Legal Matters Q&A: Babcock

A conversation with Barbara Babcock, the First Woman Faculty Appointment at Stanford Law

Legal Matters 1
Barbara Babcock, Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita

Barbara Babcock, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita, who passed away on April 18, 2020, is interviewed by her former student and colleague Norman Spaulding, JD ’97, Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, over the course of several days in March 2020.

NORMAN SPAULDING: I thought we might start with the things that made you want to be a lawyer and particularly a trial lawyer. There are very few cases these days that actually go to trial.

BARBARA BABCOCK: I know. Indeed. There weren’t a lot then either. And you know being a public defender, we went to trial quite a bit. I mean, I had at least 30 trials to juries.

SPAULDING: Thirty trials to verdict?

BABCOCK: To verdict, yes. That was over a six-year period.

SPAULDING: Do you remember your first trial?

BABCOCK: I remember the first trial very well. I had been to trial before with Edward Bennett Williams doing the second chair work, not ever speaking but writing instructions and sample instructions and motions and preparing people to take the stand. Williams really did believe that our clients, who were mostly accused of being organized crime figures—and some of them were indeed organized crime figures, though not necessarily guilty of what they were charged with—would not accept a woman.

SPAULDING: As a lawyer?

BABCOCK: As a lawyer. But I knew that they would, because I talked to them while preparing them to take the stand. I could see that and, in fact, later in life some of my former clients told me that I was the only straight [noncriminal] person that they’d ever been friends with.

SPAULDING: What do you think it was that made your clients repose trust in you?

BABCOCK: Actually, Norm, I think part of it was that I was a woman. And I exhibited an interest in them. They were interested in coming off as tough and unsentimental but they were easy to break down into very sentimental beings.

SPAULDING: And so it was a kind of a human connection?

BABCOCK: It was definitely a human connection. And I think it really helped that I was interested in them. I had never met people like this. I was interested.

SPAULDING: Did you not feel intimidated by them?

BABCOCK: Not at all. Not in the least.

SPAULDING: Was that because you were there to help, and that diffused any possible negativity?

BABCOCK: Yes,  but honestly, Norm, I don’t feel intimidated by anybody and I never have.

SPAULDING: Who were models for you?

BABCOCK: When I think about it, my dad. He called himself a country lawyer. And he was. He went to law school at night, played poker and bridge to earn his tuition and worked at the Masonic library to earn a salary.

SPAULDING: And he hung out a shingle?

BABCOCK: And then he hung out a shingle. He was a brilliant man and he was a great storyteller. “A woman came into the office today,” he would say, and it had a kind of rhythm and rhyme to it, and the woman had this problem. And only a lawyer could solve the problem. So the lawyer was the hero.

“Everybody should have a trial. If you don’t get a trial, you don’t get an appeal. You’re in prison for years without an appeal. And that wrecks people’s lives.”

Professor Barbara Babcock

SPAULDING: So, that would explain your wanting to become a lawyer.  Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to do trial work?

BABCOCK: Well, from an early age, I loved to make speeches and do public speaking. And I always imagined myself with a jury, you know.

SPAULDING: Was this the Perry Mason generation?

BABCOCK: Well, I did watch Perry Mason religiously. And he was always getting people off at the last minute at the trial. But I really had in mind that being a lawyer, you were always on the right side representing somebody—a poor person, or an oppressed person, and you’d be saving them. And you’d be famous for it. You see, fame is something I longed for.

SPAULDING: It’s interesting because that fits the 19th-century model, before large corporate law firms become very prominent and prestige started to shift from the courtroom to the boardroom in the practice of law.

BABCOCK: Oh, very much.

SPAULDING: At the time you attended very few women were admitted to law school. And you made law review. Did you try for a Supreme Court clerkship?

BABCOCK: You know, the law school picked out people to recommend for the really big clerkships.

SPAULDING: And you were passed over.

