INTERVIEW OF ELLEN LEESFIELD
Taken by: Amber Kornreich
Q: How did you become involved in MDFAWL?
A: There really was no MDFAWL at that time. There were about 10 women who were talking about the fact that a women’s group was necessary: Diane Van Ness, Gill Freeman, Sandy Karlan, and the early Presidents. We met for a lunch at the St. Michelle in Coral Gables, and then we met several times. There were FAWL chapters or associations for women lawyers in other parts of the country or possibly the state, but I was a founding mother of MDFAWL. I’ve been a lawyer since 1979. Things were just organizing. The organization was purely social, just to be together and support one another.
Q: What is your best memory from your years in MDFAWL?
A: One of my best memories was that I put together and produced—along with hard-working Board members—the first ever MDFAWL fundraiser, for what became our Scholarship Fund. This event was the first time we ever came together to raise money for a cause. I had the greatest Board from 1982–1983, including Judge Karlan, Judge Lederman, and Edith Osman. We got sponsors and people from the community to contribute. We had a “person” auction. We invented the model. A woman named Elizabeth Du Fresne was our auctioneer, and we raised $20,000 in one night to put together for the first Scholarship Fund. Ms. Du Fresne wore a sparkly dress and made the night so much fun. I remember that first wonderful night. It was funny and exciting; we worked so hard to get there. For example, some of the auction items included Janet Reno cooking dinner for people at her ranch, taking people on a boat, throwing pie at someone—different creative ideas of famous people in the community offering interesting things. We did it for two to three years. We gave the model to other people. It was so fun.
Another good memory was my Board, all my people. Many of the incredible community leaders of today were members of my Board, like Edith. I met her as a law student. I knew she was going to be somebody.
Q: What is the one piece of advice you wish someone told you when you were a junior attorney/just starting out?
A: I wish someone told me that “you are just as good as someone else.” We always feel like someone else could do it better or knows more. Michelle Obama also speaks about this in her book. You belong where you are.
Q: What is your favorite MDFAWL program?
A: One year, we had a get-together that wasn’t a formal program. It wasn’t a dinner or luncheon. Just an after-work thing with no agenda. A casual buffet. Sometimes it might be good to get together with no agenda. I love when we give people awards but sometimes no agenda is the best agenda. No agenda meetings— come socialize, network, be with everyone. Judges are free.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: There is a book called Educated by Tara Westover. It’s a story about a woman who never went to school but eventually went on to graduate from Cambridge University and get a Doctorate. I’m reading it over again now. I want to understand why she persisted. I recommend it to everyone. As far as inspiration, there have been mentors throughout my life who inspired me. I’ve also been inspired by Elizabeth Du Fresne, my English professor, and Michelle Obama.
Q: What do you think is the biggest issue facing women in the law today?
A: It’s not too different than the past. The biggest issue is women lawyers’ ability to stay the course, to focus and fight for the same good positions that their same male colleagues fight for, and to be competitive. But it is also to recognize other women as people they should send cases to and receive cases from. A lot of women who still think men might be able to do it better —it is a challenge to think about themselves and other women as being as good as men. Women are as inherently biased. Of course, things have changed. Maybe this Past President Interview Project is good because some women will say “I never felt any bias.” That didn’t come easy. People had to fight hard to bring the issue of sexual bias to the forefront. There had to be a Supreme Court investigation of that; it didn’t fly out of nowhere. Those women will find out when they want to become real equity partners. Better yet, women still have to choose to a certain degree whether they want to be good lawyers or good mothers. Most of the women I came up with said: “If I’m at the office until 10, I’m a bad mother; I’m never in the right place.”
Q: What are you doing now?
A: This is my fourth career. I was a high school English teacher, lawyer, judge, and now I’m a mediator, arbitrator, special master. I’ve had four major careers. I’ve been doing this for six and a half years. This is the best career. I bring peace to people. I bring resolution. I end cases that have gone on for years in one day. I love what I do. I often end up hugging everyone at the end of the day.
Q: Anything else you would like to share?
A: I’m so proud of MDFAWL. I’m a big supporter, I always give as much as I can financially and in every other way. Every President gets better and better.