CWL's 38th Annual Dinner Dares Attendees to Dream Big and Be Fearless
By Susan Formaker and Kathleen McDowell
Attorneys and judges from throughout the state gathered at California Women Lawyers’ 38th Annual Dinner, which served as the kick-off event for the State Bar Annual Meeting in Monterey on October 11, 2012. In what became the theme for the evening, those in attendance were challenged to pursue their dreams, no matter the challenges or obstacles.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, the keynote speaker, set the tone when she asked the attendees: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” She then asked everyone to ponder what they might accomplish if they stopped fearing failure. Her own life provides some illustrations. Congresswoman Speier has over 29 years of representative public service. Nationally, Congresswoman Speier is known for her efforts on behalf of consumers and taxpayers, of veterans, of women seeking reproductive choice, and of those in the armed forces who have been sexually assaulted or raped while in the line of duty, and she works to eliminate human trafficking. During her tenure in the California State Assembly and State Senate -- where she was the first California legislator to give birth while in office, Congresswoman Speier authored more than 300 bills signed into law by both Republican and Democratic governors, including bills establishing financial privacy, measures that expanded women’s access to reproductive health care, and laws to improve the collection of delinquent child support payments.
Equally compelling is Congresswoman Speier’s personal story. In 1978, while still in her 20’s and when she was a staffer to then-Congressman Leo J. Ryan, she was shot five times while trying to rescue constituents from the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana. As she lay for almost a day without access to medical care and contemplated death, she committed herself to living--assuming she lived--a life of meaning. She faced another tragedy later in life, when her husband was killed in a car accident caused by a driver who ran a red light and broadsided his car. She became a widow -- while raising a five-year-old son and pregnant with her second child. Compounding the tragedy, her husband’s life insurance policy had lapsed shortly before his death. Yet she refused to give in to self-pity and defeat. Congresswoman Speier inspired everyone with her message of living without fear. Indeed, she noted that she had failed and suffered losses: She had lost elections, had been unable to get legislation passed, and had suffered personal challenges that could have been crushing, but she never let the fear of the worst case scenario stop her from pursuing her objectives. As she herself has said, "After you've once looked death in the eye and survived, really, what is there to fear?"
The fearlessness and ability to overcome obstacles demonstrated by Congresswoman Speier were reflected by many of the honorees and in the goals set for CWL for the coming year. The new CWL Board was sworn in by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, herself a child of farmworkers with humble beginnings. Eliza Rodrigues, a first-generation American, daughter of Portuguese immigrants, and Associate General Counsel and Ethics Counsel for Sedgwick LLP in San Francisco, took the helm as CWL’s new President. Eliza set forth some of CWL’s new and ongoing projects for the coming year:
1) Launch CWL’s Inaugural In-House Counsel Network, Eliza’s signature initiative. The Network was created so that CWL and women serving as in-house counsel from across the state and across industries can partner to work on common issues, such as breaking the glass ceiling, promoting women in law and business, seeking gender pay equity, bringing diversity to corporate law departments , corporate executive positions, and law firms serving the corporations, supporting legislation to protect women and children, and providing networking, community service, and mentoring opportunities.
2) Continue CWL’s initiative, emphasized by immediate past President Pat Sturdevant, to seek fair and equal coverage in the media recognizing the successes and experiences of women lawyers.
3) Continue to support local, national, and global efforts to combat human trafficking, an effort focused upon by past President Nancy O’Malley.
4) Continue work on national efforts for the special admission of lawyers to practice law in the state where one’s military spouse is stationed.
5) Continue CWL’s efforts to seek diversity in judicial appointments and gender pay equity--efforts CWL has been involved in since its inception.
At the dinner, CWL celebrated the accomplishments of its 17 2011-2012 Women of Achievement--fearless women all! Included were the following current WLALA members and Board members:
· Retired Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin, on her selection as Executive Director of the Western Justice Center Foundation, whose mission is “to increase the opportunity for peaceful conflict resolution and displace the power of violence.”
· Audrey Collins, Chief Judge of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, as one of the winners of CWL’s Joan Dempsey Klein Award (chosen along with Lee Smalley Edmon, Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court)
· Michelle Williams Court, on being appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
· Holly Fujie, on being appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
· WLALA President Ruth Kahn, for her committed and successful pro bono advocacy on behalf of holocaust survivors, for which she won the CLAY Award and was recognized as Bet Tzedek’s Pro Bono attorney of the year. Ruth’s comments about her work were read to the audience and reiterated Congresswoman Speier’s thoughts: “Individually, and as a group, the clients I have served are resilient, resourceful and gracious . . . I have learned from these clients that it isn’t how you are treated that determines the kind of person you will become. It is your attitude and how you respond to life’s challenges that make a difference.”
· Lara Krieger, for her selection as Chair of the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE).
· Jacqueline Nguyen, on being appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and as the first female Asian-American federal appeals court judge.
· Suzanne Segal, on her selection as Chief Magistrate Judge of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California.
Attorney Jane Kahn, another woman undaunted by the fear of failure, was presented with the 2012 Fay Stender Award. The award is given each year to a feminist attorney who, like Fay, is committed to the representation of women, disadvantaged groups and unpopular causes, and whose courage, zest for life, and demonstrated ability to effect change as a single individual make her a role model for women attorneys. Jane Kahn won the award based on her lead role in several prisoner class actions, including cases brought on behalf of California prisoners with serious mental illness and with mobility, vision, hearing and learning disabilities. She was also part of the legal team which obtained a judgment establishing that overcrowding in California’s prisons is the primary cause of constitutionally deficient medical and mental health care for prisoners. That lawsuit ultimately resulted in a panel of three federal judges ordering the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 prisoners by July of 2013.
WLALA commends the spirit of fearlessness celebrated at the CWL dinner and looks forward to working--fearlessly--on joint initiatives in the coming year!
Susan Formaker serves as WLALA's California Women Lawyers Liaison. Kathleen McDowell, an attorney at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and Past President of WLALA, serves on the board as WLALA’s Food from the Bar Liaison.