Ceremony helps honor 'Women in the Law'

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By Frances Murphy

On the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, solemness gave way to inspiration at the Michigan Lawyers Weekly 2014 Women in the Law awards ceremony. Held at the Troy Marriott, the event served to honor 30 of the state’s top women lawyers for their public service, high achievement, and excellence in the legal profession. The years of experience between the honorees ranged from 7 to 39. 

Some of these women were among the first in their county or firm to become a bar member or partner, respectively. Take Mary Mims, for example, who was one of the first women to join the Ottowa County Bar Association after earning her license to practice in 1979. Or, Christine Oldani, one of the first women to be named a partner at Plunkett Cooney. 

The success of these women is even more remarkable when pinned against statistics regarding women’s compensation and leadership positions in the profession. Women have come a long way since Arabella Mansfield became the first woman to earn her bar license in 1869. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women, women make up approximately 34 percent of practicing attorneys nationwide. In Congress, however, they make up only 18.5 percent of federal legislators, and women of color hold only 30 of the 535 Congressional seats. On average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar made by men, in both the legal profession and elsewhere. This has been shown to be true even in studies that control for differences in work hours and work interruptions. That is, studies have shown that single, childless women earn no more than married mothers. In a profession where “[c]ompensation decisions go to the heart of [one’s] sense of self-worth and perception of value within the hierarchical structure of [an] institution,”  the accomplishments of women deserve recognition. This recognition was given at the awards ceremony.

The event moderators eloquently summarized the achievements of the honorees. One of the first to receive her award was Cooley Law School Associate Professor Tracey Brame, who, at age 9, picketed in front of her house holding a sign that read, “equal protection for kids,” when her mother refused to raise her allowance. Ms. Brame’s zeal for advocacy continues to this day and has defined her career.  Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Brame helped found the Access to Justice Program at Cooley Law School and the Western Michigan Public Defender Clinic.

Anita Fox’s story is particularly moving.  After the sudden death of her husband, Mark, who was also an attorney, Ms. Fox took on both her own caseload and her husband’s, which required her to tackle an unfamiliar area of the law. Before his death, Ms. Fox and her husband worked alongside one another, although they practiced in different areas of the law. In the wake of tragedy, Ms. Fox was able to pick herself up, overcome a life-altering event, and find new purpose and meaning in her career.

Lisa Hamameh’s story is also fascinating. A municipal attorney at Foster Swift and first generation Palestinian, Ms. Hamameh broke cultural norms when she became the first woman in her family to earn a post-graduate degree. Ms. Hamameh oriented education and her career to the top of her priority list, and her achievements demonstrate this. In addition to being an exceptional attorney, Ms. Hamameh has also taken on the role of novelist and is currently writing a book about her life.

The story of Ebony Duff of Garan Lucow Miller is another one to note.  Ms. Duff beat the competition to earn the business of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (formerly known as Cobo Hall).  As its legal counsel, Ms. Duff has guided the Authority through the latter half of the Great Recession and helped mold it into the entity it is today. The Authority has had unprecedented success in recent years.  This year alone, the Authority’s revenue has increased by 34 percent when compared to 2013, and the Authority’s multi-year event contracts have increased significantly.

Lastly, the Hon. Allie Greenleaf Maldonado, chief judge for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was selected by a vote of the honorees to receive the “Woman of the Year” award. Judge Maldonado was appointed to the bench after serving as the assistant general to the Harbor-Springs-based tribe. In addition to her regular docket, she also oversees a drug court, and she participated in the drafting of the recently enacted Indian Family Preservation Act. 

Not all of the honoree’s stories can be replicated here. Suffice it to say, if you haven’t attended a Michigan Lawyers Weekly Women in the Law awards ceremony, put it on your calendar for next year, as it is a must-attend event. 

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Frances Murphy is an associate attorney with Garan Lucow Miller in Detroit.