Joan Dempsey Klein ’54: Remembering a Trailblazer in the Law and Women’s Rights

January 5, 2021
Joan Dempsey Klein

Joan Dempsey Klein ’54 was a member of UCLA School of Law’s third graduating class, the law school’s first graduate to become a judge, and the first woman to serve as presiding justice on the California Court of Appeal.

Her death on Christmas Eve at age 96 leaves UCLA Law reflecting on an incomparable alumna and lawyer who broke barriers. Klein earned a stellar reputation as a thoughtful jurist who served as a judge for more than 50 years – including 36 years on the state appeals court in Los Angeles – acted as a mentor to generations of women and other underrepresented people in the law, and maintained a close connection to her alma mater throughout her lifetime.

A native Californian and lifelong athlete, Klein was a leading proponent of women’s rights, particularly in boosting equality and eliminating sexism in the legal profession. In the 1970s, she served as the founding president of the California Women Lawyers Association and co-founded the National Association of Women Judges, working to stem the gender biases that the then-small but growing number of women judges routinely faced.

“Joan Dempsey Klein was, quite simply, an inspiration – she was a trailblazing judge, powerful thinker and ceaseless advocate for women’s rights,” says UCLA Law Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin. “She was clear-eyed about the power and the pitfalls of the legal profession. And she made the profession – and the world – better and one meaningful step more equal.”

Klein remained deeply connected to UCLA Law, speaking on panels, mentoring graduates and regularly participating in the life of the school. In 2013, she and her husband, Conrad Lee Klein, donated $1.025 million to the law school, creating the Justice Joan Dempsey Klein Scholarships in Law, supporting students with financial need and outstanding academic credentials who show a strong commitment to advocating for gender equality or to promoting the advancement of women in the law and society.

Since then, 21 UCLA Law students have benefitted from the scholarship, including five during the current academic year.

On making the gift, Klein said, “As I have said many times, my law school education at UCLA gave me a life — and a good life it has been.”

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