Portraits 11-22: Women at CLS

22 Portraits of Women at Columbia Law School: 11-22


The Honorable Constance Baker Motley '46

Constance Baker Motley's curriculum vitae reads like a history of the modern civil rights movement. The ninth of 12 children born to West Indian immigrants, she took a job after high school at the National Youth Administration, a federal Depression-era "make work" project comparable to the WPA, because she could not afford college. However, a local businessman offered to send her after hearing a speech she gave. She earned a B.A. from New York University and, after graduating from the Law School, was hired by Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

During a 20-year career, Judge Motley won nine of the 10 cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The many legal victories included the landmark desegregation case that gained James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi (the danger of such work was made clear when her colleague in the case, Medgar Evers, was murdered). Her intellect and legal acumen were fundamental to many civil rights victories won by more visible leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she once counseled in a 4-by-6 jail cell in rural Georgia.

In the early 1960s, she served as a New York state senator and as Manhattan borough president, the first African-American woman to hold either office. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the bench of the Southern District of New York, thereby making her the first black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship. She became, by seniority, chief judge in 1982 and senior judge four years later. Two years ago, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton. In announcing the awards, the White House said, "As a dedicated public servant and distinguished judge, she has broken down political, social, and professional barriers, and her pursuit of equal justice under law widened the circle of opportunity in America."

Harriet F. Pilpel '36

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, Harriet Pilpel went on to earn a master's degree in international relations and public law at Columbia in 1933 before graduating second in her Law School class in 1936. The job market was poor, and many female graduates were unable to find work in their field, yet Ms. Pilpel was hired as an associate with Greenbaum, Wolf & Ernst (her first choice). She remained in private practice throughout her career, and her expertise was in areas as diverse as copyright, civil liberties, and marriage and family law. Her book, Your Marriage and the Law (1952), was a pioneering effort when the practice of matrimonial law was on the brink of widespread change.

Yet it is Ms. Pilpel's work as an outspoken supporter of reproductive freedoms for which she is best known. As general counsel for the Planned Parenthood Federation, she was active in the campaign for the decriminalization of abortion that culminated in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In 1980, she received the Law School's Medal for Excellence (the first woman to gain the honor). The citation stated: "She participated in and helped guide major constitutional litigation that has changed the way Americans live and think, from the first constitutional challenge to restrictions on birth control in the 1940s through the successful establishment of the constitutional rights of privacy in more recent birth control and abortion cases."

Harriet Rabb '66

Harriet Rabb became the first woman dean in the history of the Law School when she was named assistant dean for urban affairs in 1972. In this position, she oversaw the School's urban affairs and clinical legal education programs. For the next two decades, she played an important role in developing the Law School's clinical program into one of the finest in the country.

Prior to her academic career, Ms. Rabb worked in the areas of civil rights and public interest law. Through her work with the Employment Rights Project, a clinical program at Columbia, she handled a series of cases which, in the words of one client, "made a lot of the initial law in the sex discrimination area." She followed that work by founding or co-founding other clinics at Columbia, among them Immigration Law and Fair Housing. In 1991, she was named the first George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and, in 1992, added the title of vice dean of the law faculty.

In 1993, Ms. Rabb took a leave of absence to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Donna Shalala, with responsibility for more than 500 lawyers in headquarters and in 10 regional offices. She is currently the vice president and general counsel to the Rockefeller University and has served on a number of boards, among them the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Human Rights Watch, and the Ford Foundation. In 1998, she was the recipient of the Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility. Her willingness to move into new territories of the law has been a hallmark of her career. "It would have been comfortable to stay in the same area," she said in 1980 as she began the Immigration Clinic, "but comfort is not what I'm looking for in the law. Service is."

