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September 10, 2020

Margaret Brent Awards: 5 women lawyers you should know

The 2020 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards, held virtually on Aug. 27 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, honored five women lawyers who have worked to support others in the legal profession.

“The incomparable women we honor today are the latest role models for our profession to celebrate,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said at the awards ceremony. “Much like the women of 100 years ago who fought for women’s suffrage, you are each a trailblazer and have led the profession by your example. You represent the very best of us.”

The awards, established by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession in 1991, are given in honor of Margaret Brent, recognized as the first female lawyer in North America, who arrived in the colonies in 1638. Brent was involved in 124 court cases in more than eight years and won every one.

Here’s a look at the honorees (click names for video highlights):

Ruthe Catolico Ashley, Sacramento, California

Ashley is the executive director emeritus at California LAW, an organization that aims to diversify California’s legal profession by creating a pipeline of students from high schools, community colleges, undergraduate institutions and law schools into law or law-related careers. She previously served as the president and CEO of California ALL, another organization that seeks to diversify the legal profession through the educational pipeline.

In 2014, Ashley became the first Filipina and second Asian Pacific American woman elected to the ABA Board of Governors. The former chair of the State Bar of California Diversity Pipeline Task Force, Ashley helped create the task force’s Council on Access and Fairness. She graduated from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law when she was 41, after a successful career in nursing.

“We all have an opportunity and responsibility to be part of the solution, to challenge systemic racism and social injustice head on,” Ashley said. “Receiving and accepting the Margaret Brent award places a real responsibility to make a difference. … We could all be social justice warriors.”

Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Washington, D.C.

Blackburne-Rigsby became chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in March 2017 and chairs the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration in the District of Columbia. She was nominated to serve as an associate judge on the appellate court in 2006 and previously served for more than a decade as an associate judge and magistrate judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Blackburne-Rigsby is a member of the Conference of Chief Justices and served on its board of directors. She also co-chairs its Committee on Public Engagement, Trust and Confidence. She is a past president of the National Association of Women Judges and former chair of the International Association of Women Judges’ Board of Managerial Trustees. Blackburne-Rigsby is a graduate of the Howard University School of Law.

“We’re experiencing a time where protests surrounding racial injustice and inequalities in our society are taking place in this country and around the world,” Blackburne-Rigsby said. “The inequalities that the protesters are speaking out against are rooted in the unfortunate history of legalized discrimination in this country. As judges and as lawyers, I believe that it is imperative that we examine our role and step up and take a leadership role in ensuring fairness, equality and equal justice under law for all.”   

Deborah Epstein, Washington, D.C.

Epstein is a law professor and co-director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic. She joined the faculty as a visiting professor in 1993 and has since spent decades representing hundreds of women in civil protection order cases and training students to advocate for the rights of survivors of domestic violence.

She co-chaired the District of Columbia Superior Court’s design and implementation of its Domestic Violence Division, a model effort to integrate civil and criminal cases involving intimate abuse. She also served as co-director of the court’s Domestic Violence Intake Center. Epstein has served as chair of Washington, D.C.’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board and as a member of the NFL Players Association Commission on Violence Prevention. She graduated from the New York University School of Law.

“Lawyers who work to prevent violence against women find ourselves in one of the most complex spaces within this conversation” about police reform, Epstein said. “It’s time for lawyers and those in the domestic violence advocacy community like me, who long ago aligned themselves with the criminal justice system, to pivot and find common ground with those who have long seen the need to limit — rather than expand — the power of the police.”

Wendi Lazar, New York City

Lazar is a partner and employment lawyer in the New York office of Outten & Golden. She co-heads her firm’s Individual Practice and Executives and Professionals Practice Group and focuses on executive agreements, including retention, expatriate and non-competition arrangements. She also represents executives, founders and partners as they transition during sales, mergers and acquisitions, and other transactions.

Lazar served on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and chaired its Sexual Harassment and Gender-based Bullying Committee. She served as editor-in-chief of “Zero Tolerance: Best Practices for Combating Sex-Based Harassment in the Legal Profession,” a manual published in 2018. She is also a former employee co-chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section’s International Labor and Employment Law Committee. Lazar is a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

“We have a moral imperative as lawyers, not because this is how we make our living but because we are the keepers of the gate and society looks to us for truth and guidance,” Lazar said. “We have a chance in 2020 to end the year with a different story, to change the dynamic and reimagine America. As lawyers, we have the power, the skills and the voices — all we need to do is act.”

Regina Montoya, Dallas

Montoya is the CEO and chairperson of Regina T. Montoya, where she focuses on health law. She previously served as senior vice president, external relations and general counsel at Children’s Medical Center Dallas and as CEO of New America Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the economic development of the American Latino community. She was also the assistant to the president and director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House and a U.S. representative to the 53rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Montoya is a past vice chair of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s board of directors and past chair of the Dallas mayor’s task force on poverty. She is also a past chair of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund board of directors. She is an alumna of Harvard Law School.

“During these tumultuous times, each one of us needs to stand even taller and be giants for those who follow us. … We need to double down for those who have no voice, who feel they have no hope,” Montoya said. “We must continue to fight for those who have suffered injustice, and we need to create a system of justice that supports and encourages an inclusive society.”

View a video about Margaret Brent’s life, and read the list of past Brent honorees.