August 08, 2016

Five women lawyers honored with 2016 Margaret Brent Awards

The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession recognized five women lawyers with its 2016 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. The award ceremony luncheon took place on Aug. 7 during the ABA Annual Meeting.

From left to right: Judith A. Scott, Judith Rogers, Michele Coleman Mayes, Nancy E. O’Malley, Ginger Ehn Lew and Roberta Liebenberg

In opening remarks, ABA President Paulette Brown, a past recipient of the Margaret Brent Award, addressed the audience in saying about the awards: “We have to think about those coming behind us. Think about the struggles we have had… and the obligation we have to bring others along with us.”

Commission Chair Michele Coleman Mayes said in her comments that “what we do for ourselves dies with us, what we do for others is and remains immortal.” She toasted the honorees with these words: “Here's to good women, and the good men who surround and support them.  May we be them, may we know them, may we raise them, may we help them.”

The 2016 honorees are: (click on each name to view the recipient’s video and acceptance speech):

Ginger Ehn Lewmanaging director and general counsel, Cube Hydro Partners LLC, has been a trailblazer in both the corporate world and the government sector for over 40 years. Member of a family of Chinese immigrants, Lew shared how her childhood experience of living in fear for the deportation of her grandfather, which forced her family to live in the shadows, has inspired her “not to live in the shadows, but rather seek opportunities for change and take risks.” She credited much of her success to those who provided opportunities by telling the audience: “these individuals––mostly men–– taught and mentored me, and that inspired me to do the same for others throughout my career. So it is, that all of us have this obligation, not only to pay it forward, it’s a duty.” Lew also recognized her failures as an opportunity to learn. “Not every risk worked out, but those hard knocks led to lessons learned. It’s not about getting a chance, it’s about taking a chance that can make a difference.” As a takeaway, Lew encouraged lawyers to be part of solutions. “Whether we agree or disagree with some of the outcomes, the law provides a critical forum for civil discourse, mediation, and sometimes reconciliation. Now more than ever we need to be part of the solution. It’s not about taking a chance that can make a difference,” said Lew. She has served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce, and as chief operating officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration. Lew then started a venture capital fund that sought to invest in projects led by women and minorities. Rejoining the government in 2009, she served as senior counselor to the White House National Economic Council until 2011, working as the primary author of policies focused on the inclusion of women in domestic and international economic life.

Roberta D. Liebenbergsenior partner, Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C. She has held leadership roles for the plaintiff classes in numerous complex antitrust and consumer class actions and is the coauthor of the groundbreaking report on women as lead counsel, “First Chairs at Trial:  More Women Need Seats at the Table”.  During her acceptance speech, Liebenberg recognized the great strides made by women lawyers in the last 40 years and noted that despite improvements, much remains to be done. “There continues to be a significant disparity between male and female lawyers in term of equity partnerships, compensation, business development, and networking opportunities,” Liebenberg said. She considered the pace of progress for women in the profession to be “far too slow,” and called on women lawyers for being “far too patient” in accepting the status quo. “One of the reasons we continue to see the same dismal statistics year after year, is (because of) the double standards women lawyers are still held to,” Liebenberg said. “Women always face the Goldilocks dilemma of having to act just right.” In order to disrupt this paradigm, Liebenberg said, “We must think more creatively, act boldly and speak out whenever women lawyers are treated unfairly.” She suggested that law firms implement meaningful structural change that hold leaders accountable if targets are not met; and to recognize there are qualified women lawyers who can serve as first chair on trials, leads at deals, or directors on corporate boards. “We must ensure there’s critical mass of senior women in leadership, which will send a powerful message to young women that they can too climb the ladder of success,” Liebenberg said. She also invited men to step up for the women lawyers with whom they work. “Working together, we can create a profession in which all of us have an equal opportunity to realize our goals, our aspirations and our dreams,” Liebenberg said. She has worked throughout her career to help other women advance and succeed, including taking an active role in leadership posts held in several national, state and local organizations devoted to creating a level playing field for women lawyers. Liebenberg serves as chair of DirectWomen, an organization dedicated to increasing the representation of women lawyers on corporate boards. She is a former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Nancy E. O’MalleyAlameda County district attorney, is a nationally recognized expert in issues involving violence against women, sexual assault, interpersonal abuse, human exploitation and trafficking and domestic abuse. Upon accepting her award, O’Malley shared receiving and instilling the values that drive her dedication to public office from her parents. “My parents were great role models. They stood strong in the face of adversity and made contributions to society,” O’Malley said. She said combating human trafficking and surviving cancer at age 23 has sparked her motivation to pursue and take action. “One of my favorite sayings is: ‘if you’re not on the table, you’re on menu.’ It’s true. That fires my desire to be at the table to participate in making the changes in the world, in holding a seat for others,” O’Malley said. Society, she said, is better when women are in leadership. “It takes courageous women to find their seats at the table, to be voices for the voiceless, to create policies that bring us closer to true equality, to protection and empowerment… Onward we have more work to do,” O’Malley said. She was among the first to identify domestic human trafficking as a pervasive problem, one that involved foster children, runaways and other disadvantaged children. She has created numerous innovative and hugely successful programs that have been replicated by other district attorneys’ offices throughout the country. Her impact on women in the profession includes an emphasis on filling the pipeline of women lawyers through the development of programs for college and high school students.

