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ASU alum Justice Berch to receive award for encouraging, mentoring women in law

June 04, 2012

Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch will receive the 2012 Sarah Herring Sorin Award from the Arizona Women Lawyers Association (AWLA) for her superior contributions to women in the field of law. Justice Berch, who graduated from the College of Law at Arizona State University in 1979, will accept the award on Friday, June 22, during the State Bar of Arizona’s annual convention at the Arizona Biltmore.

The award is named for Sorin, Arizona’s first woman lawyer who, in the early 1900s, became the 25th woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sorin was admitted to the Arizona bar in 1902, and practiced throughout the Arizona Territory, developing a specialty in mining law and practicing with her father, William Herring.

The award is given by the AWLA Board of Directors to a member who demonstrates support for and encouragement of the advancement of women in the legal profession.

“Rebecca is a living mentor who reaches out to help those coming up through the ranks behind her,” said Paige Martin, a partner in the Scottsdale office of Kutak Rock LLP, who submitted her nomination. “She is not a pedestal-sitter. She’s a person who takes all of this very seriously.”

In assembling the nomination, Martin spoke to people who work directly with the Chief Justice, and Martin also had a great deal of personal, first-hand experience with Justice Berch’s support for women in the law.

“The award has several components, including professional achievement and personal involvement with women in the law, and Rebecca certainly is outstanding in both of those,” said Martin, a past AWLA president and member of its advisory board. “She also is a great supporter of AWLA and its goals. She comes to our events, she brings people with her, and she encourages her clerks and others to join. Moreover, Rebecca’s physical presence at AWLA events demonstrates her recognition of the importance of an organization such as ours. Our mission is to promote and encourage the success of women lawyers, and she is a living embodiment of how to accomplish that goal.”

AWLA advocates for and shares information with its members on maternity policies, part-time work flexibility options and salary disparities, among other issues, fosters connections among women lawyers, and monitors and celebrates the successes of its members and women lawyers.

Justice Berch said she is honored by the nomination and the award, especially to be included in the company of its past recipients. They include Justice Ruth V. McGregor (ret.), Judge Mary M. Schroeder, Helen Perry Grimwood, Doris F. Mindell, Roxana C. Bacon, Grace McIlvain, Barbara A. Atwood, Laura A. Cardinal, Amy Schwartz, Georgia A. Staton, Judge Janis Ann Sterling (ret.), Amelia Craig Cramer and Martin.

Advocating for women in the law is a natural for Justice Berch. She first joined AWLA after her law-school graduation, and later, when she taught and directed the legal writing program at ASU, she was the faculty advisor for the Women Law Students’ Association.

Those were dichotomous times, the era of the “Fab Five,” when the five top elected offices in Arizona were held by women, and yet a prominent local country club still banned women from its men’s grill, and the Augusta Country Club, sponsor of the Masters Golf Tournament, would not have women as members.

“AWLA, then and now, helps lawyers make friends and find mentors. Participation may also alert you about career opportunities. And, by the way, men are welcome to join, too, and we hope they find the same advantages,” Justice Berch said.

The organization helped her with mock interviews and critiques before she submitted her judgeship application, which resulted in a boost to her poise, confidence and knowledge, she said.

“In today’s tough job market, membership in organizations such as AWLA has never been more important for law students and new lawyers,” she added.

“Starting in practice is more difficult than new lawyers anticipate it will be, and they can feel quite alone sometimes, so it’s helpful to have a friend outside your firm who you can call, and who will act as a sounding board,” Justice Berch said. “And don’t we want these new lawyers to have the best possible bridge into the practice of law?”

Born and raised in Phoenix, Justice Berch is a “Triple Devil,” having also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ASU. She has spent most of her career serving Arizona and its citizens. She was in private practice from 1979-1986, then directed the law school’s legal writing program from 1986-1995. During that time, she co-authored Introduction to "Legal Method and Process," a law-school textbook that is used around the country and is in its fifth printing.

Justice Berch served as Solicitor General for the State of Arizona from 1991-1994, and was Special Counsel and First Assistant Attorney General from 1995-1998. She was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1998, then appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2002. In 2009, Justice Berch began a five-year term as Chief Justice.

She speaks to hundreds of groups annually, from school assemblies to service organizations, and serves on several national boards, including the National Conference of Chief Justices’ Board of Directors, the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Board of Trustees, and the Green Bag Board of Editors.