The Honorable Elreta M. Alexander-Ralston '45

Born in Smithfield, N.C., to a minister who forbade his children to ride segregated buses, Judge Elreta Alexander-Ralston acquired early the determination and the remarkable color blindness that distinguished her career. Though graduating from the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College with a degree in music, she knew that she was interested in law. By 1945, she had her law degree from Columbia and was practicing as a criminal defense lawyer in her home state, thus obtaining the honors of being the first black woman to graduate from the Law School and the first black female lawyer in North Carolina's history.

But being first at anything wasn't her goal; she just wanted to be a good lawyer and judge-and that she was. In 1968, she was elected district court judge for Guilford County, a position she held until 1981. After leaving the bench, she formed Alexander-Ralston, Speckhard & Speckhard.

Judge Alexander-Ralston will be best remembered for her compassion and candor on the bench. She became known as ‘Judge A' and was a pioneer in first-offender programs and in developing community service long before it became popular. She also earned a reputation as the originator of something she called ‘judgment day,' in which first-time youthful offenders would be called back to her court several weeks after their trial. If the juvenile had stayed out of trouble, the charges against him would be dismissed. One day, a white woman whose daughter had run away from home appeared in her court. The mother approached the bench and whispered, "The worst thing is that the girl's running around with colored boys," to which Judge Alexander-Ralston responded, "Darling, have you looked at your judge?"

Laraine Rothenberg '71

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Law School, Laraine Rothenberg is chair of the employee benefits and plans, executive compensation, and exempt organizations department and also a tax partner at the New York office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. She advises compensation committees, corporations, and chief executive officers and other senior management on employment agreements, severance protection agreements, compensatory equity participation arrangements, and benefit plans. She also advises clients in connection with corporate transactions and investment vehicles used by ERISA plans in collaboration with the firm's mergers and acquisitions and asset management practices. She has written extensively in her areas of expertise, with her work appearing in publications such as the NYU Institute of Federal Taxation: Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation, the Tax Management International Journal, and Tax Management Portfolios.

Ms. Rothenberg is also active outside her practice, serving on the board of directors of the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds, the Pig Iron Theatre Company, and the Law School's Board of Visitors. In 1996, she founded and became first chairwoman of the Alumnae of Columbia Law School, created to support and enhance the professional development of the women of the Law School. The group has encouraged alumnae participation in a variety of school activities and activities affiliated with leaders of law firms, corporations, and public interest groups.

Ms. Rothenberg was also instrumental in Columbia's participation in a 2001 survey by Catalyst titled "Women in Law: Making the Case." This important survey was aimed at uncovering differences and similarities between the experience of male and female law graduates - their treatment at firms, their opportunities for advancement, and their ability to balance personal and professional lives.

Ms. Rothenberg has stepped down as chairwoman of the Alumnae, but she hasn't stopped playing an important role at the Law School. She is chair of the committee formed to permanently endow the Barbara A. Black Professorship and continues to support the Barbara Black Lecture series, which brings prominent women to the Law School.

Nina Shaw '79

Nina Shaw is a highly successful entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles whose firm, Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka & Finkelstein, includes a wide range of African-American clients, such as James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Montel Williams, Sinbad, and Jamie Foxx. A native of New York City, Ms. Shaw graduated from Barnard in 1976. After earning her law degree, she moved to Los Angeles and quickly found work in the entertainment departments of some of the city's most respected firms. Her initial client base consisted of young writers, though she soon broadened that base to include clients in all facets of the entertainment business, from movies to television to theater. Her current firm, of which she is a founding partner, opened its doors in 1989.

Ms. Shaw is a member of the Black Women Lawyers Association and serves on the board of trustees of Barnard College. She served on the Law School's Board of Visitors from 1998-2000 and is a member of the Barbara A. Black Professorship Committee, as well as the West Coast Advisory Board to the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts. In April, she received the Columbia Black Law Students Association 2002 Distinguished Alumna/us Award.

The Honorable Felice K. Shea '50

Felice Shea graduated from Swarthmore College and Columbia Law School, where she began her career assisting Professor Jack Weinstein '48. In 1963, she joined the Harlem Branch of the Legal Aid Society as a staff attorney and later became assistant attorney-in-charge. For 11 years, she ensured that clients received quality legal representation. After retirement, Justice Shea returned to Legal Aid as a volunteer in the Juvenile Rights Division.

