By Kim Cromwell
She came to San Diego in 1969 with wide eyes and a law degree from Boalt Hall at Berkeley. As a fresh, young civil litigator, she was eagerly anticipating battles in the courtroom. She was not expecting a battle to get into the courtroom.
Résumés went out.
Fire one: "We don’t hire women; we’re going to stick with the boys," read one rejection letter.
Fire two: "What kind of birth control do you use?"
Fire three: "How are you going to choose between being a wife and being an attorney?"
Young Judith McConnell’s job search was typical of the discrimination women faced in those days, she says. The San Diego County Bar Association’s monthly magazine, Dicta, even had its own pinup: Dicta Girl.
"There were very striking differences in the way the law treated men and women in terms of property ownership, credit, employment, pay and opportunities," says McConnell, who nonetheless beat the system—in spades. A judge for the past 20 years, McConnell rose to the bench in the 1970s when there were no women judges and few women attorneys.
And out of the inequities in the system, something called the Lawyers Club was born. It’s celebrating its 25th birthday this month. Its first president was McConnell, who, along with five female colleagues, founded the club. Its purpose was to deal with, by all lawful means, common problems faced by women in the community. And to eliminate sex discrimination. Membership was open to both sexes.
The barriers were not only in the workplace. In those days, the Grant Grill, the restaurant in downtown’s U.S. Grant Hotel, was off limits to women during the lunch hour. After making a reservation by phone, four Lawyers Club members, including McConnell, showed up for lunch, only to be told by the maître d’ that women were not allowed. The more they persisted, the more he resisted—until they pointed out that the Grant, as a public accommodation, was required to serve people in a nondiscriminatory manner. "By that time, I think they were considering the legal ramifications," says McConnell. "They let us in."
The Lawyers Club also was a refuge for its members. "It was an incredibly important support group in the early days for many of us, who were sprinkled around the profession and subjected to unusual scrutiny on a daily basis," says UCSD legal counsel Ann Parode.
And the club was an agent for change. "Judy and her friends paved the way for women attorneys," says Superior Court Judge Joan Weber.
When McConnell became presiding judge of the Superior Court in 1990, it was precedent-setting. She was the first woman in California to preside as judge over the courts of a major city. In 1994, she was nominated to the federal bench by Senator Barbara Boxer, a post she ultimately didn’t receive because of the controversy over a decision McConnell had rendered awarding custody of a juvenile to a gay parent.
But McConnell and the Lawyers Club have thrived in San Diego. "It’s like a cherished child," McConnell says of the club. "It has become a wonderful, vibrant organization with incredible leadership."