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Leading and Guiding: Women Government Lawyers

Katherine Zittel Mikkelson

Leading and Guiding: Women Government Lawyers
Hill Street Studios/DigitalVision via GettyImages

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In recent years, women have been well-represented in the public sector. At the federal, state, and local levels, women are taking on leadership roles that were traditionally held by men. Whether it is state attorney general, county attorney, or judge, women are knocking it out of the park. Read on to learn about how five women lawyers have navigated their careers thus far, what they’ve learned through the years, and what advice they have for young lawyers.

Ellen F. Rosenblum, Oregon Attorney General

Ellen F. Rosenblum has had a varied career in both the public and private sectors.

Right out of law school, she practiced in a small firm—representing juveniles, criminal defendants, and civil plaintiffs. “I took court appointments to get trial experience and went to court nearly every day for the first four years after graduating,” she said. “I even got to write appellate briefs and argue appeals in the Oregon appellate courts before most young lawyers did.”

Eventually, she was offered a position as an assistant US attorney prosecuting economic white-collar crime. She loved being a federal prosecutor and enjoyed a four-day-a-week schedule while her children were very young.

In 1989, she was appointed to the bench and served as an elected trial judge (district and circuit) for 16 years. Rosenblum enjoyed interacting with her court colleagues, trial lawyers, and jurors. “When you are a judge on a busy court as I was, you experience your community through a totally different lens,” she said. “You work on a range of difficult issues, and you can truly feel that you are giving people who have never experienced justice their day in court. It’s exhilarating, but also can be draining.”

In 2005 Rosenblum was appointed, and soon thereafter elected statewide, to the Oregon Court of Appeals and served as an appellate judge for six years.

She had not planned or seriously thought about partisan elected office, but shortly after her retirement from the bench in 2011 (after 22 years as a judge), the position of Oregon attorney general became available—and her retirement was over almost as soon as it began. She realized that she still had a yearning to serve the people of Oregon, ran for attorney general in 2012, and was elected. She is now in the middle of her second term.

Rosenblum graduated from law school in 1975, at a time when there were few women in law school and fewer female role models in the profession. “My class was the first with more than just a sprinkle of women students. There were no full-time women faculty members at the University of Oregon Law School, so the only available mentors were men,” she said. Fortunately, a few were very helpful to her, including her first employers and several judges before whom she appeared; for the most part, though, “. . . male lawyers and judges didn’t know what to make of us, but we kept at it,” she said. Rosenblum recalls that when she became a partner in her small law firm, her new partners took her to a celebratory lunch at a nearby country club— where she was promptly pushed out of the men’s grill. “Can you imagine that happening today?” she asks. “Thankfully, no!” (She adds that her new partners never again set foot in the country club.)

These days Oregon has many women as legal role models, a fact that is gratifying to Rosenblum. “For the first time, the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court is a woman. And my law school that didn’t have a single full-time female professor is now led by a female dean and many wonderful female faculty members—no longer just one adjunct professor teaching family law.”

Rosenblum has found that serving on the bench prepared her well for her role as attorney general. “Now that I’m the attorney general, I realize that so much of what I practiced as a judge—like patience, deliberateness, independence, and listening—are essential skills.” Rosenblum uses those same skills to tackle complex legal analysis:

Like a judge, I ask my [state] DOJ colleagues to chime in and give me both sides. Before I make a decision, even as an advocate again, I want to make sure I understand both sides of the issue. I believe that is essential if we are to succeed at the two tasks I consider most important to the Oregon Department of Justice—providing state agencies with the gold standard of legal advice and serving as a sort of People’s Attorney for the most vulnerable people in our state.

Rosenblum enjoys all of the work that her office does to protect Oregonians, but she is most proud of efforts that involve consumer protection. “I see our job as advocates for Oregonians who don’t have a voice or have the resources to take on an industry or fraudulent practices on their own.” Rosenblum is also pleased with her office’s Elder Abuse Unit, which recently received funds from the Oregon legislature to handle criminal elder abuse cases statewide. “I’m so glad we can now offer our services to the 36 DAs and local law enforcement to investigate, prosecute—and, hopefully, stop—elder abuse.”

For law students interested in a career in the public sector, Rosenblum recommends networking with those in practice areas of interest and taking advantage of any opportunities, including writing articles and volunteering for bar committees. “I always recommend clerking for a judge, state or federal, trial or appellate, to get a head start. Clerking is a great way to get hands-on experience. And it gives you a career mentor (and maybe even a pretty good reference) for life!”

Despite the challenges of the job, Rosenblum wakes up each morning eager to get to work. “I haven’t ever been more professionally fulfilled or challenged than I am today, with a great team to work with and an incredible state to protect and defend.”

