May 31, 2016

Member Spotlight: Ruth Kleinfeld

Tell us a little bit about your career.

Photo of Ruth KleinfeldI started in management consulting, assigned to the fascinating Howard Hughes/TWA antitrust case, then moved to another firm, working in the transportation group focusing on intermodal transportation, which led to doctoral studies at Harvard Business School and more consulting work. I was recruited for public service as an Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corporations and Taxation, followed by appointment as Chair of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

In the '80s I taught tax law and business law as an adjunct professor and then accepted an appointment as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the first Bush administration. It was exciting to be in Washington, DC, where we managed large loan portfolios and funded development activities.

I served as a federal administrative law judge for the last 25 years of my career.

Is it what you had planned when you started law school?

No, I had planned the normal route of being hired at a large firm, probably as an associate in the tax field, or joining the JAG corps. I did not interview at the usual time due to being pregnant, and I felt I was carrying the future of all other women on my shoulders at the time, so I deferred job-hunting until after my son was born. JAG would not accept a woman with a child (they would hire fathers). Being married to a lawyer did not help either; large firms did not want to risk training me only for me to leave to practice with him (which I never intended to do).

What has been the highlight of your career?

Each decade held highlights, from learning all about the air transportation industry, preparing Congressional testimony, and doing the first study of the economic impact of the environmental statues of the '70s on airport development and operation, to bringing some degree of transparency to operations of my state’s tax departments, and founding the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board Reporter publication. As Chairman of the Appellate Tax Board, I led us through the thousands of appeals of the revaluation of all Boston properties, a massive undertaking. The '70s was also a time to advance women’s rights with legislation I drafted and pursued to eliminate the presumption of tenancy by the entirety, to provide for equal credit for women, and to eliminate the requirement for a married woman’s business certificate.

As an administrative law judge I had the opportunity to engage with thousands of despondent citizens and their counsel seeking disability benefits, and to work to improve the effectiveness of a large bureaucracy. I hope I fostered the perception that their cases received a full and fair hearing regardless of the outcome. More people interact with administrative tribunals than any other American court system, so it is vital that the system be provided with adequate resources to be fair and as transparent and timely as possible.

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

I would have more actively challenged the discrimination against women that I experienced at law school and business school, rather than just try to fit in. Certain professors, even an associate dean, would not admit women to seminars, and the Inns of Court refused membership to women.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

A law school degree opens many doors to fulfilling work, provides association and lifetime friendships with intelligent and caring people, and gives you the opportunity to leave the world a better place. Take advantage of faculty and fellow students, accept challenges, have confidence to question the status quo. Keep your options open. Act ethically. Find the humor in life. Take your work seriously but have fun along the way. Make a difference. And join the American Bar Association at your earliest opportunity.

What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

Obviously the increase in the female population of lawyers and judges. (I was one of twelve women in a class of 400 at Columbia. Now at many law schools women comprise more than 50 percent of students. Similarly, the appointment of many women judges occurred over the last 30 years.)

I think the bipolar distribution of income between large firms and solo offices has always existed, but now is critical in view of the enormous increases in law school tuition.

When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?

I joined in 1983 when asked to chair the Urban, State and Local Government section’s committee on taxes, revenues, and grants. After attending my first Annual Meeting in New York City, I was hooked. I had been President of the Massachusetts Association on Women Lawyers and active in the Massachusetts Bar while my family was young. I greatly admired the Massachusetts delegate to the House (Roy Hammer) and other ABA members, so I was happy to get involved and to attend meetings in a great variety of cities I had never visited.

What have been the highlight of your experiences with the ABA?

Chairing the National Conference of Administrative Law Judges, and then the Senior Lawyers Division was the culmination of many years’ work with very dedicated lawyers, judges and staff on various projects. Perhaps most memorable was participating in a session of the World Justice Forum created by Bill Neukom, where we were given the opportunity to extend the Rule of Law with projects on a global scale.

Being an inveterate traveler, having visited nearly 300 cities on five continents, I consider one of my lifetime peak experiences to be the fabulous trip to China in 1997 with the Senior Lawyers Division as arranged by Ed Kallgren, including visits to the terra-cotta warriors, a criminal trial in Beijing, and a meeting with the Hong Kong Bar Association.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

As an economics major, I probably would have gone into the banking or securities industries. If I were to choose now, I would make documentary films.

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