In 1974, Justice Shea was elected a judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York. She was an acting family court judge for one year and an acting supreme court justice for six years. In 1982, she was elected a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. In her 25 years on the bench, she tried every kind of civil and criminal case, published scholarly opinions, and demonstrated a mastery of the law and a humanitarian spirit. She earned special distinction between 1985-90 when she sat by designation of Governor Mario Cuomo as presiding justice of the Extraordinary Special and Trial Term of the Supreme Court of the City of New York. In this position, she tried and supervised cases of corruption within the criminal justice system, including 13 involving police officers in Brooklyn's 77th Precinct.

Justice Shea's life off the bench has been dedicated to public service. She served for 10 years on the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct and for 19 years on Community Planning Board 8. Currently, she is a trustee of Montefiore Medical Center and a member of the board of directors of the Correctional Association of New York. She was the first woman president of the Law School Association from 1984-86 and is now on the Board of Visitors. In 1986, she received Columbia University's Alumni Federation Medal for Conspicuous Alumni Service and the Law School's Medal for Excellence in 2000.

Margaret Spahr '29

The first woman to graduate from Columbia Law School and the first woman to serve on the editorial board of the Columbia Law Review, Margaret Spahr was an outspoken advocate of women's rights who distinguished herself in an academic career spanning four decades. Born in New York, she graduated from Smith College in 1914 and taught history and government at Lindenwood College in Missouri, at the time the only four-year college for women west of the Mississippi. Returning to New York, she joined the faculty at Hunter College and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in political science at Columbia. She completed her Ph.D. in public law in 1926 and published her dissertation, The Supreme Court on the Incidence and effects of Taxation - An Analysis of Economic Theory Embedded in the Constitutional Law Derived from the Explicit Tax Causes, in the Smith College Studies in History series. Yet she persisted in pursuing the degree in law that eluded her, and when the Columbia faculty agreed to admit women after years of pressure to do so, Prof. Spahr was accepted, despite the fact that she had not attended Barnard. (The fact that she had attended a summer session at Columbia and done law work at New York University gave her "points," in the eyes of the admissions committee.)

The author of Readings in Recent Political Philosophy (Macmillan: 1935) and numerous articles on constitutional law and the rights of women, she taught at Hunter College for 33 years, retiring as professor emeritus in 1959. She spent the final years of her life in Northampton, Mass., where she audited classes at Smith, served as president of the local League of Women Voters, and published This Is Northampton, a handbook on city government.

Edith Spivack '32

In 1932, when Edith Spivack graduated from the Law School, jobs were scarce, and graduates were still required to serve a six-month clerkship before applying to the Character Committee for approval and admission to the bar. After an exhaustive search led to a rare alumnus willing to "take a risk" with a female clerk, Ms. Spivack completed her clerkship and in 1933 appeared before the committee, where the first question was, "Are you a secretary?"

Her later marriage to Bernard Goldstein '30 cost her the job when she found that her employer's "broad-minded thinking" did not extend to married women whose place, he believed, was in the home. Her determined attitude, which included observing in New York courtrooms, "so that I would not lose the legal knowledge that I had worked hard to get," ultimately paid off when she volunteered in the Workmen's Compensation Division in the New York City Corporation Counsel's office. Three months later, she was offered a paying job as an assistant in the Corporation Counsel's office of the LaGuardia administration.

Nine mayors and 23 corporation counsels later, she's still there. In a career that has spanned 68 years, Ms. Spivack has worked in the Real Estate Tax Division as the attorney in charge of the certiorari, the Condemnation and Commercial Tax divisions, and later as executive assistant corporation counsel. Her negotiated tax settlements with such companies as Penn Central Railroad and Consolidated Edison brought billions of dollars into the coffers of the city.