BABCOCK: Yes. And I didn’t get to be an officer in law review, which really would have completed my resume in a nice way, and it was something I liked doing. But I just knew that those were things that I didn’t get, because of being a woman.

And sometimes people said it, as in law review: “We had a woman a couple of years ago; we’ve already done that and she didn’t work out.” But I always felt that’s part of what drove me, that if I didn’t succeed and wasn’t really good, it was going to hold other women back.

SPAULDING: So there was pressure but there was also a lot of self-confidence, and the sense that there was an element of surprise in you.

BABCOCK: Right. I was not what people expected.

SPAULDING: Can we come back to your work as a trial attorney?

BABCOCK: Well, I worked for Williams and one time, after I had been there for a while, I began asking, “Couldn’t I have a witness? Couldn’t I present this motion that I’ve written?” And he always said, “No, the clients wouldn’t stand for it.” So I said, “Why don’t you ask the clients?” I knew they would say okay. But he just, you know, rolled his eyes. Anyway, he had a close associate who did give me a chance in the courtroom. But, again, it was a secondary role. But I got a taste of it with Williams.

SPAULDING: So, you had to leave Edward Bennett Williams in order to get your first trial.

BABCOCK: Exactly. I joined the legal aid office, which was a pilot project and the predecessor to what we built, which became the public defender’s office. 

SPAULDING: Were they nervous about hiring a woman lawyer to be a trial lawyer?

BABCOCK: No! I think they were excited to get somebody coming from Williams. Gary Bellow, who was from Harvard, had been hired to establish and run this little pilot project and to see what was the best way of delivering defense services to poor people in D.C. And so he hired fancy, fancy young lawyers—like me! People who had been to the best schools but who wanted to try cases and represent poor people. And I was the first woman he hired.

SPAULDING: What was your first case like?

BABCOCK: The first case that was all my own involved the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. And my client was a young black man and he was rather small in stature, and he had never been arrested, though he grew up in one of the worst crime-ridden neighborhoods.

SPAULDING: And this was in D.C.?

BABCOCK: Yes. I love those D.C. juries because you have government workers who were facing all kinds of discrimination themselves. And they admired government workers like me and wanted to help me along.

Anyway, we were sent out to trial in front of Judge William B. Bryant—he was our hero at the public defender’s office. I used to go watch him give closing arguments when I was clerking. He just really talked to the jury as one of them. And not just the black jurors, the white jurors too.

Legal Matters 2
Book jacket of Barbara Babcock’s memoir

SPAULDING: So he was the judge in your first trial.

BABCOCK: Yes. And he was also the first African-American to be appointed to the district court.

SPAULDING: Does it seem peculiar to you that so many lawyers these days are as keen as they are to avoid trial? 

BABCOCK: Yes, it does. Everybody should have a trial. If you don’t get a trial, you don’t get an appeal. You’re in prison for years without an appeal. And that wrecks people’s lives.

SPAULDING: Trial lawyers describe being in trial as all consuming—you’re thinking about what’s going to happen the next day in court, and the day after that. Did you enjoy that aspect of it?

BABCOCK: I loved it all, Norm. I really did. I loved the performance aspect too. But it made me sick every day. I got up and threw up. But once I was in the courtroom, sitting there with my client, getting up and announcing, “Ready,” I was in another world.

SPAULDING: How did you carry the weight of having your client’s fate in your hands?

BABCOCK: That’s what makes it exciting. That’s why not being concerned with guilt or innocence is very liberating. You know, because most of the people that I got off—and I got a lot of people off in trial, if I went to trial—were ones with cases that I prepared to the hilt. And the more that you prepared, and the better your defense, the more likely you were to get a decent plea. And, see, that’s what some lawyers don’t seem to get.

SPAULDING: So, you wanted to represent people who were in a vulnerable position and maybe never had somebody stand up for them. Why this version of being a trial lawyer?

BABCOCK: Well, it’s partly the underdog, you know, to represent people who really don’t have a chance in society, and you can give them a chance.

