Susan B. Lindenauer

The Change Agent

Throughout the course of a successful career in public interest law, Susan B. Lindenauer '64 has improved countless lives as a devoted advocate and mentor

By Seth Stevenson

Spring 2014

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When Susan B. Lindenauer ’64 entered Columbia Law School in the fall of 1961, having recently graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, she was one of only 11 women in a class of 280. There were no female professors teaching at the Law School, and the number of female lawyers in the United States was remarkably small—accounting for less than 2 percent of the profession. When she applied to law firms after graduation, Lindenauer says she became accustomed to receiving the same stock response: “With your record, we would make you an offer on the spot—if you were a man.”

Lindenauer refused to be disheartened or to question her abilities. She likes to quote Robert Frost when she describes the career that she built after receiving those disappointing rejections: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”

After a brief but educational apprenticeship at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Lindenauer secured a staff attorney job doing a variety of trial, appellate, and legislative work at The Legal Aid Society in New York City. “My aspiration when I entered law school was to be a change agent,” she says, “and I saw the late ’60s as an opportune time to participate in change through the practice of poverty law.”

At Legal Aid, Lindenauer fought on behalf of clients who were poor, underprivileged, and usually female, helping them to deal with faceless bureaucracies, nasty landlords, and endemic gender discrimination. She bolstered the rights of parents seeking to regain custody of their children from the foster care system, and helped shift domestic violence cases involving couples with children under the family law umbrella, where they could be better handled. A 1976 case saw Lindenauer aiding the successful effort to grant pregnant women disability benefits under New York state law.

By the late 1970s, Lindenauer had become general counsel at The Legal Aid Society. She continued to serve there until her retirement, undertaking a variety of legal and administrative duties and functioning as “an ethical backstop” for the thousand-odd lawyers at the nonprofit organization. “Susan has been a fervent advocate for women and minorities in the legal profession,” says Seymour James, the attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice at The Legal Aid Society. “She’s a pleasure to work with, very supportive, and very knowledgeable on a wide range of legal issues.”

Over the years, Lindenauer has amassed a mountain of accolades for her work. She has taken on multiple leadership roles at the New York State Bar Association, and her relationship with Columbia Law School has only strengthened since graduation. She is a trusted adviser to deans, serves on the Board of Visitors, and is a recipient of the Law School’s Medal for Excellence. As president of the Columbia Law School Association, Lindenauer initiated an oral history project in the early 1990s that preserved the memories of female graduates of the 1930s and ’40s. In 2002, she chaired the 75th anniversary celebration that recognized the admission of the first woman to Columbia Law School.

In retirement, Lindenauer has made it a priority to devote a significant portion of her free time to mentoring women who are beginning their careers. She is a board member of Legal Momentum, a legal defense and educational fund for women. In addition, Lindenauer serves on the board of the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund, which helps low-income individuals obtain civil legal services, and as co-chair of a statewide task force on the family court.

Her convictions about social justice, she notes, were ingrained at a young age. “By the time Brown v. Board of Education was decided,” Lindenauer says, “I looked at it and said, ‘If that’s what lawyers do, I want to be a lawyer.’”

Seth Stevenson has written for Slate and The New Republic, among other publications.

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Photographed by Fabrice Trombert