Judge Dorothy Nelson

First Women: Dorothy W. Nelson

It is an honor to participate in the “First Women Lawyers” series of Ms. JD. I am particularly happy to do so in the company of Professor Barbara Babcock, one of the most admired and distinguished members of our profession. She is a marvelous mentor to her female law students, many of whom I have hired as my law clerks. Like Professor Babcock, I was the first woman faculty member of the law school that hired me-the University of Southern California. At that time (1957), I decided to insert into the curriculum something that had not been taught but was part of my deeply held beliefs. This was contrary to the advice of my friends on the faculty who advised that as the first woman on the faculty, I shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Nonetheless, I noted that everyone on the faculty appeared to accept the “adversary system” as a given and no courses or materials were offered in the field of alternative dispute resolution. As a member of the Bahá’í Faith, I believe in the process of consultation to resolve conflicts peacefully. I inserted materials on mediation, the closest thing to consultation, in my seminar on the administration of justice. One day at a faculty meeting, I overheard a faculty member say to another, just what is this thing called mediation that Dorothy is teaching in her seminar? The response was: “Oh, it’s a woman’s thing. She is trying to get everyone to love each other”. Well, it gives me the greatest pleasure to say that alternative dispute resolution (particularly mediation) is one of the hottest topics in the justice system today. When I became the first woman dean, one of the senior faculty members called me into his office and advised me to arrive at the next faculty meeting 15 minutes late to show the faculty who was boss. Instead, I rushed home and baked 5 dozen chocolate cookies and arrived 15 minutes early to greet everyone. I also announced that we would have food at all faculty meetings henceforth. I have always found that in meetings and in crisis situations, food brings people closer together and improves communication immeasurably. These two small examples reflect what I think is important to remember as a woman. While men and women must achieve full equality with respect to education, employment, salaries, and advancement opportunities, men and women have some distinct attributes which must be present if we are to have a just and peaceful society. In the Bahá’í Writings it is stated that men and women are like the two wings of a bird-the one is male and the other is female. Unless they are both strong the bird cannot fly heavenwards. However, you cannot take the left wing of a bird and put it in the right socket. The wings although equal have different qualities. Why are so many women opting out of the legal profession? One answer may be that women have tried to conform to a male model which values long hours and neglect of family in pursuit of material wealth. One of my favorite stories is that of one of my first woman clerks. She was brilliant, highly motivated, a superb writer and researcher with an impeccable resume. She went to work for a major law firm after clerking for me. She called to tell me that she was pregnant, but had told the law firm that she had already hired a nanny and would be at work the day after the baby was born. The day after the baby was born, she called me from the hospital and said: “Judge, I’ve got a problem.” I said, “I know what it is. You don’t want to go back to work right away.” She agreed. I told her to call the law firm and ask for three months leave. She did and the leave was granted. Two months later she called and said: “Judge, I have a problem”. I replied that I knew what it was. She wasn’t ready to go back to work full time. I told her to decide just how many hours she would like to work and ask the law firm to let her remain on a part-time basis. She worried that she wouldn’t make partner as soon as her contemporaries. My reply was to ask her if that was her purpose in life - to make partner as soon as her peers. She did call the law firm and the request was granted. However, three months later, the senior partner of the law firm called me and said: “Judge, what are you doing to my law firm? Three young male associates who had families said they had been observing my former clerk and like her wanted to spend more time with their families. They knew they wouldn’t make partner as soon but they decided their families were more important. I said to the senior partner that I thought it was wonderful that they were making this decision, especially considering that fact that the local bar association was spending close to $200,000 a year offering counseling to young associates who had drug and marital problems. The senior partner agreed and the environment of the entire law firm has changed. Thus, women lawyers have much to offer in improving the lawyers’ workplace. Laws and practices need to be radically different from what we are accustomed to now in all aspect including parental leave times, flexibility in schedules, “interrupting” careers for raising children, perhaps employment type benefits for parents who are engaged in full time rasing of children (such as social security, health insurance and disability coverage). Society should act as if it seriously cared about child-rearing and should accept responsibility for these endeavors. Carol Gilligan’s work in the book “A Different Voice” suggests that women invoke an “ethic of care”, and are concerned with preserving relationships and with the context of problems. Men, in contrast, invoke an “ethic of rights” on abstract notions of right and wrong and on objective rationality. This may be one reason why women have been playing such a role in alternative dispute resolution. The adversary system with its win-lose philosophy is, in the words of former Chief Justice Warren Burger, “too costly, too painful, too inefficient and too destructive for a truly civilized society. The movement is toward more appropriate forms of dispute resolution such as mediation where parties voluntarily and confidentially try to reach their own solutions with the help of an impartial neutral. Here the qualities of mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which women are strong are gaining ascendency. When I was meeting with the All China Women’s Federation in Beijing for the first time in l989 and discussing many of these issues, my husband (a retired Superior Court judge) asked for permission to speak. The women were delighted for men had never participated in their discussions. My husband stated that until women achieve full equality, men can never be the best of what they can be. After thunderous applause, the President of the Federation ran down the hall and returned with a gift of lacquered boxes for him. As we left, in gestures uncharacteristic for Chinese women, they patted him on the back as he went by and called out in Chinese, “model husband. model husband”. As Professor Babcock wrote, the male-created and male centered model is under an unprecedented attack. Like her, I believe that the scene is set for revolutionary change-but not just for women but for all of mankind as well.

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