The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession recognized five women lawyers with its 2017 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award during a luncheon ceremony on Sunday, Aug.13, at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York.
Margaret Brent Award recipients (left to right) Nadine Strossen, Nancy Duff Campbell, Bernice Bouie Donald, Lauren Stiller Rikleen and Lynn Nakamoto
In opening remarks, ABA President Linda Klein, a past recipient of the Margaret Brent Award, said her years of attending the Brent luncheon shaped her as a leader. “Every speech I give, every message I deliver has a little bit of that fighting spirit of Margaret Brent,” Klein said. “The spirit that refuses to accept the status quo.”
Klein made a call to action to do more to achieve gender equity, telling the sold-out audience at the New York Hilton Midtown: “We know the problems, we have the power, we have the talent in this room to bring about women’s equality. We are the lawyers and that’s what we do, so now let’s go do it.”
Watch video of awardees' acceptance speeches:
Hilarie Bass, ABA president-elect and co-president of Greenberg Traurig, echoed the need to advance women in the legal profession by announcing the creation of a new ABA program that during her presidency will focus on answering where are all the senior women lawyers are going.
“What we know [from recent statistics and studies] is that women are leaving the profession in their 40s and 50s, just at the point in time when they should be at the height of the success of their careers,” Bass said. “They have the greatest level of experience, the greatest level of expertise, the greatest value to their law firms and to their clients; and yet they are choosing to leave. Nothing could be more important than to understanding why they are leaving and what we can do to make sure that we keep them.”
The honorees are (click on each name to see their profile video and their acceptance speech):
Nancy Duff Campbell is co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. She has participated for more than 45 years in the development and implementation of key legislative initiatives and litigation protecting women’s rights, with an emphasis on issues affecting low-income women and their families.
In accepting the award, Campbell said her childhood shaped her view of the law. “I believed that the law could be one of the most powerful agents of social change,” she said. “I’ve never wavered in that belief, and I never thought it more important to use the law to protect one’s rights and provide new legal protections than I do today.”
Campbell has served as counsel in landmark litigation expanding women’s opportunities and has been a leader in securing significant legislation for women and their families. She said she learned early in her career that the law and lawyers can’t achieve change on their own.
“In the three important social and economic movements in which I have participated –– the civil rights movement, the poverty rights movement and women’s rights movement –– the most lasting change has been achieved when the individuals most affected by injustice speak up and speak out against it, and work with lawyers in partnership to achieve and remedy that injustice,” Campbell said.
She has been instrumental in recruiting highly qualified women lawyers for positions in the federal government and has worked to ensure greater diversity in high government ranks. With a nod to the key role of women, Campbell said: “Together we rise, together we make our voices heard, and together we guarantee that most fundamental right, equality for all.”
Bernice Donald, circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, is the first African-American to serve on the Sixth Circuit. She is also the first African-American female jurist on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, the first African-American woman bankruptcy judge in the U.S. and was the first African-American female judge in Tennessee when elected in 1982. Donald served as president of the National Association of Women Judges, where she developed a curriculum to teach women how to position themselves for election in states or how to develop as lawyers to be qualified candidates for appointment to judgeships.
While the accomplishments have been many, Donald cautioned in her acceptance speech, “We can never afford to quit. Quitting is not an option.”
She shared her memories of growing up during the era of segregation and said that the experiences affected her profoundly and gave her an appreciation for the law. “Laws can be powerful. Law can be just. But laws don’t have hands, eyes, legs and a heart,’’ she said. “Only we can make the law real and only we can make the law applicable. We become its limbs and its organs, and we make the law equal for all people.”
Donald has worked tirelessly to mentor women and provide opportunities for and advance the careers of women and particularly women of color in the legal profession, including taking an active role in leadership positions in numerous legal organizations. She credited much of her success to the values imparted by her parents.
“My father taught me to be a risk-taker; he taught me courage; and he taught me to stand,” Donald said, adding that her mother gave her the foundation on which everything else rested.
“She told me you are not responsible for your circumstances or for your existence, but you are entirely responsible for your dreams, and always dream big,” Donald said. “She taught me not to fear standing alone, if standing alone was the right thing to do.”
