It takes a very special combination of talent, timing, and perhaps luck to be a “first” — first to fly alone across the Pacific, first to walk on the moon, first to do the seemingly undoable.
As a woman embarking on a legal career in the 1960s, an appointment to Stanford Law School’s faculty may have seemed as unimaginable as a moonwalk. But with the second-wave feminist movement and antiwar protests as backdrops, history and aspiration and changing tides collided in 1972 when Barbara Allen Babcock was appointed to the regular faculty, position at Stanford Law School, becoming the first woman to achieve that honor. But that wasn’t her only “first.”
In 1966 Babcock had joined a pilot project established by the District of Columbia to deliver legal defense services to the poor of the nation’s capital. In 1968 she was appointed the first director of D.C.’s newly named Public Defender Service, the success of the office gaining national recognition as a model and ultimately leading to Babcock’s later recruitment to Stanford.
Barbara Babcock — an award-winning professor and giant in the legal profession — passed away at the age of 81 on April 18, 2020, at her home in Stanford, California, after a long battle with cancer. Her husband of 41 years Thomas Grey, the Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, Emeritus, was at her side.
“Barbara was not simply someone who left an enormously significant public mark, she was someone who was beloved by our students in a way most of us could only dream of,” says Jenny Martinez, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. “I get to talk to our alums frequently, and I can’t tell you how many mention Barbara as one of the most influential people in their lives. She was a model of personal warmth and grace, a fantastic storyteller, a true friend and mentor to hundreds of our students.”
Public Defenders Office
Babcock liked to tell a story from her time as a public defender in the newly formed Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia about how she had developed a reputation among her clients that spread even to those in jail.
“When people would be put in jail, everybody would say to them, ‘Get the Bad Cock! You’ve got to get the Bad Cock!’ And they would go in front of the juries and ask for me in those terms,” she recalled in a recent Q&A for the upcoming issue of Stanford Lawyer.
Babcock was still a new attorney when she joined the pilot project that became the Public Defender Service, but her accomplishments were mounting. After graduating from Yale Law School Order of the Coif (and being chosen for law review), she clerked for Judge Henry Edgerton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then became an associate at Williams & Connolly. But she wanted to do legal aid work. So Babcock joined the Legal Aid Agency in 1966, underfunded and lacking leadership, it was at a crossroad. That created an opening for her — a woman — to be considered for the directorship of the newly formed service.
“Yes — I came and worked at what was still the Legal Aid Agency for a couple of years. Judge Bazelon [D.C. Circuit] was my friend and he had been a 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.’ He was a consummate politician and he got a special committee appointed to investigate the service and it wrote a scathing report about how bad the agency was. That caused the man who was the director to leave,” Babcock recalled in a 2016 interview with Stanford Lawyer. “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 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 make.”
“When Barbara became head of the D.C. Public Defender Service, she was determined to provide the same level of service to indigent defendants as the Williams firm provided to its wealthy clients,” says Michael Wald, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Emeritus. “She established unique policies, including having every client represented by an individual attorney rather than the ‘office as a whole,’ allowing attorneys to take new cases only if they had adequate time to provide complete representation, and providing social workers to work with attorneys on sentencing, especially in juvenile court.”
Wald himself joined Babcock’s team in 1971 during a sabbatical from Stanford Law and even co-counseled a murder case with her, which he describes as “an amazing education.”
“Because of her leadership, a position at PDS became one of the most sought-after jobs in the country; it was filled with former Supreme Court clerks,” he recalls. “She worked personally with all new lawyers, conveying not only her skills but her sense of the role of the attorney. She was a masterful mentor, always respectful, totally engaged, and blessed with a charm that made people responsive to her enormous toughness.”
Wald returned to Stanford Law and encouraged then dean Tom Ehrlich to recruit Babcock to the faculty.
Coming to Stanford Law
While still running the D.C. legal services, Babcock was invited to design and teach a new class at Georgetown Law called Women and the Law — one of the first legal courses focused on women’s issues in the country.
“There was this surge of people, of women, in law school. …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,” Babcock recalled in the 2016 Stanford Lawyer interview. Babcock had taught the same class at Yale Law before being considered for the Stanford Law faculty.
“When I became dean, my priority was to change the sad reality that we had no women or people of color on the faculty. We were all white men,” says Tom Ehrlich, dean of Stanford Law from 1971 through 1976, who went on to serve as the first president of the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C. “Barbara stood out for her abilities and what she had done in the Public Defender’s office. She was also brilliant.”