Her devotion to the profession also included service on numerous bar committees. She was the first chair of the New York County Lawyers' Association Women's Rights Committee, which has established an annual award in her name to honor her pioneering efforts on behalf of women in the field of law. In August, she was awarded the Law School's Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility.

Judith R. Thoyer '65

After attending the Law School on a full scholarship, graduating summa cum laude, and being an editor of the Law Review, Judith R. Thoyer joined the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in 1966. She became a partner on January 1, 1975. Since then she has continued to shine in the field of corporate law, serving as a member of Paul Weiss's Management Committee and as co-head of the firm's Mergers and Acquisitions Group. She also has given many seminars on corporate law at the Practicing Law Institute.

But as her professional credits were mounting, Ms. Thoyer was also working for the advancement of other women. The same year she was made partner at Paul Weiss, she joined the board of directors for the Women's Action Alliance, founded by Gloria Steinem, and served on the board through 1989. She served as pro bono counsel even after stepping down from the board. She is a founding member of the Alumnae of Columbia Law School and a member of the Board of Visitors. She and her husband, Michael Thoyer '63 LL.M., were both on the law faculty of the University of Ghana in 1963-64 - she as law librarian, he as lecturer - and both are founders of the Friends of the University of Ghana, a not-for-profit organization devoted to advancing and promoting the university.

Judith P. Vladeck '47

A pioneer in the field of labor and employment rights for women, Judith Vladeck graduated from Columbia in an era when the placement office didn't send women on job interviews. "I went to work for the only law firm that would hire me," she says. She had children, kept her hand in the law, and eventually became a partner with Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, which specialized in union labor and civil liberties law. These areas of emphasis expanded as the late 1960s and 70s brought groundbreaking suits involving race and sex discrimination. As one of only a few female labor lawyers, she was lead counsel for a series of lawsuits seeking access and equal opportunity for women. One such case, decided by the New York Court of Appeals in 1975, involved a woman professor whose "troublesome" behavior in challenging the system was cited by the college that refused her tenure. In its unanimous opinion the court ruled that: "What [she] did would not have been troublesome if she had not been a woman. It often happens that those who are not supine and fight for their rights will be regarded as troublesome."

Since then, Ms. Vladeck has represented numerous plaintiffs in sex, race, and age discrimination cases in individual and class actions. An early sex discrimination case against Western Electric began with the first female professional hired by the company as the named plaintiff and eventually became a class action suit involving thousands of women. Ms. Vladeck's court victory resulted in widespread changes throughout the Bell system. She has also taught at Fordham Law School and at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Mary Jo White '74

When Mary Jo White retired as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York earlier this year, she left behind a legacy of prosecutorial integrity and a reputation for the dogged pursuit of justice. Ms. White began her career as a clerk for Judge Marvin Frankel '48 in the S.D.N.Y. After serving as prosecutor and chief of appeals in that same office, she joined Debevoise & Plimpton as a litigation partner in 1981. Nine years later, she was appointed interim U.S. attorney and chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Here, she oversaw numerous important cases, among them the conviction and life imprisonment of Mafia boss John Gotti on murder and racketeering charges.

In 1993, she was appointed U.S. attorney for the S.D.N.Y., recognized as the premier federal attorney's office in the country. During her tenure, Ms. White and her team of more than 200 attorneys prosecuted and won convictions of the men charged with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the four men involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. She handed down indictments for Osama bin Laden and members of the Al-Qaeda network for conspiracies to commit acts of terrorism against the United States before the September 11th attacks and won a landmark case against Daiwa Bank on charges of government and securities bank fraud with an unprecedented criminal fine of $340 million. She also brought civil RICO actions against several of the nation's largest unions to rid them of the influence of organized crime. One colleague described Ms. White, who received the Law School's Medal for Excellence in 1998, as having "the courage of her convictions. She's someone you want to go into the foxhole with you." As she moves into the next phase of her career, Ms. White has rejoined her former firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, as a partner and chair of its litigation group.