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Five inspiring women lawyers honored Aug. 5 at the ABA Annual Meeting with the 2018 ABA Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award were lauded as pioneers supporting the careers of other women lawyers nationally and internationally and serving voices of conscience in a profession still striving to achieve its ideals of full diversity and inclusion in the law.
Margaret Brent Award recipients (left to right: Cynthia Nance, Tina Tchen, Eileen Letts, Consuelo B. Marshall, Patricia Kruse Gillette)
Stephanie Scharf, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, told the audience of more than 500 people at the luncheon event, that the honorees “are wonderfully brave women who not only did something but will continue to do something.”
The ABA Margaret Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, established in 1991, honors outstanding women lawyers who have achieved profession excellent in their area of specialty and have actively paved the way to success for others.
In their acceptance speeches, the honorees praised their colleagues and others who have supported their careers and called for continued work to move more women and diverse lawyers into the highest levels of the profession.
“For years, the legal industry has been trying to fix the women, when in fact the problem is with the system,” said honoree Patricia K. Gillette, saying that law firms and organizations need to be pushed to “look systematically for the problems that are keeping women out.” Gillette was a top-rated employment lawyer and litigator for 40 years before resigning her partnership at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in 2015 to pursue her passion as an author and public speaker. Gillette joined Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, Inc. in September 2016, and now mediates employment-related cases. In 2006, Gillette co-founded the Opt-In Project, a nationwide initiative promoting the retention and advancement of women in the workplace. She has been a member on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA’s Gender Equity Task Force, as well as co-chair of the Bar Association of San Francisco’s No Glass Ceiling Initiative. In recognition of her work to advance women in the profession, Gillette has received several awards, including the ABA Golden Hammer Award, the California Women Lawyers Association’s Fay Stender Award and the Barristers Association of San Francisco Award of Merit
Citing grim statistics on the paucity of women of color as law firm partners, honoree Eileen M. Letts, a partner at Zuber Lawler & Del Duca LLP, added: “We have got to do more.” She also praised the initiative of ABA President Hilarie Bass to probe the phenomenon of experienced women lawyers leaving the profession just as they attain its highest levels. Prior to her private practice, Letts served as assistant corporate counsel for the city of Chicago and as a staff attorney on the Chicago Housing Authority. As a young lawyer, Letts served as chair of the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association, the first African-American to hold the position. She serves on the ABA advisory council for the presidential initiative, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law. During her six years of service to Chicago, Letts represented the city in a number of high-profile cases before joining private practice at Jones Ware & Grenard in the late 1980s. She co-founded Greene and Letts in 1990, and after 26 years, the firm joined forces with Letts’ current firm, Zuber Lawler & Del Duca LLP, gaining a national presence and new capabilities.
Consuelo B. Marshall, senior U.S. district judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, was praised as someone who has “devoted her life to pursuing justice” and thanked the Women’s Commission for the honor of “adding my name to the list of outstanding women who have been recipients of the Margaret Brent Award, on whose shoulders we have all stood.” Marshall began her career as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, the first woman ever hired as a lawyer by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. After joining the private practice firm Cochran & Atkins in Los Angeles during the 1960s, she decided to pursue a career on the bench, serving as a juvenile court commissioner and a judge for the Inglewood, Calif., municipal court, through the late 1970s. Marshall was appointed to the United States District Court for the Central District of California in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. In 2001, she became the first woman to serve as chief judge of the Central District of California. She has served on committees for the Ninth Circuit, the Federal Bar Association and the Association of Business Trial Lawyers. She is also an active member of the International Association of Women Judges and currently serves on the RAND Institute for Civil Justice Board of Overseers and as a board member of Equal Justice Works.
Cynthia E. Nance, director of pro bono and community engagement at the University of Arkansas School of Law, was applauded as a “pioneer” in the law and for her commitment to mentoring young people. She urged the audience to help others achieve their dreams and goals. “If you want to touch the future, touch a life – give back,” she said. In 2006, Nance became the first woman and the first African-American dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, and the first woman law school dean in the state of Arkansas. She is the Eighth Circuit member of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary and represents the ABA Labor and Employment Law Section in the House of Delegates. In 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Nance to the Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Committee and she remains a current member of that group. She has been a scholar-in-residence at University of Iowa College of Law and Washington University School of Law. Her professional work has been published by the Iowa Law Review, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law and many other publications.
Tina M. Tchen thanked the Women’s Commission for its more than 30 years of leadership and advocacy “to advance the cause of women’s rights.” She said laws banning gender discrimination and sexual harassment “are too limited -- they set the bar for unacceptable behavior too low. They’ve allowed toxic workplace cultures to develop, and those cultures have not allowed our workers and lawyers in law firms to work in places where they feel safe [and] supported.” Tchen is a partner at Buckley Sandler in Chicago. Tchen has successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the state of Illinois and has handled complex civil litigation and enforcement matters both in state and federal courts in Illinois and across the country. Prior to joining Buckley Sandler in 2017, Tchen served as an assistant to President Barack Obama, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. She is a leader of Buckley Sandler’s Workplace Cultural Compliance Practice and guides companies in approaching cultural compliance issues.
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 Margaret Brent 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.