Judith W. Rogerscircuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, helped draft and implement the District of Columbia Home Rule Act (1973) and then served as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia, one of the first female chief lawyers for a jurisdiction. In her acceptance speech, Rogers celebrated mentoring young lawyers as one of the pleasures and accomplishments of her career. “One of the joys I have experienced as a judge is working with the best and brightest of our law school graduates; and then watching them as they make their way in the world personally and professionally,” Rogers said. By recognizing the accomplishments of those she mentored, Rogers stressed the importance of supporting young women and minority lawyers who continue to, at times, face obstacles in advancing in their profession. “Have we reached the time when this is behind us? No,” said Rogers. “Unfortunately a lot remains to be done. But no doubt what they have done in their careers also indicate that progress is being made.” Rogers, who came of age during the civil rights and women’s rights movement, considered herself to be lucky for benefiting from “new worlds being made” for those of her generation. Rogers listed President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” as her sources of inspiration to serve her country, help others, and appreciation for people’s character. “It is my hope that young people today will find a sense of inspiration that has guided my life,” Rogers said. In 1983, Rogers was appointed as an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and five years later was elevated to chief judge, one of the first women to preside as chief judge of a state supreme court. In 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Rogers to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she continues to serve. During her tenure on the bench, Rogers has ensured that her law clerks reflect diversity of gender, ethnic background and sexual orientation. She has received numerous awards throughout her career and recently was appointed to the rules committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference.

Judith A. Scottgeneral counsel at Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and senior partner at James & Hoffman PC, has held key positions in a wide range of labor unions in both the private and public sectors for more than 40 years. Upon receiving her award, Scott addressed the audience by highlighting the values of economic justice that have guided her as labor union lawyer: the right to work, to protection without discrimination, equal pay for equal work, just compensation, ensuring existence worthy of human dignity…and the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests. “Unions are the vehicle in civil society that enable workers to realize a very democratic notion–– collective bargaining over the conditions of their work and the impact of corporate and governmental decisions on their lives,” said Scott. “I have witnessed this in action, especially women workers, women coal miners, truckers and autoworkers who wanted fair pay and paid parental leave.” Sharing a second tenet that has sustained her work as a labor union lawyer, Scott finds inspiration reflected in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. “So when asked in the future what a labor union worker does ... the best answer perhaps is: we help bend the arc,” Scott said. She has served as in-house legal counsel to the United Auto Workers of America, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Mine Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (as its general counsel and one of the first women general counsel to a major international labor union). Since 1997, she has served as general counsel to the SEIU, the largest private sector union in the U.S. Throughout her career, Scott has been at the center of many of the most challenging issues within the labor movement and has given special attention to issues affecting women workers, including pregnancy discrimination and income inequality. She is coauthor of the book, “Organizing and the Law.”

The ABA Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, established in 1991, honors outstanding women lawyers who have achieved professional excellence in their area of specialty and have actively paved the way to success for others. The award is named for Margaret Brent, the first woman lawyer in America.  Brent arrived in the colonies in 1638, and was involved in 124 court cases in more than eight years, winning every case. In 1648, she formally demanded a vote and voice in the Maryland Assembly, which the governor denied. 

Previous winners range from small-firm practitioners in Alabama and Alaska to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Winners are selected on the basis of their professional accomplishments and their role in opening doors for other women lawyers.