"The Counselors (Conversations with eighteen
courageous women who have changed the world)"
by Elizabeth Vrato
Running Press 2002
From poverty, from a WW II internment camp on the
island of Java, from South Africa, from an ejido in
Mexico, from blue collar-union homes, they came to the
law. Confronted with invidious gender discrimination
and workplace intimidation as well as racial, ethnic,
religious obstacles and social taboos, they struggled
and persevered. They have succeeded in creating a
newer landscape where women can achieve and
aspire. They are women whose grit has changed the
legal profession and American law, while also wielding
the law as an instrument for social justice.
In "The Counselors (Conversations with eighteen
courageous women who have changed the world),"
Elizabeth Vrato forms a vitalizing narrative to the lives of
18 women who have forever altered the social and
legal status of American women and shaken the
societal standards of women around the world.
Describing considerable deeds and using their own
words taken from personal conversations with them,
Vrato, an attorney practicing with the NOW Legal
Defense and Education Fund, presents the women as
role models and mentors for the present generation.
From the first conversation with Lynn Hecht Schafran,
director of the National Judicial Education Program, to
the final conversation with Norma Shapiro, U.S. District
Court judge, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, it's
abundantly clear that a "sliver of [educated and
privileged white men] is not making all the rules
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor provides an overview of
women's struggle for recognition in the legal
profession and suggests that this generation of
women will make their mark by expanding
opportunities for women throughout all sectors of the
economy and in obtaining more positions of power.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, first in her class at
Columbia but also "a woman, a Jew and a mother,"
couldn't get a clerkship at the Supreme Court in 1959
because Justice Frankfurter had said he "wasn't ready
to hire a woman." She would persevere and go on to
provide the legal analysis for gender discrimination,
arguing six and winning five of the first and most
important cases regarding equal rights for women and
men before the Supreme Court.
Born and raised in an internment camp on the island of
Java, schooled by missionaries in a racially
segregated area of New Guinea, undergoing a leg
amputation before coming alone to America, Joyce
Kennard could only go to college when her mother
died, leaving her entire life savings of $5,000. At age
27, Kennard entered the University of California and
graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta
Kappa. She then completed a joint degree in law and
public administration with distinction at the University of
Southern California. Since 1989, Kennard has been on
the California Supreme Court. Her advice "… don't
give up on ideals, on dreams."
The highest ideals of social justice seem to drive the
18 women, each a Margaret Brent Award recipient. (The
Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award
was established in 1991 to recognize women who
have achieved excellence, influenced other women to
pursue careers, and opened doors previously closed to
women.) Perhaps none is more driven than the former
anti-apartheid student leader in South Africa and now
Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court, Margaret Hilary Marshall. Vrato's conversation
with Marshall is de rigueur reading for every law
student and younger lawyer. Her 16 years in private
practice and 16 years mentoring young women at
Harvard Law School provide kernels of wisdom:
observe successful lawyers; do what you enjoy; find
what resonates within you; avoid debt; reach out for
help and develop "small talk topics."
Vrato's disarming style also gets Janet Reno, the first
female U.S. attorney general, to reveal the fons et
origo of her first principles and sense of justice.
Reno attributes her upbringing without the social
constraints of the '50s and '60s to her mother. An
enduring lesson from her mother was that you can do
anything you really want to if you put your mind to it, and
that you can prevail against adversity when you are put
Reno was joined at the Justice Department by Deputy
Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who's now the vice
chairwoman of Fannie Mae. Gorelick advises that
career paths don't run in straight lines.
"If the organization you're working for can't
accommodate your involvement in outside endeavors,"
Gorelick says, "find another place to work." Intent on
being an example for younger women, Gorelick
emphasizes the importance of family and finding a
balance with familial, personal and professional
"The Counselors" is not so much resume, biography or
courthouse "war stories" as it is about the hopes and
expectations of courageous pioneers who have
wrought a place in history and offer their shoulders
upon which a younger generation of women may stand
to create an even better future. But just as many of the
women in the book have acknowledged the mentoring
acts of men helpful to their careers, "The Counselors"
offers wisdom to every young lawyer regardless of