Rising to defend honor of lawyers Professional pride: Roberta Cooper Ramo, American Bar Association president, wants to take on those who would give lawyers a bad name.

January 31, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

When ABC television aired a report early this month that portrayed lawyers as greedy, unethical and mostly interested in sticking their clients with exorbitant fees, Roberta Cooper Ramo got angry.

Then she got busy.

Ms. Ramo, president of the American Bar Association, which opens its annual convention today in Baltimore, quickly arranged with editors of the organization's monthly magazine to pen an open letter to the network. Her searing, two-page note is a highlight of the current issue of the ABA Journal.

In the letter, Ms. Ramo assails ABC's program as "a personal diatribe against the legal profession, an attack lacking any attempt to examine serious legal issues."

The reporter's one-sided presentation, she writes, is nothing short of "insulting."

Past ABA presidents might have brushed off the ABC report. Ms. Ramo says it is time to take on those who would give the legal profession a bad name.

"As individual lawyers, we have to be a lot more alert to responding to things in the press," Ms. Ramo said this week.

"It's important that we continue to educate about the justice system. It's what makes our society such an enormous success. And lawyers are a big part of that.

"We tend to be a society that spends a lot of time complaining. Obviously, continual improvements need to be made. But the rest of the world really looks in awe at our justice system. We've forgotten that."

Defending the legal profession against its detractors could be a full-time job. But it's just one of many issues on Ms. Ramo's plate. During her term, she has devoted considerable time to an ABA Domestic Violence Task Force, as well as commissioning reports on obstacles faced by women in law school and in law practice.

Ms. Ramo's one-year term as ABA president reaches the halfway point with this week's ABA meeting. The event will bring as many as 3,000 lawyers to the city to attend seminars and elect future officers.

A highlight of the convention will be Ms. Ramo's announcement of a new ABA committee to assist participants in high-profile trials.

The group will be called the High Profile Trial Mentor Team, and its members will be experienced in trials covered intensively by the media, including the prosecutor in the Jeffrey Dahmer murder trial and DNA expert Barry Scheck, a member of the O. J. Simpson defense team.

Throughout the week, Ms. Ramo also will be a story, not only for the office she holds, but for what she represents.

In an organization many Americans assume is dominated by stodgy, pipe-smoking, white males, she is someone very different -- the first woman president in the 117-year history of the ABA.

And, by most accounts, she is a dynamic one.

"Bright, visionary, hard working, all those things," said Burnele V. Powell, a friend of Ms. Ramo's and dean of the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law. "I would say there is a time in the life of any institution that the right person comes along. And for Ramo to come along at this time is just about as perfect as it gets."

The election of a woman to the top ABA post sent an important message of inclusion to the organization's 370,000 members, said Mr. Powell, who will serve on the high profile trial team.

"It has been a validation for those of us who have been saying, 'What has taken so long?' " the dean said.

Yet Ms. Ramo, 53, hasn't made an issue of her gender, say others.

"She is a first, and firsts make a story," said Laurel Bellows, a Chicago lawyer and chairman of the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession.

"But Roberta has overcome the 'first' mentality and proven herself to be a person with a great deal more to talk about than what it's like to be the first woman [ABA] president."

A partner in an Albuquerque, N.M., law firm, Ms. Ramo has battled stereotypes about women and the law throughout her career.

Despite graduating with honors from the University of Chicago Law School, she could not find a lawyer's job in 1967 and was rejected for positions several times by a firm in Raleigh, N.C.

Three years later, she got her first position as a lawyer at a San Antonio firm. In 1972, she moved to Albuquerque and set up a practice in commercial real-estate law. Financial pressures forced the dissolution of that firm, and, three years ago, she became a partner at the Albuquerque firm where she practices today.

She knows about balancing family and work responsibilities, as a parent of two grown children. Ms. Ramo's husband, Barry, is a cardiologist and television-news personality in New Mexico.

As ABA president, Ms. Ramo has been quick to respond to a range of issues important to the legal community. Among them: restoring federal funding to the Legal Services Corp., which meets the legal needs of the poor, and counteracting negative fallout that followed the verdict last fall in the Simpson trial.

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