SPAULDING: I want to ask one last question about trial. There are a lot of folks these days who think trials don’t matter. As a trial lawyer, do you think trial still matters?

BABCOCK: I do. I think it matters very much for the individual, to actually have the lawyer, to have a case, and to have the client’s story told. But I think it matters also for the client’s community, and it matters as a sign that the law does have real meaning and equal access. That’s one of the ideals of our country, and this is the playing out of it—the vivid dramatization of it and what goes on behind closed doors.

SPAULDING: So you made this remarkable transition. You were asked to teach a class on women in the law. Is it true that teaching had never really been in your mind?

BABCOCK: No, but I thought I would retire to teaching.

SPAULDING: Oh, so that it would just come later.

BABCOCK: Yes. But I really had so little idea what was involved. I had one or two good teachers at Yale, but not really dedicated, great teachers. They were great people, some were fine scholars, but actual great teachers were few and far between.

SPAULDING: So when you started teaching this class, did you feel comfortable in the classroom? Did it light a spark for you?

BABCOCK: Oh, yes. Once you’ve been in a courtroom and talked to a jury and dealt with a judge, there’s no public speaking situation that could bother you. And I had been a public speaker and a debater from a very early age. But even so, in fact, I was surprised at how hard it was—I really thought it would come more easily to me than it did.

SPAULDING: The way I recall it, you were pulled out of trial work by women law students at Georgetown who were getting experience in the D.C. public defender’s office—who wanted women on the other side of the podium.


SPAULDING: Did you feel that teaching would be a calling, if not more significant than your trial work, then at least equal to it?

BABCOCK: At the time I felt my “real life” was interrupted! But I knew that I wanted to teach someday, and I began to see that, as “dazzling” as my record was for who I was, you know, I hadn’t clerked on the Supreme Court, and there weren’t any teachers who said, “She’s the greatest thing ever.”

“And then to come to a place where, while many people were kind and wanted to be helpful, I felt that there was a deep suspicion of me. What was important to me was not what was important to most of my colleagues at the school.”

Professor Barbara Babcock

SPAULDING: Even though you had graduated Order of the Coif.

BABCOCK: I’d gotten A’s, but nobody was my real mentor. But—I saw that this was a chance that wasn’t going to be available again.

SPAULDING: Were there elements of your own feminism and participation in the women’s movement that made teaching law feel like a calling? In addition to the opportunities that would be presented, by getting tenure at an elite law school yourself?

BABCOCK: I think there were. When the women’s movement came on, I didn’t really make a big issue of being mistreated because of gender. I was more, you know, put your head down and forge ahead and win.

But when these students [interning at her public defender’s office] came to me, I said, “I don’t know anything about this, I haven’t studied it.” And they said, “Well, you’ll learn! And we’ll help you. We have a syllabus!”

SPAULDING: Teaching that class then gets you on the radar of a lot of schools.


SPAULDING: And produces the offer to come to Stanford. Why Stanford? Was there something about the pull of California, or San Francisco?

BABCOCK: It was a combination but, you know, a big part of the story is Mike Wald. Because Mike Wald had come to work for the public defender, on leave and paid for by Stanford. And I got to know him.

SPAULDING: Did you have hesitations at that time about being the only woman on the faculty? By then you moved in so many spheres of the profession in which you might have been the only woman in the room.

BABCOCK: I was really used to it, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. There really were people who didn’t want me. They didn’t want a woman generally, but they didn’t want me in particular. I don’t know exactly why.

SPAULDING: Perhaps because you came out of practice?

BABCOCK: I came out of adversary practice, criminal defense. And that’s all I had. I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got myself in a position where I might actually fail. I’ve had nothing but success, and now … .” I really was scared.

SPAULDING: You joined during a transformational period for the law school.

BABCOCK: Oh, yes, it really was.

SPAULDING: You arrived just after Judge Thelton Henderson, who was hired to increase minority recruitment, and the same year Bill Gould, the first African-American member of the faculty, was also appointed. The student population was changing, the faculty in at least some respects was changing and diversifying. Do you remember what that felt like?