Ehrlich recalls the turbulent atmosphere on campus and across the country in 1972, with protests against the Vietnam War and movements for equality and justice. Along with the students, the faculty was changing. And Babcock’s hire was an important part of that change.
“It quickly became apparent to everyone that she was a terrific addition to the faculty. Her success here made it easier to hire more women on the faculty,” he says. “She was a pathbreaker on many levels. She stands very tall in the history of Stanford Law School.” Babcock was selected by the graduating class four times to receive the coveted John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching.
But Babcock’s influence went beyond the classroom; she became a role model for countless students.
“When I arrived at the law school in 1971, the faculty had not one female member. The following year, Barbara Babcock joined the faculty and the law school changed forever,” recalls Judge LaDoris Cordell, JD ’74, retired judge of the Superior Court of California who was assistant dean for the Office of Student Affairs at Stanford Law School from 1978 to 1982. “Barbara Babcock changed my life for the better. She was my professor, my mentor, and my dear, dear friend. A terrific teacher, Barbara loved the law and adored her students, who, like me, adored her.”
“Anyone who had Civ Pro with Barbara Babcock came to understand within about a week that it would be unlike any other mandatory 1L course, and possibly unlike anything else we would do at law school,” says Dahlia Lithwick, JD ’96, who now covers the U.S. Supreme Court for Slate. “Under cover of teaching us dry rules of procedure, Babcock was putting on a clinic about civil justice, racial equality, poverty, and the importance of lawyers in society. And under cover of her folksy and hilarious ‘bon mots’ she was teaching us that it was possible to be a warm, compassionate, and moral attorney. I’m not sure we knew how subversive this all was until much later. But for many of us, hers was the compass we followed for years and decades.”
“We became good friends right from the start,” says retired district court Judge Thelton Henderson, who was recruited to Stanford Law School in 1968 as the first assistant dean in charge of minority admissions. “She brought in a feminist sensibility and she had a huge influence on the law school — a huge influence at every level. There must be hundreds of women lawyers out there that she inspired and sent out into the world and made them feel whole. She also recommended many talented students for clerkships.”
One such student was Norm Spaulding, JD ’97, Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law. “To everyone who had her as a teacher, Barbara was a beacon — a constant, reassuring reminder that we had made the right choice in coming to law as a calling and to Stanford to study it, that a life spent in the practice of law could be fascinating, meaningful, fun work, that we could improve the law, the profession, and the lives of ordinary people,” Spaulding recalls. “I would not have finished law school without her support and guidance, and I know I am not alone in that. Few rise as high as she and then reach down to pull so many up alongside, shoulder their burdens, and launch them still farther. Fewer still do it with her eagerness, wide open heart, and grace.”
And her storytelling was legendary.
“Two of her courtroom stories stand out: She told us that as a defense attorney, during jury selection, she would ask prospective jurors if they had any opinion about the guilt or innocence of her client. They would shake their heads, indicating that they had no opinion. ‘Wrong!’ she would scold. ‘He’s innocent. Innocent until the prosecution proves otherwise beyond reasonable doubt.’ She also said that she bristled when prosecutors introduced themselves as representing ‘The People.’ She said that as a public defender she represented the people too — ‘just one at a time,’ ” recalls Michael Romano, JD ’04, director of Stanford Law’s Three Strikes Project.
Critically, Babcock brought practical legal experience and a commitment to clinical education to Stanford. Nancy Hendry, JD ’75, former general counsel of the Peace Corps and vice president and deputy general counsel of the Public Broadcasting Service who now serves as a senior adviser for the International Association of Women Judges, recalls taking the first clinic Babcock taught in the fall of 1974 that focused on sexual discrimination cases.
“The clinic provided an analytical framework and vocabulary to deal with these big issues that larger society and the law school were dealing with,” Hendry says. Babcock enlisted women lawyers from the public interest firm she co-founded, Equal Rights Advocates. “Barbara was a big piece of making these issues important and valued.”
From 1977 to 1979, Babcock took a brief leave from Stanford to serve as assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Carter administration, but afterwards she quickly returned to teaching and tackling big issues at Stanford.
In 1982, when Stanford Law officially piloted its first clinic, a student-initiative called the East Palo Alto Community Law Project — precursor to today’s Stanford Community Law Clinic — Babcock signed on as a board member. One of the students instrumental in launching the project was Jim Steyer, JD ’83, who now says Babcock’s involvement was critical to its ongoing success.
