Barbara Babcock on her Career in Law and New Book

Lawyers as Leaders: Barbara Babcock

The first woman appointed to the Stanford Law faculty, Barbara Babcock has taught and written in both the fields of civil and criminal procedure for many years.  Before coming to Stanford in 1972, Babcock served as the first director of the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. On leave from Stanford, she was assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Carter administration.  Babcock is the author of the critically acclaimed  Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, (Stanford Press, 2011), a biography of the first woman lawyer in the west, and the founder of the public defender movement. In the interview that follows, she discusses her career in law and her new autobiography, Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.

This book comes on the heels of the Clara Foltz book. Was the process of writing that book what got you started on writing the autobiography?

It may have been. The Clara Foltz book took me many years to finish. I thought: I’m going to die before I finish this and all my obituary will say is ‘She was working on this book all her life and never published’!  Also, it was just so hard because there were no papers and she was really an unknown figure even though she was very important in her day. I wrote articles along the way and taught. It finally occurred to me that as long as I kept teaching—and it’s not just the teaching, it’s letters of recommendation and mentoring and counseling—I would never finish. So I retired to finish the book. Then I had a year of selling the book, spreading the word about Clara.  I spoke 70 times, all over the country. I don’t think I could do that again.

Then I thought ‘Now what?’ I kind of missed the discipline of writing. And I had this idea of writing my story and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. Compared to Clara, it was just so easy.

The research was done.

The research was done! And I have, all my life, kept diaries. Daily diaries. They don’t tell a lot about what I was thinking, but they do tell about what I was doing, which brings back memories. And I had a lot of clippings and letters and things. I thought, I have so many stories. The only regret that I do have is the number of people that I love and have really interesting things to say about, but I just couldn’t put them all in. They just didn’t all fit.

Let’s talk about your career, which includes several firsts. You were the first woman to lead the public defender’s office. You joined in 1966?

Yes. Criminal defense is what I wanted to do. The public defender—we started it—the public defender in DC. It started with Gideon, which came down the year I graduated from law school. And in DC, they were trying to figure out how to supply lawyers to the indigent accused. So they started this pilot program called the Legal Aid Agency for the District of Columbia, and that’s what I always wanted—I wanted to work there. When I graduated from Yale I clerked for Judge Henry W. Edgerton and I met this very charismatic man, Gary Bellow, who was running the agency. It was just a tiny agency at the start with five or six people. It was experimental. But there were no openings, so after clerking I went to work for a criminal defense lawyer called Edward Bennett Williams. I learned what you can do if you have a lot of resources and work very hard.  But I still had this ambition to defend poor people, so after a few years I had the opportunity to join Legal Aid—but it was falling apart. The early idealism had been squelched and Gary Bellow had moved on to civil legal aid for the indigent.

Yes—I came and worked at what was still the Legal Aid Agency for a couple of years. Judge Bazelon was my friend and he had been the friend of the Judge that I clerked for, and I went to him and said ‘Our little Legal Aid Agency is just becoming a guilty plea mill and this is not what we want.’ And he was a consummate politician and he got this special committee appointed to investigate the service and they wrote a scathing report about how bad it was. That caused the man who was the director to leave.

Back then the Director’s salary was set at $16,000, which even in those days was not much. You couldn’t raise a family on it. So they had a lot of difficulty finding applicants. There were a lot of people who wanted the job, but couldn’t afford to take it.  In the end, I just decided I would go for it and I applied to be the director. I thought that I should. That it was a duty. And I became director in 1968. Then it turned into a huge prestigious job that made my career, but at the time it felt somewhat like a sacrifice, but one that I had to do—so I did.

And then you turned it around?
I did, I turned it around—with some help. I hired Norm Lefstein to be my deputy; he had applied to be the director, but then realized he couldn’t because he had little children. So I said ‘You know, the statute only sets a salary for the director. We could pay you more. So we paid him more than me, though he still took a cut from his job at the Justice Department. And he turned out to be just a brilliant administrator. He loved doing the kinds of things I didn’t enjoy, like working out budgets and testifying to Congress. He was sort of the consummate bureaucrat and I was the crusading defender and we were just a very good team together. We worked together very closely for 4 years under often stressful circumstances and we never had a quarrel or disagreement. I learned a lot about administration from him. He was great. Then we attracted all these young lawyers—top young lawyers—Supreme Court law clerks, the cream of the crop. We became a great agency and designed the best practices for public defense. .

And you renamed it.

We renamed it the Public Defender Service. I think we were the first to put “service” in the title. I think my favorite chapters in the memoir are stories of the days in public defense.

So, from there, riding high on a wave of huge success, you were getting publicity and you were invited by students at Georgetown to teach?

Well many Georgetown law students volunteered at the Public Defender’s. They came to me and asked me to teach a Women in Law class.

Was that one of the first Women in Law classes?

Yes. It certainly was one of the first in the country. There was this surge of people, of women, in law school. And a lot of them were really militant women, and they were vocal. They were so wonderful. They were really different from my generation—all we tried to do was not be noticed and to assimilate. But they didn’t. They said: ‘What is this? You got us here and nobody pays any attention to us and there are no women professors!’ That’s what they really went for.

So they convinced me to teach the course, one of the first in the country, , and then the Yale women learned about it and they invited me to go there, to teach at Yale. So I would get on a plane on Thursday afternoon, fly to New Haven, teach the course in the evening and come back the next day and sometimes go to court. It was invigorating!

So you were invited to interview for faculty positions at top law schools, including Harvard and Yale. What made you choose teaching as a fulltime career?

I realized that if you’re going to have an academic career, you’d better get started early. And I was already late.  And I could see that there was this door open for me. Think about it: a white woman public defender. This was not, at that time, especially, it was not what the usual law professor looked like at all. But I saw that I had a real chance that I might not have later—the sense to see that the opportunity was not going to be there forever. And I knew I loved teaching. I always had the idea that I would teach someday, so the time felt right.

And why Stanford?

It was a very hard decision. I knew people and I had a name in Washington and I loved it there. I always call it my “native city”. But I was really taken with Stanford.

Everybody was very unostentatious and easygoing here—it could be very stuffy at other schools.  I remember I was in an interview with four or five people, and this guy with a beard—and love beards—gets out a roller and starts rolling what I assumed must be a joint , but it turned out he rolled his own cigarettes and he started smoking and I just thought ‘My God!’. That man turned out to be Tom [Grey]! And then I heard the University motto: “Let the winds of freedom blow!” The whole thing was so wonderful.

Then you came here. Were you conscious of the fact that you were going to be the first woman faculty member?

Oh yes.

People were very gracious and polite. Right from the beginning, I just loved the students and they were very receptive and excited about having me, and having a woman—not only the women students, the men too.

You have this kind of vantage point now, at Stanford Law School and of the profession, and you were teaching when parity and equality in legal education happened. 50/50 men and women—it’s pretty much been that for the last 20 years, I think.

Yes. I worry about it. And I do think it’ll change, but it’s still a work in progress. An alarming number of women leave the profession after having been successful at it. I think it’s partly that they don’t see how many things there are that you can do. You don’t have to get on a single track and become a slave. But I don’t know. So much of the actual practice of law involves this incredible hard work—drudgery almost—and that doesn’t have to be the way it is. Women may organize with male allies to change that.

What are you going to do next, Barbara?

That’s a good question. I was thinking of starting a blog, writing about current issues, and maybe telling some of the stories I left out of Fish Raincoats.

I feel like I still have lots to say about public defense, the criminal justice system, women and the law. All my subjects are still important and need attention.