August 11, 2019

ABA bestows Brent Award on 5 notable California women lawyers

Five inspiring women from California were honored Aug. 11 at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco with the 2019 ABA Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.

2019 Margaret Brent Award recipients (left to right): Hon. Judith McConnell, Julie A. Su, Raquel Aldana, Michelle Banks and Kelly M. Dermody

2019 Margaret Brent Award recipients (left to right): Hon. Judith McConnell, Julie A. Su, Raquel Aldana, Michelle Banks and Kelly M. Dermody

“We honor a distinguished group of women lawyers who have excelled and have paved the way to success for other lawyers,” ABA President Bob Carlson told a luncheon audience of more than 600 people. “Your accomplishments as leaders in the legal profession is one that has taken us to new heights and has inspired us to do better. Thank you for doing what you’ve done, but more importantly, thank you for what you are going to do in the future.”

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 paved the way for others. It is sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

The five honorees “shine brightly as examples of what true devotion to the advancement of women in our profession looks like,” ABA President-elect Judy Perry Martinez said. “This work matters. Your efforts are noticed. What you do moves the needle.”

In their acceptance speeches, the five honorees praised colleagues and mentors who helped advance women to the highest levels of the profession and played important roles in the pursuit of justice.

Click on each recipient's name to see video of their acceptance speech.

Raquel Aldana came to the United States from El Salvador as a child and became a legal champion for the rights of immigrants and creating more just nations in Central America. “Like Margaret Brent, I stand before you as an immigrant to this great nation,” she said. “I dedicate this award to the heroic women lawyers who fight mightily for the rights of immigrants in the United States.” Aldana is a law professor and associate vice chancellor for academic diversity at the University of California, Davis. Previously, she was a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala. As a law professor, she started several programs centered around intercultural understanding and instituted service-learning initiatives to provide legal services to immigrants. At UC Davis, Aldana began a symposium between the nursing school, medical school and law school, seeking mental health solutions for California’s refugee population, and works with first-generation female Latinx law students.

Michelle Banks issued a challenge to the men in the audience. She talked about her time as the first female lawyer in a large Japanese company in Tokyo, and the male mentor who made it happen. “I frequently hear and read now, particularly in light of the MeToo movement, that men are avoiding women in the workplace,” she said. “I challenge the men in this room to do the opposite. It is really important – it is absolutely essential – that we have men championing women individually and the rights of women generally.” Banks is senior adviser at BarkerGilmore in San Francisco, an executive search firm that provides executive coaching to general counsels. She is co-founder and co-chair of UCLA Law Women LEAD, a network of almost 2,000 women law students and alumnae at her alma mater. She is also a board member of DirectWomen, a nonprofit that prepares female lawyers to serve on corporate boards of directors. Banks was the first female legal counsel for the Golden State Warriors before becoming general counsel of Gap Inc. She has been recognized as a “Legend in Law” by the Burton Foundation and a “Distinguished General Counsel” by the Directors Roundtable. UCLA Law School named her its Alumna of the Year for Professional Achievement in 2016.

Kelly M. Dermody urged the audience to confront the lack of racial diversity in the legal profession and “the deep-seated bigotry rocking our country now.” She said the nation has “not yet engaged in an honest reckoning with white supremacy – historical or ongoing – or our own participation or complicity in systems of oppression.” Dermody is managing partner of the San Francisco office of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein. She is a nationally recognized advocate in the areas of pay equity, MeToo and diversity and inclusion. She has prosecuted many cases challenging unfair hiring, promotion, compensation and performance systems. Dermody is former president of the Bar Association of San Francisco and is a past member of the ABA Labor and Employment Law Section governing council, where she also previously served as co-chair of the section’s annual conference, Committee on Diversity in the Legal Profession and Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. She has been honored by the National Association of Women Judges, the Anti-Defamation League and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, among others.

Justice Judith McConnell noted increased attacks on the judiciary in the past decade, “often because of unpopular decisions.” She said many Americans are “surprisingly ignorant” of the fact that there are three branches of government, and she urged everyone in the audience to “do what we can to preserve our constitutional system. We need to ensure that all members of our community, including our children, appreciate and support the democracy we love.” McConnell is presiding justice of the Fourth District, Division 1 of the California Courts of Appeal. She was appointed to the court in 2001, served as administrative presiding justice of the Fourth Appellate District since 2003 and served 23 years as a trial judge in San Diego. In 1970, McConnell was a founding member of the San Diego chapter of the National Organization for Women, and was a founder and first president of the Lawyers Club of San Diego. She is former president of the National Association of Women Judges and chaired the California State Senate Task Force on Family Equity, where she was outspoken on the gender bias interactions of daily courtroom life. In 2001, McConnell was named Jurist of the Year by the California Judicial Council. She is also a member of the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame.

Julie Su is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who became a nationally recognized expert on workers’ rights and civil rights. Like many children of immigrants, she said, she grew up translating for her parents. “As I grew up,” she said, “I realized that law is really a language, and those who speak it get to decide who gets what in our society – who gets to vote, marry, work, march in the streets, cross the borders, and who doesn’t.” She said she became a lawyer “to become a translator of the language of law for those who are marginalized, discriminated against and exploited.” Su was appointed secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency in 2019 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Previously, she was California labor commissioner and is former litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. In 1995, Su was among the lead counsels in a federal lawsuit to hold brand-name garment manufacturers and retailers liable for using slave labor to manufacture their clothing. In 2001, she won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her innovative work as a workers’ rights and civil rights advocate.

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.