Five extraordinary female lawyers were honored for their outstanding professional achievements with the 2023 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. The award, presented during the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver, was established in 1991 to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of female lawyers who have achieved professional excellence within their specialty and paved the way for others.
“The Margaret Brent award reminds us of the reasons we are called to this profession,” then-President Deborah Enix-Ross said. She noted that the award bookends the ABA Thurgood Marshall Award, which was presented during the Annual Meeting to civil rights icon Fred Gray. “We are lawyers to stand in the gap for justice, and these women remind us of the work that has been done and the work that remains to be done.
“These honorees today will inspire generations to come,” Enix-Ross said. “You may not have set out to be a role model … but because of your dreams and because of the work that you’ve done, you have inspired us all.”
ABA President Mary Smith said the Brent award is vital to “charting new paths, urging us to think differently and proving, sometimes, that the impossible is possible.” She congratulated the honorees “for lifting us all up and inspiring us to do the same tomorrow.”
Each of the recipients spoke passionately about their work to eliminate gender bias and discrimination in the legal profession and to uplift the next generation of lawyers, both women and men.
The 2023 Margaret Brent Award honorees are:
Sabrina S. McKenna, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii. Prior to her appointment in 2011, she served as a Hawaii state limited-jurisdiction court judge in 1993 and then a general-jurisdiction court judge in 1995. McKenna also has served as chair of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s Committee on Equality and Access to the Courts, the Committee on Court Interpreters and Language Access and was co-chair of the Chief Justice’s Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. She is a faculty member of the National Judicial College, an honorary adjunct faculty member of the Jindal Global Law School in Delhi, India, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Board of the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School’s Law & Economics Center Judicial Education Program. McKenna earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a law degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law. Click here for a photo of McKenna.
McKenna, who started her career in state court, said state court judges have always been key to justice. “These are critical times with the attacks on our democracy,” she said. “Therefore, it is important that everyone pay attention to who is nominated or elected to serve on state courts. Right now, only 36% of state court judges are women. It is time for equal representation of women in all judgeships,” she said. She encouraged attorneys to consider pursuing a state court judgeship. “You are going to make a difference in the daily lives of the people.”
Melissa Murray, the Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law. Murray teaches courses on constitutional law, family law, criminal law and reproductive rights and justice. Prior to joining the NYU Law faculty, Murray was the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received the law school’s Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction, the Association of American Law School’s Derrick A. Bell Award, and, from March 2016 to June 2017, served as interim dean of the law school. Murray earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia and a law degree at Yale Law School. Click here for a photo of Murray.
Murray, described by her nominators as a “public intellectual” and “modern intellectual,” said much of the success of women in the law profession “depends on the heroism of other women who often labor behind the scenes, caring for our children, aging parents and managing the push and pulls of busy households. Our profession, and indeed our nation’s economy, is literally scaffolded by the often unseen and unaccounted for labor of these women. We all deserve better than a patchwork system that depends on other women’s unpaid or underpaid labor.”
Murray said the work at law schools and the Commission on Women “is not simply about making the profession a more hospitable place for women. It’s about changing what it means to be a leader in the law. …When you transform the legal profession and what it means to be a leader in the law, ultimately you are changing what it means to be a leader in this country.”
Yvette Ostolaza, Management Committee chair at Sidley Austin LLP in Dallas, where she also serves on the executive committee. Her practice includes multidistrict litigation, activist defense, class actions, bankruptcy and arbitration. Ostolaza serves on the board of directors of Lionsgate, and she has served on several nonprofit boards, as well as the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas. She was recently honored by the Hispanic National Bar Association with the Mari Carmen Aponte Award, which recognizes a “Latina lawyer who is the first to break a glass ceiling.” She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami and a law degree at the University of Miami School of Law. Click here for a photo of Ostolaza.
Ostolaza said she would not have been able to attend college without a merit scholarship from her alma mater, the University of Miami. Noting the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, she encouraged “anyone who can support scholarships for first-generation men and women of any color, to lean in. Because if not, we’re not going to be able to compete.”
While honoring Margaret Brent’s remarkable life, Ostolaza said, “I look forward to a time when we no longer need awards for trailblazing women like the women that are here.”
Deborah Willig, founder and managing partner of Willig, Williams & Davidson in Philadelphia. She has practiced labor relations and employment law since 1976. Willig advises and negotiates on behalf of labor unions whose members represent a broad cross section of the labor market, including teachers and public school employees; public health, social services, library and recreation workers; firefighters; Teamsters; musicians; cafeteria workers; and hotel and restaurant employees. Willig has been involved in collective bargaining negotiations between the city of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia and their respective union employees for decades. She also was named the first female chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1992. Willig earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree at Temple University School of Law. Click here for a photo of Willig.
Willig, who grew up in a union family, said, “My family taught me what mattered in life was to try to do the right thing, fix a wrong, solve a problem, end an injustice. I never set out to create a legacy, only to try to do the right thing.”
She said the country “is on the precipice of a revolution — a concerted reaction to the unacceptable practices of an entrenched and intolerable status quo — that was fought by women across the country.
“I believe that revolutions follow a consistent pattern: persist, disrupt, get it done. It is a pattern that is repeated throughout our briefs. It’s how we’ve changed the profession, changed our firms and changed lives. It’s somewhat surprising and, more than a little disappointing, that the pattern must continue,” she said, referring to women’s rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and voting rights that face new challenges today.
Jill Wine-Banks, an MSNBC contributor, author, podcast co-host and former prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice. She also served as general counsel of the U.S. Army, was the first solicitor general of Illinois and first female deputy attorney general and executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Bar Association. She also served in executive positions for Motorola and Maytag, Winning Workplaces and Chicago Public Schools. Wine-Banks is the author of “The Watergate Girl,” and is a member of the board of the Better Government Association. She previously served on the boards of the ACLU, the Veterans Art Museum, Executive Service Corps and Roosevelt University, among others. Wine-Banks earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a law degree at Columbia Law School. Click here for a photo of Wine-Banks.
Wine-Banks said women have come a long way, “but women are still not equal.” She offered four “hard-won” lessons: be aware and acknowledge that discrimination in the law exists; once you see discrimination, act on it, sometimes with direct confrontation; embrace challenges, take calculated risks; and create opportunities for yourself and others.
“Success is when you are the first, but you are not the last.” Wine-Banks said, “Open doors for other women.”
The award is named for Margaret Brent, the first woman to practice law in the United States. She was involved in 124 court cases over eight years and won every case. In 1648, Brent formally demanded a “vote and voice” in the Maryland Assembly, which the governor denied. Click here to watch a video about Margaret Brent’s life.
Previous recipients of the award include U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.