Shirley M. Hufstedler ’49 is a mountain climber. She has scaled peaks all over the world, including 13 treks in the Himalayas, up to altitudes of 20,000 feet. But these conquests shrink in comparison to what she has accomplished in her career. Recently honored by The American Lawyer with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, she has successfully traversed a steep and sometimes rocky path en route to reaching the pinnacle of the legal profession.

Born Shirley Mount in 1925, she was encouraged by her parents to pursue higher education. And while she wasn’t expected to have a “career,” she was expected to work outside the home. She majored in business at the University of New Mexico at the insistence of her father. Then she took a class in commercial law. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, so I decided law school would be a good fit. And when a friend mentioned he was going to Stanford, I decided to apply and was accepted.” •

Very few women attended Stanford Law School in those days and Hufstedler found law school to be “unbelievably formidable.” Five women entered with the class of ’49, but three soon dropped out.

“In the class that entered in 1946, it was soon apparent that Shirley was as brilliant as she was pretty,” recalls Hufstedler’s classmate and friend the Honorable Warren Christopher ’49. “Her law school days foreshadowed a career of exceptional excellence and accomplishment, which continues to this very day.”

And although Hufstedler graduated at the top of her class and was an officer of the Stanford Law Review, the only employment opportunity the school could suggest was a position as a legal secretary in a probate firm.

Instead, Hufstedler, who married classmate Seth in 1949, began doing legal research and writing briefs for other lawyers. She then opened a one-woman law office in Los Angeles in 1951, where she continued ghostwriting briefs and began taking cases that other lawyers had rejected. She also volunteered for the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation.

Her real break came when former Stanford Law professor Charles Corker contacted her. He was working for the California

Remembrance: Shirley Hufstedler, LLB ’49

Attorney General’s Office and asked her to assist with a multi-state case involving water rights to the Colorado River. This, in turn, gave her the coveted opportunity to write briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. While that litigation was pending, Attorney General Pat Brown became governor and appointed Hufstedler in 1961 to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. At the time she was the only woman among 120 judges.

Hufstedler excelled and was named presiding judge of all the pretrial courts. Another appointment, as judge of the L.A. County Superior Court’s Law and Motion Department, soon followed, and it was there that she enjoyed what she describes as one of her most memorable accomplishments: “I created the practice of issuing tentative prehearing decisions in all my cases, which was unheard of at the time.” This contribution to judicial efficiency, which was soon adopted by other judges, vastly reduced her time on the bench and enabled her to fill in for judges in other departments.

In 1965, California’s Chief Justice Roger Traynor appointed Hufstedler to the appellate department of the L.A. County Superior Court. She quickly rose through the state court appellate ranks, being appointed by Governor Brown in 1966 to the California Courts of Appeal. It was in 1968 while she was serving on the California Courts of Appeal that she was tapped by President Lyndon Johnson for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. At the time, and for many years thereafter, Hufstedler was the only female federal appellate judge in the country, which, she notes, “was not surprising as there was a very small pool of women from which to choose.”

Janet Cooper Alexander (MA ’73), Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law, clerked for Hufstedler and describes her with awe and admiration: “Shirley Hufstedler is my ideal judge. She has a fierce and abiding sense of justice. She might be the most brilliant legal mind I’ve ever met.” And from the clerk’s perspective, working for Hufstedler was “perfect,” according to Alexander. “She didn’t assign bench memos because she read all the briefs herself, and she handled all the run-of-the-mill cases herself, dictating finished opinions as her first drafts.” Clerks did collaborate with Hufstedler on the difficult and important cases and, Alexander says, “It was a marvelous education to talk with her about them.” Alexander also credits Hufstedler with teaching her how to write. “Nothing has made me more proud as a writer than going from having my drafts returned completely covered in red ink to getting them back with only a few notes,” she says.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Hufstedler to become the first secretary of education, reportedly saying at the time that he wanted “a strong, creative thinker” who would act independently of the education lobbyists (Time, 1979). Although she knew this meant that she would not return to the federal bench— “it just isn’t done”—she accepted because, says Hufstedler, “When the president calls and asks you to serve your country, you don’t say, ‘No.’ ” In Washington, D.C., she worked 18 to 20 hours a day, creating the new department from scratch in the face of a federal hiring freeze and a daunting budget-approval process. The hectic pace made seeing her husband and son in Los Angeles difficult and she gratefully returned to the private sector when President Carter’s tenure ended in 1981. Then she began a new phase of her career— teaching. In addition to spending a year at Stanford Law in an endowed chair, she taught at Harvard and Oxford. She also maintained an active appellate practice, which she continues to this day at Morrison & Foerster.

In her role as elder stateswoman, Hufstedler not only enjoys her legal work but also relishes the opportunity to mentor new attorneys. Hufstedler sagely observes that “practicing law is just like climbing a mountain: You don’t go up a mile at a time, you go up one foot at a time.” She should know.