It is well known in ABA circles that Rosenblum was the secretary of the ABA from 2002–2005. She has also served more than 25 years in the ABA House of Delegates, and even while serving as AG, she served as chair of the Section of State and Local Government Law. She has been a proud member of this Division for many years and is a past recipient of its Nelson Award for Public Service. 

Donna Y. Frazier, Caddo Parish (Louisiana) Attorney 

Donna Y. Frazier has been the Caddo Parish attorney in Shreveport, Louisiana, since her appointment in 2013. As the first female Caddo Parish attorney (equivalent to a county attorney), Frazier advises the Parish Commission and parish personnel on all legal matters. What makes the position interesting to her is that there is no typical day. She might spend time doing a legal review of grant applications or meeting with judges who are requesting a legal interpretation regarding a statute outlining how court funds are to be administered. If the Parish Commission is about to meet, she will spend time fielding questions from commissioners about certain ordinances and resolutions that may be on the agenda. In addition, she attends all Parish Commission meetings to answer legal questions that may arise.

Frazier’s staff is small with only one assistant parish attorney and a paralegal. They have their hands full handling most of the litigation in-house. Frazier finds it satisfying when the parish prevails in litigation. “We don’t have some of the resources that some large law firms do; and because we work in government, we don’t often have the same amount of time to devote to our cases that private counsel has,” she said. “Additionally, a lot of the current sentiment in my community and the country at large is antigovernment. So, each time we successfully defend the honor in the hard work of our colleagues and elected officials, it affirms to me that I’m in the right field.”

Frazier’s first legal job out of law school was as a clerk to a state appellate judge. She landed the job because when she was in high school and the judge was still in private practice, she had performed clerical work for the judge. Frazier took a bit of a gamble by sending her resume to the judge while still in law school. As it happened, the judge had an opening the December after she graduated. Frazier learned several important skills while clerking for the judge, including how to construct a lower court record that would withstand an appeal. “Most importantly, I learned how to believe in myself and my abilities. At the time, I couldn’t understand why [the judge] constantly challenged my research and made me verbally defend my conclusions,” she said. “But I am forever grateful because it let me know that I had what it took to be a good attorney and do well in the field.”

Throughout the years, Frazier has been challenged by those who would like competing interests to influence legal outcomes. She often encounters several factions that would like her to rule a certain way on an issue. Frazier is steadfast in her belief in the rule of law. “The law must decide the issue, not the attorney, and sometimes it is difficult to get others to see that the law cannot and should not be twisted to meet a certain desire.” Frazier also notes that because the parish has a commission-administrator form of government, the “who is the client” issue regularly rears its head.

Frazier does not dwell too much on those who may have discounted her because she is female or black. She believes that in those instances where she may have been underestimated or taken less seriously, the best approach was to let her work product speak for itself.

In her spare time, Frazier loves reading historical romance novels and is an avid Marvel comic film fan. Frazier also is involved with the ABA—she chaired the State and Local Government Law Section in 2015, an accomplishment of which she is quite proud, as well as local bar groups, including the Louisiana Parish Attorney’s Association and the Shreveport Bar Association. Frazier finds that being involved in bar associations has given her a network of unimaginable resources. Just recently, she was able to draw on that network to contact another former State and Local Government Law chair to get a referral in another state. “Also, being a parish attorney means I deal with all types of issues, from employment issues to personal injury. Through these associations, I have access to colleagues in just about any area of law I encounter. That is invaluable.”

Frazier’s advice for young attorneys is to stay flexible. “Never lose sight of your initial career goals, but realize that there is usually more than one path to achieve those goals,” she said. “Additionally, there are career paths you may be unfamiliar with, but that may be perfect for you. Don’t be so afraid of change that you never explore them.”

Juanita C. Hernández, Senior Counsel, Office of the General Counsel, US Securities and Exchange Commission

Throughout her career, Juanita C. Hernández has moved between federal and state agencies and the private and public sectors. She has been a law clerk for a federal judge, has had three different stints in private practice at large law firms, has been a special assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, counsel to the assistant attorney general for the US Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division, and an assistant US attorney. Hernández has not found these transitions to be particularly difficult. Instead, she embraced each new opportunity. “Once I got to know my new colleagues and work neighbors and became familiar with the new surroundings and work duties, I found the work most satisfying,” she said. (Juanita Hernández’s views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SEC, its commissioners, or the staff.)

Hernández relishes her role of wearing the “white hat” and has found government practice to be very rewarding. “I’m delighted to be part of a federal regulatory agency where our mission is to protect the investors of this country and to help maintain the integrity of the market,” she said. “We help protect people’s retirement investments. It is an incredibly important mission and rewarding task.”

