Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Shaped by the Story

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Shaped by the Story

Article excerpt

As a judge 1 have often been asked, "How do you decide a case?" It's a reasonable query. After all, that's what judges do most days-decide cases. My answer could be complex or technical, responding to the question's implied assumption that deciding cases-judging-must be a difficult task. Indeed it can be. But, instead, I almost invariably reply: "Cases are just stories about people."

Of course a judge's decision in a case will be grounded in her legal training, constrained by constitutional precedent and principles of statutory interpretation. But through cases we are drawn into the lives of others. We make decisions based on the law, but we are forever touched by the facts and personalities that shape and inform the case before us.

Similarly, when asked if women lawyers and judges make a difference in the legal profession, I am inclined to respond: "Listen to their stories." An influential life as a lawyer turns, not solely on knowledge of rules or statutes or cases, but on the relationships that develop out of a commitment to a "helping" profession, a profession designed to serve others and, ultimately, to advance the society in which we live. I have been privileged over the years to encounter people who have helped me understand that ideal. And whether challenging me or helping me, they have shaped the memorable stories of my professional life, just a random glimpse of which can be captured in this essay.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado and fell in love with and married an Iowan, Henry Neuman, who was one of my classmates at the University of Colorado Law School. The year was 1973. Henry and I decided, before our graduation from law school, that we would move to Iowa so Henry could practice law with his dad. His dad-who was also named Henry (Henry Sr.)-was a graduate of the Iowa College of Law and a very well-respected attorney in Davenport, Iowa. He was also a very serious man. There was no such thing as a casual conversation with Henry Sr. He never watched TV. He only read books. Great Books. I found him rather intimidating.

Henry called his dad to tell him our decision and to ask whether there might be a place in the law firm for me. Henry Sr. was open to the idea. He said, "Sure. Linda would make a wonderful legal secretary." Now I have enormous respect for legal secretaries and their crucial role in a law office but after just finishing three years of law school, this was not the response I had hoped for from my new father-in-law. Suddenly the thought of starting a new life in Iowa looked rather dark indeed.

But an interesting thing happened. On our next visit to Iowa we stayed, as usual, with Henry's parents. At breakfast one morning, Henry Sr. tried to engage my Henry in a complicated tax question (Did I mention he only talked about serious topics?). Henry had not yet taken a tax course; he had no idea what his dad was talking about. But I had just finished taking the tax exam. I eagerly jumped into the discussion. And in an instant you could see the light bulb go on in Henry Sr.'s head: This young woman is a lawyer.

Little by little our relationship improved from there. I didn't let Henry Sr.'s limited view of my prospects defeat me. I eventually became one of his law partners, the first woman partner in the firm. Henry Sr. turned out to be a wonderful mentor. And I carried all that I learned from him when-just after his death-I became privileged to serve as the first woman on the Iowa Supreme Court.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had several years of law practice and experience as a trial judge ahead of me before I made it to the Supreme Court. It was the 1970s, and there weren't many women practicing law in Iowa. By and large, the male lawyers whom I encountered were gracious and helpful. I learned that Henry Sr. had been notoriously opposed to women practicing law. Everyone in the local bar association knew it. Many were astounded when he brought me into the firm. They thought I must really be something if Henry Sr. …

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