that took her to Russia on several occasions. In 1995, Hufstedler received the ABA Gold Medal, the first-ever female to receive ABA’s highest award.
Hufstedler’s superlative career in the law, as a judge and as a secretary at the cabinet level, speaks volumes about her capacities as a scholar, administrator, and world leader. When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Hufstedler answered that she wanted to be a good wife, a good mother, and a good grandmother. She also wanted to be remembered for her cooking.
Shirley and Seth Hufstedler were avid hikers and scaled many a mountain in their days. At every step in Hufstedler’s career, she rose above the heights of her predecessors and achieved many things that no other woman has achieved in the history of our nation.
She says she never felt like she was discriminated against as a woman, but she achieved so many firsts as a woman in the legal and governmental professions that she blazed the trail for all of her successors.
Hufstedler had so many gifts and contributed at such a high level that her advice and contributions were sought in areas where she had little experience. But her brilliance, her personality, and her work ethic carried her to the highest halls of government and the international scene.
The ABA and the world are a better place because of Shirley Hufstedler.
Janet Reno: A Lifetime of Integrity and Service
Neither powerful government positions nor a debilitating disease caused Reno to stray from her Florida roots.
Janet Reno was the first women to serve as the U.S. attorney general, stepping into that role in 1993 and holding the position until 2001.
Born in Miami in 1938, Reno died there in 2017 at the age of 79, after more than 20 years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
From Miami to the attorney general’s office
Reno graduated from Coral Gables High School in 1956, where she was an active member of the debate team. Next she graduated from Cornell University and the Harvard Law School.
Reno returned to Miami and entered private practice. Thereafter, she was elected Miami-Dade County state’s attorney and held that office from 1978-1993. Her reputation was as a well-respected, articulate, and unpretentious leader.
As President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Reno was one of the most respected members of his administration. During her tenure, she espoused the rights of criminal defendants and implemented innovative programs designed to steer non-violent drug offenders away from jail. The administration’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft was the most publicized policy action of her eight years as attorney general.
Two of her most difficult challenges while attorney general were the return of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez from Miami to his father in Cuba (his mother had died while escaping Cuba with the boy) and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that resulted in 76 deaths, including that of the group’s self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh.
In 2001, Reno came back to Miami again. She sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida in 2002 but wasn’t successful. As her Parkinson’s progressed, she largely stayed out of public life until her passing in 2017.
A family connection
I felt particularly close to Reno from the 1960s when I began practicing trial law in Miami because my wife, Nancy, had been Reno’s high school friend and debate partner. Nancy told me that Reno’s parents, and mainly her mother, had built their family home themselves.
It was located in what would have then been called the Everglades. Reno lived all her growing-up years there and later returned to the same, old homestead for her final years. The home has now been turned over by the family to the government for preservation. The ultimate goal is for it to be opened to the public in remembrance of Reno.
I was impressed with Reno’s personal integrity and the fact that all her actions—professional and personal—were beyond reproach. Reno never used her high-profile position as the Miami-Dade County state’s attorney for anything benefitting herself but always only for the public good. She maintained these same exemplary positions as the nation’s attorney general.
Reno’s success has been an inspiration, and a moral guide, to all attorneys, but especially to female trial lawyers, as their role model.
Equally impressive was the way Reno handled her Parkinson’s. She never used it as an excuse nor a crutch. Her diligence in doing her job, first and foremost, set a very high standard for all lawyers, but especially for those who are working effectively despite their physical or mental disabilities.
During her long lifetime, and even after her death, I’ve never read nor heard of anything at all, large or small, that would caste a negative light on any of Reno’s public or private acts. I know of few others who’ve attained such an exalted status.
Ilana Diamond Rovner: A Refugee Who Longed to Save the World
An early childhood experience of flight from the Nazis instilled a strong believe in the rule of law and the power of lawyers to do good.
Ilana Diamond Rovner is, and has always been, a trailblazer for equality for women, even long before it was “fashionable.”
Rovner was born in Riga, Latvia, and came to the United States when she was 13 months old. In Latvia, Rovner’s father spoke five languages fluently; was an opera critic; played the piano on a concert stage; and knew music, art, and literature.
But this was 1938 and, being Jewish, her parents knew they needed to leave. When her family left Latvia, they weren’t permitted to take any property or valuables with them; when they arrived in the United States, they were basically penniless. To exist, her father packed eggs and swept floors for money for food for his family.
Though poor, their home often had refugees coming and going, with refugees sleeping on the floor and basically sharing what little food the family had. Rovner’s dad often spoke about the laws not being followed in Europe and that being the reason for the carnage taking place during World War II.
At the age of 7, Rovner wrote an essay saying she wanted to become a lawyer because she truly believed that lawyers could change the world. So, even at the age of 7 years old, Rovner was determined to pursue her dream and become an attorney.
Educational excellence from the start
As a teenager, Rovner attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls. Although a public school, in its day, it was considered the most prestigious public school for girls in Philadelphia. To get to school, Rovner had to take a bus, a trolley, and a subway. Girls from all over Philadelphia applied annually to matriculate, but only 132 were accepted into her class, and Rovner was the only one from her area of Philadelphia. After graduating from high school, Rovner attended Bryn Mawr College, one of the seven sister schools, located in Philadelphia’s suburbs.