Lynn Nakamoto, Oregon Supreme Court justice, is a long-standing trailblazer in the Asian Pacific American community. In 2016, she became the first Asian Pacific American to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court. Five years earlier, she became the first Asian Pacific American to serve as a judge on any Oregon state or federal appellate court. She started her career as one of the first Asian Pacific American women litigators in Oregon and was the first Asian Pacific American female managing partner at a Portland, Ore., law firm.
In her acceptance speech, Nakamoto recognized the importance of women helping other women.
“I am a part of a legacy of women supporting women, a legacy that embodies the highest ideals of the Margaret Brent Award,” Nakamoto said. “Throughout my professional life, women have selflessly shared the knowledge and hard-learned lessons they have guarded from lifetimes in practice of law.”
Nakamoto pledged her commitment to continue that legacy, saying: “I have tried and will continue to try to do the same for other women, for people of color, indeed for anyone who can benefit from the sense of community and change that we as women can bring to this profession.”
She is an advocate and mentor to many young women and Asian Pacific American lawyers and is a founding member of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association. She has received numerous awards throughout her career for her contributions to the Asian Pacific American legal community, including the Daniel K. Inouye NAPABA Trailblazer Award in 2013.
In closing, Nakamoto spoke of how women acting as a community can incite change. “We as women lawyers working together can facilitate change, whether big or small throughout the profession,” Nakamoto said. “Let each of us in the animating spirit of the Margaret Brent award, be ever watchful of the unique opportunities that come our way to help in that endeavor.”
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Strategic Leadership in Wayland, Mass., is a nationally recognized expert on developing a thriving, diverse and multigenerational workforce. She has written several books, including “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law” and “Power of the Purse: How General Counsel Can Impact Pay Equity for Women Lawyers.”
Rikleen encouraged the audience to advocate for a workplace in which women and men can flexibly manage work-life responsibilities and succeed without stigma for doing so.
“To truly create a profession where women are paid in parity to their male colleagues and have access to the same advancement and leadership opportunities, we must demand more of each other and our leaders,” Rikleen said. “For far too long our workplaces have mostly focused on easier steps that only nibbled at the margins of change, … If we truly want to see significant progress, we must bury the myth that our profession is a meritocracy unaffected by the privileges of our life experiences.”
Following a successful practice in environmental law, Rikleen founded the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership in 2011 and joined the Boston College Center for Work & Family as a visiting scholar. Throughout her career, Rikleen has championed gender equity and gender pay equity in the legal profession, worked to advance women lawyers into leadership positions and minimize the impact of unconscious bias, and fought to remove barriers to women’s success in the legal profession.
“If you truly want to see significant progress, we must commit to tracking non-financial metrics, rewarding leaders whose metrics improve and holding accountable those whose do not,” she said. “We must adopt training and systems that prevent our unconscious biases from impacting assignment, elevation, and compensation decisions. Talent development and leadership are not soft skills, they are how good organizations survive.”
Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II professor of Law at the New York Law School, has practiced, written and lectured extensively in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties, women’s rights, and international human rights for more than 40 years. She is widely known as a First Amendment scholar and an advocate for the freedoms of religion, conscience and speech.
In her acceptance speech, Strossen stressed the need to recognize freedom of speech as the most important tool for ongoing efforts to promote women’s equality.
“Too many people, including young people, oppose freedom for views they consider offensive,” she said. “I am so sorry that there is much less support for diversity in terms of ideas. Too many social justice activists don’t realize that robust freedom of speech is our greatest ally, and censorship is our greatest foe.”
From 1991-2008, she served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first woman to head the organization. Strossen has made countless presentations at campuses around the country to motivate and inspire young women, conveying to them the importance of breaking into a male-dominated profession and working for public interest causes. Through her guidance and outreach as a professor at New York Law School since 1988, many of her former students and research assistants have secured positions within the legal profession, including civil liberties and human rights organizations. Strossen urged a strong push-back against hate and discrimination and encouraged the audience to become First Amendment right advocates “not by empowering government to censor any idea, but rather by empowering all of us to engage in dialogue and debate.”
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 for their professional accomplishments and their role in opening doors for other women lawyers.