UCLA Law Alumnae Take Center Stage

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A panel at the UCLA Law Women LEAD Summit.

UCLA School of Law still occupied a set of Quonset huts behind Royce Hall when Dorothy Wright Nelson began her studies in 1950. One of just four women in the school's second class, she arrived already a big woman on campus. She was accustomed to getting good grades, and as vice president of UCLA's undergraduate student body, she had been one of the signatories on the contract that brought John Wooden to UCLA.

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Hon. Dorothy Nelson

But law school was different. Nelson still recalls getting rough treatment from her torts professor, and her first set of exams resulted in a number of disappointing marks.

"I was going down the hall to say, 'I think I'll drop out for a while,' and down comes Roscoe," says Nelson '53, fondly referring to Roscoe Pound, who had joined UCLA Law following his distinguished tenure as dean of Harvard Law School. "You read Corbin, you read Williston," her mentor told her. "But you didn't answer the question! All they want to know is: Should A recover from B?'"

Okay, she thought, I can do this.

That determination has echoed throughout Nelson's career — from USC, where she rose from the faculty to become the first female dean of a major American law school, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where she has served as a judge since 1979.

Nelson is hardly alone among UCLA Law alumnae in her determination to succeed. Today, alumnae run movie studios, law firms and technology companies. They are members of Congress and the U.S. Senate. They are advocates fighting the day's fiercest policy battles. At UCLA Law, they found an environment that encouraged scholarship and leadership from the very start.

See Profiles of Eight Accomplished Alumnae in UCLA Law Magazine

The school's very first group of graduates included five women, led by Laverne Sagmaster, who finished at the top of the Class of 1952. Sixteen years later, Barbara Brudno (see remembrance on page 90) became UCLA Law's first female faculty member at a time when women professors were rare at law schools. Then in 1972, Susan Westerberg Prager '71, who had been one of Brudno's students, joined the faculty alongside Alison Grey Anderson and Carole E. Goldberg, the nation's preeminent scholar in Native American law.

"Most of the major law schools hired one woman that year, and we hired three, which showed that this was not tokenism, it was for real," recalls professor emerita Anderson, who chose to join UCLA Law over Harvard and Yale, among other law schools. "The institution appealed to me instantly. People were genuinely interested in creating a very good place to be a woman faculty member."

Soon thereafter, professors Grace Ganz Blumberg, Christine A. Littleton and Frances Elisabeth Olsen made the school a hub of scholarship in feminist legal theory and family law. And in the decades since, women professors have continued to reach the pinnacle of legal scholarship in philosophy, critical race studies, criminal law, employment, evidence, environmental law, and human rights, among many other fields.

And leadership. Prager went on to become dean of UCLA Law, serving for 16 years. She was the first of three women to have served in that role. Rachel F. Moran was dean from 2010 to 2015. Current dean Jennifer L. Mnookin succeeded Moran. No other top law school has had as many female deans, and several have never had a single one.

People were genuinely interested in creating a very good place to be a woman faculty member.

— ALISON GREY ANDERSON

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Martine Rothblatt

"I benefitted tremendously from having had faculty members at UCLA law school who were women," says Martine Rothblatt '81, founder of SiriusXM Satellite Radio and the biotech company United Therapeutics. "That is like a beacon of light to other women, to see that it is possible for women to achieve these high-prestige positions."

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Antonia Hernandez

Antonia Hernandez, the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, says, "UCLA law school gave me the tools to be an effective person in trying to achieve social change." Before joining the foundation, Hernandez was counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, working with Sen. Ted Kennedy and then-committee counsel Stephen Breyer, and was the longtime head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "As a woman, UCLA Law forced me to hone my independence and my sense of right and wrong, and realize that I really had to get involved."

We were looking to create a network that provides mutual support to advance the careers of our women alumni and students.

— NANCY L. ABELL '79

SHARING SUCCESS

On a cool Friday in early February 2017, more than 400 students, attorneys and business leaders met for the largest gathering of women in UCLA Law history: the inaugural UCLA Law Women LEAD Summit.

The event was sponsored by UCLA Law Women LEAD, which was launched less than three years ago by Moran and a distinguished board of alumnae, led by founding co-chairs Nancy L. Abell '79 and Michelle Banks '88.

"We were looking to create a network that provides mutual support to advance the careers of our women alumni and students," says Abell, one of the nation's leading employment attorneys and a partner at Paul Hastings. She remembers the support she received when she was eight months pregnant and going on the road as a member of UCLA Law's national moot court team: "That was big, back in 1978 — I think a lot of schools would have said, 'You're not traveling, let alone doing this.'"

Through packed-house presentations and panels featuring the likes of California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, the LEAD Summit addressed everything from the expectations placed on mid-level law firm associates to how to obtain a judicial clerkship to tips for breaking the still-present gender barriers in corporate boardrooms.

In conversation with Mnookin, Cantil-Sakauye described the challenge that continues to face women in the law. Early in her career, she said, she had been denied opportunities because people said she "looked like she couldn't stand up in a court," "would be weak in arguing" and "was too pretty." Even today, she added, "people are surprised to see a woman as chief. … We have many, many … more steps to go to be at the top of our profession."

Herman, the day's keynote speaker, implored the assembled women to take risks, expand their reach and "stay engaged," especially in times when social and political debates are increasingly fierce and fraught. "The role of women will become even more important," she said. "We need you."

Students were invigorated by the speakers and the networking opportunities. "It was great hearing from so many women in positions of power talk about their journeys and provide their insights," says Erin Hallagan '18, the co-editor-in-chief of the Women's Law Journal at UCLA. "I'm in awe of the impact that they have made, and I feel energized and inspired to take risks, make meaningful connections, and own my passion and strengths as I begin my legal career."

UCLA Law Women LEAD is now more than 1,500 members strong, and its ongoing networking events and mentorship opportunities are deepening ties among generations of women who have entered UCLA Law's building — or Quonset huts.

It's great to have knowledge, but you have to have volition, and you have to have action... For me, that all began at UCLA.

— DOROTHY WRIGHT NELSON

VIEW FROM THE TOP

Now a senior judge on the Ninth Circuit, Dorothy Wright Nelson reflects on the long road from those huts to her grand chambers overlooking the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, in the same federal courthouse where three other UCLA Law alumnae — judges Kim McLane Wardlaw '79, Sandra Ikuta '88 and Jacqueline Nguyen '91 — have their chambers.

Law students and graduates at a crossroads, Nelson says, have turned to her for advice and assistance on countless occasions over the decades.

"Find something you're passionate about," she says she tells them, "and then do something about it. It's great to have knowledge, but you have to have volition, and you have to have action. And become involved with people who have the same passion you have. For me, that all began at UCLA."