The University of Chicago Magazine October 1995
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The Best Defense

Congress over 118 proposed constitutional amendments. In addition, she is going head-to-head with Congress over the fate of the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded, nonprofit organization that helps provide civil legal services to the poor and is at imminent risk of being cut from the federal budget. And she's working with Secretary of Education Richard Riley to improve teaching about the U.S. legal system in public schools-Ramo wants to ensure that all Americans are able to share in at least a portion of the kind of education she's had.

WHEN RAMO ARRIVED AT THE UNIVERSITY in 1964 with her husband, Barry, who was doing his internship and residency at the U of C Hospitals, she viewed a legal career as a stepping-stone to becoming a university president, having been inspired by the head of her un-dergraduate school, the University of Colorado. Ramo credits her change of direction at the Law School to being "surrounded by people with great intellectual capabilities, who are truly interested in the issues of the law, not as a game, but with a combination of compassion and unbelievable breadth."

However, when Ramo tried to take her legal training from the classroom to the courtroom, things got tough. By March of her third year, she was "feeling a little desperate"-but not too surprised-that she'd yet to receive even a hint of an offer from any of the law firms to which she had applied. Since she limited her search to North Carolina because her husband had received a cardiology fellowship at Duke, being a Northerner may have contributed to the problem-but a bigger drawback was her status as a married woman.

Ramo, who was one of 12 women in a 172-member class, manages to put the episode in context. "I knew from my experiences in being interviewed that this was a shocking thing to most of the people doing the interviewing. My heart went out to them," she recalls, chuckling. "They all thought it was Robert Ramo, and it was so embarrassing when they discovered they'd made an error."

Even the Law School's reputation and numerous letters of reference from role model Philip Kurland didn't seem to help. It took a call from professor emeritus Phil Neal, then dean of the Law School, to Terry Sanford, a former governor of North Carolina, to help Ramo find a job with the Ford Foundation. She spent a year with the organization, traveling rural North Carolina to help poor people receive food through a federal program, then left to teach law at Shaw University.

In 1970, after two years at Shaw, Ramo moved with her husband and their son, Joshua (AB'92), to San Antonio. There she again found herself jobless: She was to have begun a fellowship that would lead to a job with the Legal Services Corporation, but administrators rescinded the offer when they realized that the birth of her second child, Jennifer, would cause her to miss a two-week training program-even though allowances were made for trainees in the National Guard or taking bar exams. So Ramo started yet another job search, looking for a place that would let her divide her time between the children and work.

Later that year, Ramo succeeded in landing a position in private practice with the San Antonio firm Sawtelle, Goode, Davidson & Troilo. In 1972, the Ramo family moved to Albuquerque, where she has since practiced with three firms, run her own solo practice, and led the city's bar association. Since 1993, Ramo has been a shareholder, specializing in corporate, health, real-estate, and probate law, with the 70-member Albuquerque firm Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A. At the moment, her practice is limited: She's had to give up most of her clients to take on the "120-percent job" of ABA president.

THAT PRESIDENCY PROVED NEARLY AS ELUSIVEas her first job in private practice. Ramo first considered seeking the position in the mid-1980s as she watched popular opinion turn against lawyers and decided that the ABA was not formulating an aggressive response. Ramo, a member of the ABA's House of Delegates, ran against two male candidates, both powerful former chairs of the House of Delegates. The vote before the 61-member nominating committee of the House of Delegates in 1991 resulted in an unusual deadlock, requiring 88 ballots to select a nominee. Ramo finished third, but still made history as the first woman to complete a candidacy for president. When asked if being a woman affected her run, Ramo kids, "I've never done it as a man, so I have no idea." She adds that she wasn't as well known as the other candidates, and some people may have felt she hadn't fully paid her dues. In any case, she had no stomach for a rare second bid and several more years of campaigning.

A deluge of support made her reconsider. "When I came back home after the 88-ballot extravaganza, I was really astonished to find my office filled with flowers and presents and telegrams and letters, from men and women who I didn't know, telling me that this was a very important thing-that I should not be discouraged, that they were glad that I had run." Then her original supporters, joined by some of her opponents' supporters, called Ramo, her husband, and her law firm to push her to run again. In typical fashion, Ramo dusted herself off and prepared to reenter the fray: "After the wounds healed, I still felt that I would be a good president of the ABA."

