In 2007, when a pair of enterprising Stanford Law School students wrote to 100 top firms urging them to end billable-hour drudgery and otherwise ease sweatshop-like conditions for associates, they mostly got the Bronx cheer.
Most firms blew them off. “Oh, these whiny elite law students” was how one of them summed up the legal world’s typical pushback to their initiative.
An exception, they found, was Mary B. Cranston, JD ’75 (BA ’70), who had recently retired as senior partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, where she’d served as the first female chair of an AmLaw 100 firm. She remains Pillsbury’s chair emerita.
Cranston was then and continues to be a pioneer in promoting women, diversity, and humane, family-friendly working conditions for corporate America. Pillsbury, during her eight years as chair, was ranked in the top 100 U.S. companies for working mothers (by Fortune Magazine).
In 2005, Cranston won the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Award, its highest honor for lifetime achievement by a female lawyer, and on October 26 she will be inducted into the ChIPs Hall of Fame, celebrating women in tech, law, intellectual property, and policy.
“She opened the doors for many of us, women, LGBTQ+ attorneys and staff, and attorneys and staff of color, encouraging us to build a culture where we could be our authentic selves and do our best work,” says Marina Park, Pillsbury’s managing partner while Cranston was chair.
Craig Holt Segall, JD ’07, and Andrew Canter, JD ’08, the SLS students who wrote to Pillsbury in 2007, saw Cranston as an exception to hidebound mandarins of the law clinging to outdated work-place norms.
“She has been a force for change on these issues,” Canter says, referring to the impact of high billable expectations on associate life—and the need to move away from the billable-hour model altogether.
Humane, inclusive corporate cultures flourish, Cranston says. “Trying to make family-friendly policies at Pillsbury, we were very much state of the art. I’ve been a proselytizer for the idea that you get more if you use all your talent. Diversity is an important accelerator of top performance.”
Mariann Byerwalter (BA ’82), a Stanford trustee emerita, former Stanford CFO, and former vice president of business affairs, worked with Cranston, who was herself a university trustee for 10 years. Cranston was awarded the Stanford Medal for “decades of distinguished volunteer service,” including at Stanford Law School where she serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council and was on the Board of Visitors for 26 years and the Dean’s Strategic Council for 13 years.
“A hallmark of Mary’s legacy has been her laser-like, consistent focus on the advancement of women and underrepresented minorities at Stanford and beyond,” Byerwalter says. “Her advocacy is not just in response to recent headlines. She recognized the critical need for inclusiveness and advancement from the classroom to the boardroom early on and was often the only one to initiate these conversations—well before it became a focus.”
Indeed, from her earliest days as an associate, Cranston has promoted advances in law firm “livability”—fracturing gendered career and family expectations. In 1978, when she’d been at Pillsbury for three years and was working as an antitrust litigator, she asked for and secured a pioneering firm-wide maternity leave policy so she could have a child.
Cranston’s ties to pro-equality activism and to Stanford run deep, beginning with her ambitious, strong-willed mother. When Bettye Luhnow Bailey (BA ’43, MA ’46), who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, discovered that eastern colleges were closed to women, she traveled west to Stanford—where she became one of the first women to earn an advanced economics degree. She then became the first female employee at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
For Cranston, the university has always felt like home.
“I was born at Stanford, at Hoover Pavilion,” she says. Her mother, alongside Cranston and her twin sister, Susan Bailey Harnden, MD (BA ’70), and Cranston’s daughter Susie (BS ’00, MBA ’04), are the first three-generation family in Cap and Gown, the Stanford women’s honor society.
Early on, Cranston learned a critical lesson from her mother. When nuns informed her sister Susan, then in second grade, that her wish to become a doctor was impossible, their mother wouldn’t hear it, telling Susan, “Well, that’s ridiculous. You can do whatever you want.” Cranston says, “My mom proceeded to find the only female pediatrician probably in the entire Bay Area, and she became our pediatrician. That was my mom. She was really a pioneer herself.”
When she arrived at Pillsbury in 1975, Cranston was drawn to anti- trust litigation. But she felt ambushed by the workplace realities of the time. “From a perspective of knowing the law and having all the skill sets that I needed, I felt very prepared,” she says. “What I wasn’t prepared for, because nobody could have been, was how difficult the unconscious bias—which was completely unconscious on both the parts of the men and the women—was going to be, and how much of my life has been waking up to that, helping myself, and then trying to help others with it.”
At Pillsbury, Cranston litigated more than 300 class actions in state and federal court, handled civil and criminal antitrust matters, represented clients in securities cases, and advised on the economics of regulated industries.
As chair of the firm from 1999 to 2006, she merged Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro with firms in New York and Washington, D.C., to create today’s fully international Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. She put women in management slots and borrowed organizational structures from other successful businesses. We “were considered quite the innovators at the time,” she says.
Cranston worked alongside managing partner Park. “We were the dynamic duo,” Cranston says. Park recalls of Cranston, “When we were elected as the firm’s leaders in 1999, she supported me every step of the way as a leader and as a working mother with three young children.”
Watching in admiration was Kathleen M. Sullivan, Stanford Law’s first female dean, with whom Cranston, then a trustee, worked closely. “Mary Cranston’s trailblazing ascent to the chairmanship of such a major firm was a profound inspiration to me and countless other women lawyers in the generations that followed,” says Sullivan, who is now a name partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
“Her love of Stanford was as great as her love of the law—she gave me generous and helpful advice throughout my deanship and modeled a kind of wisdom I could only aspire to. She is truly one of my legal heroines.”
Since retiring from active duty at Pillsbury, Cranston has kept busy. She served as board chair of the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital for five years until 2016. And she continues serving on the boards of public companies in the financial, biotech, chemical, and other sectors—as well as volunteering at the law school.
“I’ve always prioritized how to give back, and I love Stanford, so that’s taken a big part of my free time. And I’ve been a voice in other boardrooms, hopefully giving people a woman to look up to.”
John Roemer is a legal affairs journalist with a long career at the Daily Journal.