Of course, government practice is not without its challenges. Hernández sometimes wishes that her agency had more staff and resources. “I have to remind myself that we have to do more with less as budgets tighten. That is part of the challenge of a job in the government,” she said. “I particularly need to remind myself of that when the old work printer breaks down yet again when I’m trying to get some document completed.”

Hernández’s first job out of law school was as a law clerk for Chief Judge William W. Justice of the Eastern District of Texas. She met the judge when she was a 2L in law school, taking a trial advocacy class; he was one of the visiting instructors. As a 3L, she applied for the clerkship and received an offer on the spot, the first one he had offered to anyone until then. “It was an amazing opportunity for an aspiring young litigator. As a judicial clerk, I learned how the federal district court worked inside and out,” she said. “I got to see many jury trials and hearings and read numerous pleadings during my clerkship. I prepared draft opinions and jury instructions. And the judge also became a good friend and mentor to me.”

The most valuable lesson that Hernández learned from her clerkship was not to be nervous in the courtroom. “As a clerk, I experienced what really happened behind the ‘wizard’s curtain’ or the court chambers. After that, I felt totally at ease in the courtroom and was never intimidated again appearing before any judge.”

Very early in her career, Hernández was tasked with representing an important client to handle some complex litigation. Shortly after she arrived to meet with the company’s board members, who were all white, older, and male, she was asked to wait outside as they called her boss to question his judgment of sending her to represent the client. Her supervisor assured them that she was very knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand and could ably handle their case. “The next time I met with my client board, I was briefing them on how I had prevailed in our court case, and they were delighted with the results,” she said. “The general counsel personally hand-delivered to me a copy of the glowing congratulatory letter he had just sent to my boss, which thanked him profusely for a job well done by me and [noted] how pleased they were with the outcome. My hard work and dedication paid off.”

Hernández is very involved with the ABA and Harvard Law alumni groups. She has also actively participated in other bar groups, such as the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia. She heeded Judge Justice’s advice at the beginning of her career to give back to the legal profession by volunteering with the bar associations and civic groups. “As he predicted, I found my volunteer work to be very rewarding and inspiring. I’ve met many different types of lawyers and legal professionals, and I’ve participated in organizing CLE panels and speaking on them as well,” she said. Hernández’s bar involvement focuses on diversity and inclusion issues in the legal profession. She believes that bar work has sharpened her leadership skills and allowed her to develop a national network of civic-minded attorneys who are similarly involved in bar associations to improve the profession and mentor younger generations of attorneys.

Hernández loves to garden and cook. She likes the physical workout that gardening gives her and finds a creative outlet in making recipes from her harvests, especially pestos, salsas, and smoothies.

Hernández has a few words of wisdom for young attorneys: “Remember to treat all employees in your workplace and professional settings with dignity, courtesy, and respect. Don’t ignore support or non-professional staff or treat them like furniture when you walk by them,” she said. “A smile or pleasant greeting is always remembered fondly. You never know when you may need their help one day.”

Shenique A. Moss, Deputy Legal Counsel, Office of the Governor (Michigan)

Shenique A. Moss currently serves as deputy legal counsel for the Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan). Her duties are diverse and include providing counsel to the governor and other members of the Executive Office of the Governor regarding legal issues that arise in the day-to-day operation of the executive branch; serving as the governor’s representative on the State Administrative Board; and providing legal advice on a myriad of issues ranging from education to ethics, finance to infrastructure, and employment to municipal issues. In her role, she interprets state and federal laws, rules and regulations; protects the legal interests of the governor and the governor’s office, monitors litigation that has an effect on the governor and the administration; and reviews and analyzes proposed legislation.

Prior to working for the Office of the Governor, Moss was assistant commission counsel for the Wayne County Commission in Detroit, Michigan. She essentially served as in-house counsel for Wayne County’s legislative body, which is comprised of 15 elected commissioners.

After graduating from Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Moss spent a semester as a teaching assistant at her alma mater, helping students in the estate planning clinic. Following that, she hung her own shingle, handling estate planning issues to allow her schedule some flexibility while she pursued an LLM in taxation

She joined the Michigan Department of Attorney General after completing her LLM. Moss was especially fulfilled when representing and serving the people of Michigan during her eight-and-a-half-year tenure at the AG’s Office. “It was an amazing job that afforded me the opportunity to develop and hone my skills as an attorney because I was able to handle my own cases fairly early on in my career,” she said. “I also had the opportunity to work on several cases and issues that were really interesting and very cutting edge. I probably would not have had these opportunities as a newer attorney elsewhere.”

