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Trailblazing Tulane Law women tell extraordinary tales

October 18, 2013

Pioneering Women

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Wells Roby (center) gestures, while Pioneering Women panel participants Lynn Luker, Terry O’Neill, Cynthia Shoss and Marlene Trestman listen.
(Photo by Sally Asher)

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The breadth and depth of Tulane Law School’s women graduates were on full display Oct. 14 as lawyers representing more than 80 years of history and experience engaged a full-house audience with stories from exemplary careers.

Bessie Margolin (LLB ’30) defended the legality of the Tennessee Valley Authority, drafted rules that governed the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II and helped implement the Fair Labor Standards Act, her biographer, Marlene Trestman, related.

Margot Mazeau (L ’58) told about working in Geneva, Switzerland, on issues involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as a lawyer for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Cynthia Shoss (L ’74) has analyzed the tax consequences of salvaging a satellite, helped seize a tanker near the Gulf Coast before dawn and handled complex transactions for mutual insurance companies – and went into labor with her daughter while running her law firm’s London office.

Terry O’Neill (L ’80) worked on corporate securities and mergers & acquisitions before going into academia then landing the top job at the National Organization for Women.

Lynn Luker (L ’81, LLM ’85, LLM ’92) went right into maritime trial work after graduation, then took on toxic torts litigation and formed her own firm when a major client lured her from the firm where she’d become a key partner.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Wells Roby (L ’87) became one of General Motors' top go-to litigators, defending the company in high-profile automotive products liability cases before being tapped for the federal bench.

U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown (L ’88, LLM ’98) started New Orleans’ first curbside recycling program as city attorney and in 2011 became Louisiana's first female African-American federal district judge, taking the oath of office on the same Bible used by Presidents Lincoln and Obama.

The panel members discussed choices women have had to make in order to succeed in the legal profession – and how those have changed over the decades because of pioneers and the mentors who have advised them and provided opportunities.

In Margolin’s day, for instance, she was expected to be married to her job. But, Trestman said, Margolin wrote about her gratitude to Tulane for providing her with “the fullest opportunity and encouragement to fulfill myself as a human being.”

Shoss, a senior partner in the New York Office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, said women have come a long way, but not enough have yet become equity partners in big law firms or general counsels in Fortune 500 companies.

“Be willing to take risks,” she told students in the audience. “Don’t be daunted by failure. Be the CEO of your career from Day 1.”

Asked about challenges for women today, panelists gave a variety of answers. Roby spoke of having to juggle being wife, mother and lawyer. Luker said that “there is no easy answer.” If you choose a leadership path, she said, “You’re never going to get enough sleep.”

O’Neill said some problems are systemic but require collective solutions. An example: employers can provide on-site daycare in buildings with large numbers of office workers with children.

“That glass ceiling is not actually made of glass; it’s made of people with attitudes that don’t quite have enough imagination to see what the solutions could be,” she said.


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