BABCOCK: There were people who were supportive, especially the younger people. But the old heads, no. They were really against both movements. And they did not hire another woman until I left to work in the Carter administration in 1977.

SPAULDING: Had you been advocating for the law school to do so?

BABCOCK: Oh my god, yes. Yes. And I knew lots of neat women too.

SPAULDING: Do you think it was just straight-up sexism?

BABCOCK: Oh, yes. They said things in a meeting just
openly. Like, “I know we need a companion for Barbara.”

SPAULDING: Now, did you feel like you just settled in naturally to teaching? Or were there parts of teaching that you found challenging and had to work on?

BABCOCK: Oh, I thought that I would just settle right in and it would come naturally because I was really good at asking the right questions and asking interesting questions.

SPAULDING: And at being in front of a jury and holding people’s attention. And explaining the law. 

BABCOCK: Yes, getting people to see the law as I saw it. Right from the beginning, I loved teaching—especially first-year students, but I didn’t really feel comfortable.

SPAULDING: What piece do you think was missing?

BABCOCK: What I really wanted was to get the students engaged and talking. And not just the really smart ones—they raised their hand almost every time and they were almost always right. They have something good to say. And you could just run a class on them talking.

SPAULDING: It sounds like you found points of connection between being a trial lawyer and being a classroom teacher. Again, thinking about the classroom, rather than making elite legal education hierarchical, you wanted to start from the premise that it should be inclusive.

BABCOCK: Which goes right back to my story.

SPAULDING: That everybody who gets into Stanford really does deserve to be there and if they get the kind of attention and support that they deserve, they’ll all flourish.

BABCOCK: Yes, that was my belief and the way that I taught. The other thing is that I enjoyed it.

But the fact is that it was really hard, especially at the beginning. I came from a situation in D.C. where I was really known. And I’d done this at the age of 30 and become the head of the public defender office there, an office that became really strong, I have to say, under my leadership.

SPAULDING: And it still is.

BABCOCK: And then to come to a place where, while many people were kind and wanted to be helpful, I felt that there was a deep suspicion of me. What was important to me was not what was important to most of my colleagues at the school.

SPAULDING: And yet you didn’t bend. Because you figured out how to write pioneering work on Batson, and access to justice, and above all your biography of another pioneering woman lawyer, Clara Shortridge Foltz, alongside launching the larger project to gather biographical research on other leading women lawyers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and all the while you continued to spend an enormous amount of time developing your teaching.  Award-winning teaching. And over and above that mentoring students and spending extraordinary amounts of time guiding them professionally outside of the classroom.


SPAULDING: From what I can tell from my time as a student with you and from conversations with alums, you were particularly generous with your time with minority and women students. And really helping any student for whom law school was difficult for one reason or another.

BABCOCK: Yes. I did. I just always told them that it’s hard but to seek out mentors. One of the things about good lawyers is that they like to be mentors, so they’re interested in talking with younger people about how to solve problems. They like to do it! And, you know, I found that I like to give advice too. When I look back on it though, I think, where did I get off? I mean, when they came to me for advice, I gave it to them, and no tiptoeing around. But I don’t have a degree in counseling. I’m not sure I would be so sure today.

SPAULDING: Stanford became known as one of the top schools that genuinely takes teaching seriously over the same period of time—a place where you can find your voice as a lawyer without losing yourself in the process.  I hope you know that you modeled that for several generations of students and teachers. Setting that value at the core of our mission. We are blessed to have had your care and advice and leadership and support. A lot of folks like me wouldn’t be where we are if you hadn’t done that.

BABCOCK: Oh, I love that. I love you for saying that, too. One of the things in my life that I really am proudest of is my students.

SPAULDING: Thank you for taking so much time with me, Barbara. This has been a real pleasure.

BABCOCK: Thank you, Norm. SL