Judge (retired), San Francisco Superior Court
Giving Back to the Next Generation
In 1971, Lee Baxter had reached her personal tipping point; this would transform her life and land her on the bench of the San Francisco Superior Court. She was tired of teaching and wanted something more fulfilling. Luckily for her, and the people she helped through the years, that "something" was a career in law. At the time, the Golden Gate Law School was at its own tipping point. The ABA had granted full approval to the law school, which was scrambling to build its first full-time faculty and boost enrollments by recruiting the kind of students who were overlooked by first-tier law schools: women and people of color. The result was a dynamic, young faculty, exploding with entrepreneurial ideas and enthusiasm, and a diverse student body.
Lee Baxter was part of those years. GGU never used race or gender-based admissions quotas, and there had been women law students since the turn of the century. In the early 1970s, Golden Gate Law became a forerunner in making legal education available to more women, and to hiring more women faculty. In 1974, the year Baxter graduated, Judy McKelvey became the first woman law school dean in California and one of the first three women in the nation to head an ABA-accredited school of law. Those were heady times for women eager to join the legal profession.
“We were one of the first law schools in the country that actively recruited women,” explained Tony Pagano, a former dean and one of Lee’s favorite law professors. “Most law schools had set aside 10%, or at most 20%, of the seats in their first-year classes for women. We had more than 40%. That’s how we increased the size and the quality: we were enrolling women when others were not.”
“In law school I made lifelong friends, which was important to me. When we moved, I didn’t know anyone and had no friends of my own. My husband was at UCSF and was involved with a lot of people, so all we did was based around his job. I was,” she hesitates, “in their view, at least, 'just a housewife.' I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started law school and suddenly became important in their view. It really infuriated me; I was the same person who'd previously been unimportant.”
When she started law school, a friend bought a bottle of champagne, placing it as a bet that Baxter would not last 2 weeks. (They popped the cork after she’d passed the Bar.) But there were times in those initial days, when she wondered if he wouldn’t win that bet. Law school was new, exciting, challenging, and intimidating.
“The most scared I’ve ever been was when I went to get my textbooks,” she remembers. “I brought them home, and there’s a big torts book, and a big real-property book and I thought there was no way I could read and understand any of it. I thought I’d really made a mistake.” She was 31 years old, with preschool-aged daughters. “I thought that I was going to be the oldest person in law school. I wasn’t that old; I just thought that I was. But when I got here, I right away met two women in the same boat as myself. They had kids the same age as mine. I was not the only one starting a second career. I was so relieved. Right away we established a bond. From the first day, I felt as if I belonged here.” In 1970, there were approximately ten women enrolled in the Golden Gate Law School; two years later there were ninety-nine women, or 15% of the class. By the late 1970s, more than 40% of the university’s law students were women.
The next 3 years were spent juggling full-time law school and family life. Looking back, Lee can’t believe she did it. “I was just kind of bumbling along. It was a hard time in our life: we didn’t have much money, the kids were young, and John was busy with getting his career launched. But my women friends in law school were doing it, and they probably had a tougher time than I did.” She recalls the unyielding support of her husband from the time she decided to try law school. “John was so supportive of what I was doing. Some friends did it on their own with kids. I take my hat off to them.”
In 1981, she was elected president of the Queen’s Bench Bar Association, a San Francisco-based women’s legal organization committed to the advancement of women in the law. Today, with women comprising more than half of law students, it can be difficult to imagine the hurdles scaled by the women of Baxter’s generation and the few pioneers who came before her. “I never really had a strong role model before I went to law school. Some of the major shapers of my career were my mentors in Queen’s Bench. Those women were pioneers in creating a path for women in law. Being president gave me a tremendous amount of visibility. I believe it was that visibility with the judges and the courts that gave me the opportunity to become a commissioner, because the commissioners are chosen by the judges.”
In 1999, after seventeen years on the bench and a quarter decade in law, Baxter decided to hang up her robe. “I'd been working or going to school all my life and was still young and healthy enough to enjoy doing something else.” Although she sometimes misses being active in the legal community on a daily basis, she is eager to help the next generation of lawyers. In 1995 she established the Judge Lee D. Baxter Trial Advocacy Fellowship. Each year one or two outstanding GGU students are selected to be the Judge Lee Baxter Graduate Fellow in Litigation. The fellow is part of the team that mentors students in the Litigation Program and assists in preparation of the mock trial competition teams. She fully endowed the fellowship in 2000, with a $323,000 gift of stock — the largest gift ever given the university by a living person. Her intent was to see good litigators come out of Golden Gate. “What I saw all day as a judge were lawyers litigating. I want GGU law graduates to be the best litigators.”