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Abrahamson talks about challenges women face in law

In a rare public appearance outside the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s chambers, Justice Shirley Abrahamson spoke during a lecture at the University of Wisconsin Law School about her experiences as both a judge and a lawyer.

The longest-serving justice on the state’s highest court cracked jokes rapid-fire from her wheelchair and chuckled heartily as she and U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb reminisced on Friday about how they met and their early days in practice.

According to Abrahamson’s recollection, she and Crabb were the only two women in legal practice in Madison who were not related or married to lawyers at their firm.

“We did OK,” said Abrahamson.

With Crabb playing moderator, Abrahamson gave this year’s Kastenmeier Lecture on Friday afternoon as part of the law school’s festivities celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Crabb, whom Abrahamson met at UW-Madison, noted that Abrahamson knew at just six years old that she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I never had another idea of what I should be,” said Abrahamson. “I don’t think I had any other talent to do anything else.”

The two discussed various obstacles Abrahamson faced in her life, from the New York native’s difficulties in getting a library card as a child in New Jersey because her parents didn’t own real estate to her graduating from Indiana University’s law school at a time when few firms would hire a woman.

Abrahamson, who graduated at the top of her law school class in 1956, recalled how the dean of the law school said he would usually place top students at the largest firm in Indianapolis but that he could not place her there.

“I said that was OK because I didn’t want to go to Indianapolis, so we were even,” she said. “They just didn’t want to hire a woman.”

Abrahamson was later hired at a firm in Madison. Then-Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the high court in 1976, making her the first woman to serve on that bench.

Crabb also asked Abrahamson about her work as a justice, including what she deems the qualities of a great judge.

“You don’t want me to describe myself, right?” Abrahamson joked. “I want a judge to not only see the case for that individual or family, but I want the judge to see the case for the system – that you’re making a rule of law … that will make justice for the system and the individual. A little compassion is good.”

Her advice to law students? Abrahamson said most of what she was told when she was a law student didn’t prove to be especially useful. But one thing to remember, she said, is to not let other people put you down, she said.

“They’re not doing it because they’re mean,” Abrahamson said. “It’s because they don’t know any better.”


About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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