Her second bid proved, in some ways, more difficult than the first. Though all three opponents-including another woman-dropped out before the vote was put to the nominating committee in February 1994, Ramo spent most of 1993 struggling with the demise of her Albuquerque law firm, Poole, Kelly & Ramo, which filed for bankruptcy in November of that year. In April 1994, Ramo commented on the situation in the Legal Times, a weekly paper based in Washington, D.C.: "Groups break up. Martin and Lewis broke up. The Beatles broke up. And law firms break up."

The nominating committee had also taken the breakup in stride, selecting Ramo unanimously and virtually guaranteeing her election by the House of Delegates in August 1994. Ramo says that the second time around, many more people had heard her speak, and her support increased accordingly. She doesn't think her gender gave her an edge. Yet when her final opponent-Jerome Shestack of Philadelphia's Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen-dropped out, he told the National Law Journal that it was time for a woman president.

RAMO DOES NOT WISH TO BE "the woman president," just a good president, answering to all of the ABA's 370,000 members, including nearly 90,000 women. As the ABA's primary spokesperson, she also must represent all of those lawyers to the rest of the U.S.-seemingly the perfect job for someone so genuinely passionate about her profession.

Not only does she want it known that lawyers are an integral part of a democracy, she also wants to show that the integrity of the Constitution is necessary and vital to American democracy. Making those points, she says, means counteracting growing ignorance. "For reasons I don't completely understand," says Ramo, "we've stopped teaching civics in the public schools." She continues: "It's clear, if you look at any polls, that many Americans don't have a clue about what the Constitution really says or means or why we have it." On September 18, the day after Constitution Day, the ABA kicked off a program to get lawyers into schools across the U.S., helping children to create their own constitutions and bills of rights and teaching them about U.S. constitutional history.

Drafting imaginary constitutions is one thing. Protecting the actual document is quite another. The ABA is particularly concerned, she says, about First Amendment additions that would allow school prayer or outlaw symbolic speech such as flag-burning: "The Constitution and the Bill of Rights allowed us to defeat fascism, communism. It's made us a very free and wonderful nation, and I think we have to be very, very cautious about suddenly rushing to amend it in a way that diminishes its breadth."

As president, she plans to confront one more Congress-imposed issue: budget cuts that could eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Last year alone, she comments, the Legal Services Corporation represented 52,000 victims of domestic violence who otherwise may have had no one to whom to turn. "Without access to civil justice," Ramo told the New York Times in September, "the American dream is a cruel joke."

Ramo's influence on domestic-violence issues now extends beyond the ABA. In July, she was named by Attorney General Janet Reno and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to the federal Advisory Council on Violence Against Women. The council is implementing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which set aside $1.4 billion for programs such as shelters for battered women, a national hotline, and law-enforcement training.

Ramo admits she had no interest in the is-sue of domestic violence until her husband-a physician and Albuquerque television correspondent-researched a prime-time special on the subject, prompting him to comment over dinner that lawyers often were not helpful in such cases. "I, of course, thought he didn't understand, being a mere doctor," she jokes, then quickly turns serious. "And I looked into it and found out, horribly, that he was exactly right."

For instance: "You can't help but listen to stories like the judge in Cincinnati-who when faced with battery by a man on a woman that he was living with, sentenced the man to marry her-and not understand that there is a terrible education problem going on there." Not only judges and lawyers but also police officers, doctors, teachers, and employers need to be taught the subtle indicators of domestic violence, she says. And court systems need to cooperate so that juvenile, criminal, and family courts aren't each handling different aspects of the same case.

Portraying the legal profession as a force of positive social change will be a tough sell in a country jaded by endless lawsuits and such spectacles as the O. J. Simpson trial. But talk to Roberta Cooper Ramo and you may come away viewing lawyers as a source of good. Her conviction-and tenacity-go further in explaining her rise in the ABA than any talk of gender. Defeat is simply not on her busy agenda.

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