“Barbara was hugely important in the early days because of her wise counsel and the great respect with which the other key SLS faculty regarded her,” says Steyer. The clinic’s first student director, he also took Criminal Procedure and Criminal Law with Babcock. “We had to hire lawyers and set up the office and develop a curriculum. We couldn’t have done it without Barbara. And we couldn’t have gotten the law project integrated into the SLS program without her.”
“I suspect that Barbara’s role in highlighting the historical arc of women in the profession — and her role in reshaping that arc, both at SLS in particular and in the broader legal community — are quite familiar to most folks here. I am less certain that it is part of SLS lore, though it surely should be, that Barbara was integral to the development and ‘mainstreaming’ of clinical education, first simulated, then with live clients here at Stanford, or that her contributions to Women’s Legal History went far beyond her own projects — that she nurtured dozens of others who sought to learn about the law’s impact on women and women’s impact on the law,” says Mark Kelman, vice dean of Stanford Law School.
Clara Foltz, Kindred Spirit
While many looked up to Babcock, it was the trailblazing lawyer Clara Foltz whom Babcock herself admired and who became the subject of her 2011 book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (Stanford Press). Foltz was famous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a jury lawyer, public intellectual, leader of the women’s movement, inventor of the role of public defender, and legal reformer. But her story was all but lost until Babcock decided to make recovering it her life’s work. That undertaking led to Babcock’s retirement from teaching.
“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,” said Babcock in a 2016 Stanford Lawyer interview.
The book was widely praised. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even wrote a Stanford Law Review article about it. And Babcock spent years doing readings for fans throughout the country.
“It’s hard today for both men and women to imagine what it was like in the days when there were few women lawyers, judges, and law professors and even harder to imagine what it was like to be one of those few women lawyers, judges, and law professors. You had to be somebody very special. And if you had to pick one word to describe Barbara Babcock, that’s the word: special. A special lawyer, a special teacher, a special scholar,” says Lawrence Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law. “It was a labor of love for her to spend years writing the life of another special woman, Clara Foltz, and to restore Clara to her proper role in legal history. A century apart, two women pioneers.”
Foltz’s story resonated with readers, much like Babcock’s own story told in Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.
A Trailblazing Career
“Barbara’s memoir is filled with episodes from a spellbinding storyteller,” says Pamela S. Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law. “One of my favorites involves Barbara’s representation of a woman named Geraldine, who faced life in prison for a drug-possession offense. Barbara advanced a novel mental-illness defense: ‘inadequate personality.’ When the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’ Geraldine burst into tears, threw her arms around Barbara, and exclaimed, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ Barbara used the story frequently to talk both about juries and the special vocation of the public defender. But the reason I always remember the story is because I have never known anyone with a more adequate personality than Barbara’s.”
Brooksley Born, JD ’64 (BA ’61), former chairperson of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and retired Arnold & Porter partner, helped to prepare Babcock for her senate testimony during the Robert Bork hearings in 1987. The two first met in 1963 when Borne interviewed for a clerkship with Judge Henry W. Edgerton and Babcock was his clerk. She remembers her friend of nearly six decades fondly. “Barbara was a true trailblazer in opening opportunities for women in the law and was a role model, mentor and dear friend to so many of us.”
Babcock will be remembered as a generous colleague.
“I had been teaching Civil Procedure for a while when Barbara first joined the faculty. Thinking that a new faculty member could use some mentorship, I suggested that we jointly teach the course,” recalls former SLS Dean Paul Brest, professor of law, emeritus (active) and director of the Law and Policy Lab.
“As the semester progressed, we moved from my mentoring Barbara to being co-equals to her being my mentor. Her outstanding teaching skills were evident from the start. Barbara went on to become one of the nation’s leading experts in civil procedure as I moved on to other subjects. But we stayed close friends and colleagues and, for quite a while, racquetball buddies. A truly extraordinary woman who led a rich life and will be missed by friends near and far.”
SLS Dean Jenny Martinez recalls, “When I joined the faculty in 2003, I remember how warmly Barbara welcomed me, and I still have in my desk drawer a floppy disk she gave me with all her Civ Pro teaching notes and an encouraging Post-it note wishing me luck in my first-time teaching. It made me feel happy to see that note when I opened the drawer and now it reminds me how much we will all miss her.”