After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Rovner was accepted by Georgetown University Law School, which in itself is an accolade since Georgetown had only started accepting women into their law school a few years earlier. Rovner was only one of two women from her Bryn Mawr graduating class to apply to law school immediately after college.
The law school permitted Rovner to defer admission so she could first study law in England. Rovner made that decision because she then loved, and still loves, England. At that time, there were three law schools in London: the London School of Economics, the University College, and Kings College. After investigating which she’d prefer, she made an appointment to see the dean at Kings College for an interview. He accepted her on the spot.
After completing her studies at Kings College School of Law, Rovner returned to the United States and continued her studies at Georgetown. During her second year at Georgetown, she met the man of her dreams, who soon after became her husband. Since his job was in Chicago, she moved there with him soon after graduation. Rather than immediately take the Illinois bar, she decided to first raise her family. Eventually, she did take the Illinois bar and became an attorney.
A secretary gets the assist
Rovner’s first job was as the law clerk to the Hon. James B. Parsons, a well-respected jurist on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. But how she got the job is a fascinating story. One night, she and her husband went to a dinner party. She was seated next to Parsons at the dinner.
During their conversation, Parsons mentioned that he had to start searching for a new law clerk. Rovner said she’d accept the position. Parsons then reportedly said that one needs to be a lawyer to be a law clerk, to which Rovner replied that she’d just passed the bar. Apparently, Parsons then invited her to come to his chambers the following Monday with her resume.
As the “lore” goes, on Monday, apparently Parsons was speaking with his secretary and said he didn’t know if he wanted a female law clerk so he supposedly told his secretary to tell Rovner when she arrived that the position had been filled. As the story then goes, Parsons’ secretary scolded him for excluding women and reminded him that he was an African-American and that women, like African-Americans, should be given a chance, and to at least be interviewed.
Well, Parsons did interview Rovner, and she landed the job. To this day, Rovner is thankful to Parsons . . . and his secretary.
A “fairy godmother” prosecutor
After completing her clerkship, Rovner was hired to work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. She was the fifth woman to have ever been hired in that office. About 16 months later, Rovner became the first woman supervisor in the history of that office and became chief of the public protection unit. That unit was responsible for all civil rights, consumer fraud, and voter fraud litigation in the Northern District of Illinois.
Also in this period, Rovner received the U.S. Department of Justice’s Special Commendation Award and its Special Achievement Award, the Annual National Law and Social Justice Leadership Award of the League to Improve the Community, and the Annual Guardian Police Award (for which she was the first female recipient).
One of her first criminal cases involved a stolen forklift truck. The defendant was found guilty. The government was seeking a sentence of 90 days, yet defendant’s counsel was arguing for 60 days. When asked if she wanted a sentence of 60 or 90 days, Rovner replied that she’d never beg the court for 30 days of a man’s life. The judge sentenced the defendant to 60 days.
From then on, many in the U.S. Attorneys’ Office jokingly referred to Rovner as the “fairy godmother” of the office. For Christmas that year, co-workers gave her a tiara, a pair of angel wings. and a wand. Legend has it that she still has them.
In 1977, Rovner left the U.S. Attorneys’ Office to become deputy governor and legal counsel to then Illinois Governor James R. Thompson. During her time in that office, among many other things, she wrote the governor’s executive order banning sexual harassment in the workplace and oversaw the creation of the Governor’s Office for Interagency Cooperation. She also was instrumental in helping to create the Department of Human Rights in Illinois.
A calling for the bench
Rovner was appointed by President Ronald Regan to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 1984. During her tenure as a district court judge, she was virtually never reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
In 1992, Rovner was appointed to that appellate court by President George H.W. Bush and has continued to serve in that capacity. She hasn’t taken senior status and continues a full caseload to this very day.
Rovner has received too many awards and accolades from many diverse organizations to list here. Suffice it to say that she’s well respected by her peers, by those who appear before her, and by all who know her. I’m very proud to be among those who’ve not only met her but who’ve appeared before Rovner. To say the least, it was a wonderful experience and I’m honored to have had that opportunity.
I was even assigned a pro bono appeal of a criminal matter by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where Rovner was the presiding district court judge. I can say with complete candor that one of my most difficult tasks with the appeal was to identify any reversible error committed by Rovner.
Of particular note, in 2001, Rovner was honored by Georgetown University Law Center as the first of its female students to be appointed to a federal appellate court. She also spoke at her 45th reunion from graduating Bryn Mawr College. In her remarks, Rovner said that college students from her era were taught that they could accomplish anything, but she didn’t recall being taught how tough the struggle would be. But, as she then commented, she and her friends were so filled with enthusiasm for their own possibilities that it seemed the possibilities and hard work often translated into probabilities.
Rovner’s philosophy is to never stop dreaming and to always work toward your dreams. That doesn’t mean your dreams will always be answered. But it does mean that if you’ve given it your all, what regret can you have? You can’t tell yourself that you’ve failed, but rather simply that you didn’t achieve each and every thing you dreamed about. But Rover believes you should never give up your dreams.
Editor’s note: In the print issue of the magazine, Experience incorrectly identified Associate Justice Ruth I. Abrams as the project’s interviewer of Carol Dinkins. In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Atlas interviewed Dinkins. We regret the error, which has been corrected in this online version.