Women Defenders: A Conversation with the Honorable Maria Stratton
By Amanda R. Touchton
Amanda R. Touchton Hon. Maria Stratton
Today, women are practicing criminal defense in greater numbers than ever before. A recent study reveals that women constitute 52% of San Diego County’s deputy public defenders and 45% of the alternate public defenders.  These statistics contrast starkly with a 1950’s study, which found that only 2% of criminal defense attorneys were women, and a 1984 survey, which found that 16% of criminal defense attorneys were women. 
Curious about the relationship between gender and criminal defense, I reached out to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maria E. Stratton. As her bio reveals, no practitioner in Los Angeles can match Judge Stratton’s cross-section of experience as a criminal defense attorney.
Judge Stratton began her career in 1979 as a law clerk to the Honorable Harry Pregerson, a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. For the first year of Judge Stratton’s clerkship, Judge Pregerson was a District Judge in the Central District. Judge Stratton left her clerkship with one goal – to get into the courtroom.
Then as now, the quickest route to the courtroom was through a public office. Having spent two years watching attorneys make appearances, Judge Stratton knew that “criminal lawyers were courtroom lawyers.” Judge Stratton applied to both the United States Attorney’s Office and the Federal Public Defender’s Office. Although it was happenstance that the Federal Public Defender responded before the United States Attorney, Judge Stratton is confident that she ended up in the right place. “I loved talking to my clients – that was the most rewarding part of the job – the clients.
Practicing in federal court in 1981 was not without drawbacks. Although many of the judges were fair, some treated her differently because she was a woman. “Not a woman,” she says with a shake of her head, “a girl.” She explains:
If you made a mistake, it was because you were a girl. If you didn’t get along with the prosecutor, it was because you were a girl. And if it was a woman prosecutor you were having difficulties with, it was because you were both catty girls.
To this day, Judge Stratton recalls her experience representing a young defendant charged with bank robbery who had determined to plead guilty. When the defendant balked on the day set for his change of plea, Judge Stratton asked the court for more time. The judge was furious. “You girls! Can’t control your clients.” The defendant later apologized for “getting her in trouble.”
Although these experiences were frustrating, Judge Stratton received support and encouragement from her fellow Deputy Public Defenders, her clients and even her opponents. “It’s what I miss most about criminal law,” she says, “the respect and professionalism that exists between prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
Outside of the courtroom, gender was less of an issue. Judge Stratton never felt discriminated against by prosecutors, and found her gender rarely mattered to her clients. “Being a good defender isn’t about being a man or a woman, it’s about understanding the client and the client’s situation. Those clients didn’t choose me – they were stuck with me. It was my responsibility to win them over.”
After leaving the Federal Public Defender’s Office in 1983, Judge Stratton worked as an associate and then a partner at Talcott, Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Woehrle & Sadowsky (“Talcott Lightfoot”). “After working as a Deputy Federal Public Defender, I knew my way around a courtroom and could try a case. I could go into any courtroom and function.” Talcott Lightfoot was known nationwide as a preeminent white collar criminal defense firm and Judge Stratton had both a civil and criminal practice. The environment at Talcott was collegial and the partners employed a team based approach, involving all of the attorneys as equals. Judge Stratton never perceived that her status as a woman hindered her success in private practice.
Then as now, the white collar criminal defense bar was predominately male with higher percentages of women in public defender offices than private practice.  Judge Stratton believes this may have resulted, at least in part, from the fact that, for many years, women leaving the United States Attorney’s Office were top candidates for judicial appointments. During the administrations of Governors Deukmejian, Wilson, and Davis, defense attorneys rarely received judicial appointments. “They were trying to get more women and they only wanted prosecutors. A lot of former female Assistant United States Attorney’s wound up on the bench.”
In 1993, Judge Stratton was appointed Federal Public Defender for the Central District of Los Angeles – the first woman to hold the position. Nationwide, the public defender leadership was predominately male but Judge Stratton formed close bonds with the women heading other district offices. Judge recalled that many of these women defenders looked out for one another and took extra care to mentor each other.
In her new role as the head of one of the largest Federal Public Defender’s offices in the nation, Judge Stratton found herself managing a staff that grew over the course of her tenure from 35 attorneys to 65 attorneys. Although she did not emphasize gender when making hiring decisions, she made it her goal to reach an even ratio of male to female attorneys. Judge Stratton also heavily recruited other minority candidates in an effort to make sure that the office was balanced and representative of the diversity of the Central District.
Rather than focus on what are sometimes perceived as “women’s issues” in the workplace, Judge Stratton used her leadership role to concentrate on issues that impacted all her employees. From Judge Stratton’s perspective, balancing work and family was not a women’s issue, but a concern shared by the majority of her employees. “My goal was to foster a family friendly environment – not mom friendly, but family friendly.” In keeping with this philosophy, she instituted a paternity leave policy and encouraged her male attorneys to take advantage of it. Acknowledging that attorneys without children often felt overburdened carrying the caseloads of attorneys on maternity or paternity leave, Judge Stratton allowed any attorney who wanted to take a substantial leave of absence to apply. “I represented all defenders and I didn’t go out of my way to promote the needs of any one group.”
As for differences between the male and female criminal defense attorneys she supervised, Judge Stratton could recall only one. “The men were more likely to come into my office and tell me about their victories. I thought it was great, but the women would never do it.” To make sure that the women’s victories received as much attention as the men’s, Judge Stratton started a policy of collecting success stories and sending out emails to the entire staff.
In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed Judge Stratton to the Superior Court. Her first assignment was in a misdemeanor trial court, her second in a criminal drug court and her third as a felony preliminary hearing judge in the Metropolitan courthouse. From her seat on the bench, Judge Stratton gained yet another perspective on criminal defense attorneys and women defenders.
According to Judge Stratton the difference between male and female criminal defense attorneys is, to put it plainly, nothing. When asked her thoughts on the idea that women may bring unique talents to criminal defense such as “pay[ing] more attention to the clients as people,” “being more willing and able to listen to clients” and “being better listeners and nurturers,” Judge Stratton does not hide her disdain.  “Being a good criminal defense attorney is personality driven, not gender driven.” Good criminal defense attorneys, she explains, are “fearless lawyers with a healthy disrespect for authority. They are comfortable being troublemakers and relish pushing buttons. But they also have to have a real affection for their clients. It’s not a gender difference. It’s a difference between criminal defense attorneys and the rest of the universe.”
Lawyers Club of San Diego, 2010 Equality Survey (September 2010).
Kittel, Norman. Criminal Defense Attorneys: A Study of Pluralism in Practice Styles and Conditions. The Journal of the Legal Profession. (Vol. 11, 1986-87).
 Barbara A. Curran, American Bar Associations, Women in the Law: A look at the Numbers 18 (1995).
 Joan W. Howarth, Women Defenders on Television: Representing Suspects and the Racial Politics of Retribution. The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice (Vol. 3, 2000).