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 a regular faculty position at Stanford Law School, becoming the first woman to achieve that honor. But that wasn’t her only first.
In 1968 she was appointed the first director of Washington, D.C.’s new Public Defender Service, the success of the office under her leadership 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. “She was a model of personal warmth and grace, a fantastic storyteller, a true friend and mentor to hundreds of our students.”
A Leading Public Defender
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, she clerked for Judge Henry Edgerton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then became an associate at the criminal defense firm Williams & Connolly. But she wanted to do legal aid work. So in 1966 Babcock joined the Legal Aid Agency, which was underfunded and at a crossroad. That created an opening for her—a woman—to be considered for the directorship of the newly formed service. She recalled her experiences there in a 2016 interview with Stanford Lawyer after publication of her memoir, Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.
“Back then the director’s salary was set at $16,000. 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,” she said. “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.”
Babcock became director in 1968 and was credited with creating an agency that strove to give the same level of service to indigent defendants as that provided by private law firms. She established policies, including having every client represented by an individual attorney rather than the office as a whole, allowing attorneys to take cases only if they had adequate time to provide complete representation. Social workers worked with attorneys on sentencing, especially in juvenile court.
“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,” says Michael Wald, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Stanford. Wald worked with Babcock in 1971 during a sabbatical from Stanford Law, describing the experience as “an amazing education.”
Coming to Stanford Law
While running Legal Services, Babcock was invited to 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,” Babcock recalled in an earlier Stanford Lawyer interview.
“We didn’t set out to be feminists, much less feminist law professors,” Babcock said in a 2018 speech at the New York City Bar Association. “Rather we fell into it, or we were pushed into it by our students, who wanted courses on women and the law.” She taught the same course at Yale before her appointment to the Stanford Law faculty.
Tom Ehrlich, dean of Stanford Law from 1971 to 1976, describes the turbulent atmosphere on campus and across the country in 1972, with protests against the Vietnam War and movements for equality and justice. The faculty was changing, and Babcock contributed to that change.
“It quickly became apparent to everyone that she was a terrific addition to the faculty,” he recalls. “She made it easier to hire more women on the faculty. And more faculty of color as well. She was a pathbreaker on many levels. She stands very tall in the history of Stanford Law School.”
Babcock taught criminal and civil procedure and co-wrote a landmark 1975 textbook, Sex Discrimination and the Law. But her influence went beyond the classroom, and she was credited by former students for inspiring teaching on civil justice, racial equality, poverty, and the importance of lawyers in society.
“Barbara Babcock changed my life for the better,” says LaDoris Cordell, JD ’74, retired judge of the Superior Court of California. “A terrific teacher, Barbara loved the law and adored her students, who, like me, adored her.”
“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,” says Dahlia Lithwick, JD ’96, who now covers the U.S. Supreme Court for Slate.
“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.”
She was honored by the graduating class four times with the John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching.
“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,” recalls Norm Spaulding, JD ’97, Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law. “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.”
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.”
Babcock took a leave from Stanford from 1977 to 1979 to serve as assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the Department of Justice in the Carter administration. There, she was tasked with increasing the number of women and members of minorities on the federal bench and lobbied for the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
After she returned to campus, Babcock helped pilot the law student-initiative called the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, the precursor to today’s Stanford Community Law Clinic. One of the students instrumental in launching the project was Jim Steyer, JD ’83 (BA ’78), who recalls Babcock’s involvement as critical to the clinic’s success.
“She brought in a feminist sensibility and she had a huge influence on the law school. There must be hundreds of women lawyers out there that she inspired and sent out into the world and made them feel whole.”
—Retired District Court Judge Thelton Henderson
“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 project’s first student director, who 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.
And her storytelling was legendary. “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 a 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.
“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.”
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 Trailblazing Career
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 Born 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 also 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.” SL