While at the AG’s Office, Moss enjoyed working at one of the largest law offices in Michigan, but without the added pressure of worrying about billable hours. She also served with many other public service–minded attorneys, many of whom had worked there for decades and who provided institutional knowledge and mentorship.

One of Moss’ proudest work-related accomplishments concerned the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. When she was with the AGs office, she helped the agency develop and implement the Stormwater, Asset Management, and Wastewater (SAW) Grant and Loan Program. Since its inception, the SAW Program has appropriated more than $450 million for local municipalities to improve their wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Moss is pleased to have had a hand in developing this program, which provides local governments with resources to address a crumbling infrastructure, directly impacting their citizens’ ability to live, work and play.

Moss has served as the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) assembly speaker and assembly clerk, the YLD representative to the ABA nominating committee, and a State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioner member, among other bar positions. Moss wishes she had become involved with the ABA sooner in her career. She has found that being involved in bar associations provided her with countless networking opportunities, expanded her knowledge base, improved her work product, and made her a better lawyer. Moss also credits bar work as an opportunity to build confidence and leadership skills. Moss’s advice for young attorneys is that they should get involved with substantive bar work early in their careers. “I still kick myself for not getting involved sooner,” she said. 

Honorable Susan N. Burke, District Court Judge, Fourth Judicial District, State of Minnesota

Judge Susan N. Burke knows that most jurors are reluctant to report for jury duty. That is why she finds it immensely satisfying to guide jurors through the process of serving. “Through the experience, most [jurors] gain true respect for the justice system and are extremely earnest and dedicated to reaching their verdicts. It is rewarding to be part of that.”

Judge Burke, the first Japanese-American judge in the state and on the bench since 2005, has spent her entire career in public service. She was drawn to public service because she thought it would provide interesting, challenging work assignments straight away. She was right. Just a few years out of law school she landed a position at the US Department of Justice in the Civil Division through the honors program. She found herself defending the FBI against a Freedom of Information Act case brought by Jimmy Hoffa’s daughter. Hoffa’s daughter argued that the FBI had been investigating the case long enough and should end the investigation and disclose the identity of its confidential sources. Burke won the case and protected the safety of the confidential sources.

Burke’s first position after law school was as a law clerk to District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson of the US District Court for the District of Minnesota. “That job gave me the ability to see litigation from the judge’s point of view. I encourage law students to take clerkships because knowing what happens on the other side of the bench is invaluable to litigators.” Judge Magnuson was an important role model for Burke. “When faced with new situations where it is unclear how to proceed, I think of what Judge Magnuson would do in that situation and am guided to do the right thing,” she said.

After her clerkship, Burke spent a decade at the US Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis as an assistant US attorney. She credits her time there with gaining an intimate knowledge of criminal law and what was really involved in investigating and prosecuting criminal defendants. Her experience as an AUSA was invaluable in preparation for the bench. “For example, as a prosecutor, I handled primarily multiple-defendant conspiracy cases,” she said. “So, when I was a judge presiding over a multiple-defendant racketeering (RICO) trial, I was able to sentence all six defendants, weighing their respective levels of culpability, roles in the offense, levels of cooperation with the prosecution, and criminal histories.”

Burke is all too aware that sometimes litigants are in court because they need professional help of some kind. “Sometimes people need more help than the justice system can provide. It is challenging to know that there are needs that the court simply cannot meet.”

Burke was elected to her seat with more than 70 percent of the vote in a district with more than 1.5 million voters. She had never worked on a campaign and was not politically active. “I was working full-time as a federal prosecutor. The Department of Justice had very strict ethical rules regulating assistant US attorneys running for public office. I was permitted to run in part because the race was nonpartisan,” she said. “I had to purchase a cell phone and a laptop to avoid any ethical violations. Most of my work colleagues had no idea I was running until I beat the other seven candidates in the primary election.” Burke was 39 years old and found out that she was pregnant for the first time two months before the filing deadline. She was seven months pregnant on election night.

Burke learned to focus on her job and ignore people who underestimated her. Despite being 4’ 11”, Burke played three varsity sports in college (volleyball, basketball, and softball). This gave Burke an abundance of experience with being underestimated. In 2007, she was inducted into Hanover College’s Athletic Hall of Fame and was the first student to graduate with 12 varsity letters.

As for those who have their sights set on becoming a judge in the future, Burke advises lawyers to be the best at whatever position they are in. “Judges come from every practice area and both the public and private sectors. Do what makes you happy and helps others, and do it well.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of The Public LawyerThe Public Lawyer is a benefit of membership in the ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division.