Family Legacy of Public Service Continued by American Bar Association Honoree
By Rabiah Alicia Burks
American Bar Association News Service
July 25, 2011
WASHINGTON – Eleanor Dean (“Eldie”) Acheson, vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, is one five remarkable women attorneys to be honored with the 2011 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, given annually by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.
Acheson will receive her award on Aug. 7 at the 21st Annual Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement during the 2011 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada.
“The Margaret Brent Awards recognize the remarkable achievements and accomplishments of distinguished women lawyers from around the country,” said Roberta D. Liebenberg, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “Our honorees have not only achieved great professional success, they have also blazed the trail for other women lawyers, and served as inspirational role models.”
Paulette Brown, Karen J. Mathis, Col. Maritza Ryan, and Hon. Esther Tomljanovich will also receive the 2011 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. A sixth honoree — Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada will receive a special award.
Acheson started her career as a lawyer at Ropes and Gray when there very few women in the firm. She was the first woman in the litigation group. When she became a partner, she was the only female partner during the entire time she held the position. Acheson and other employees realized that things needed to change, and actively engaged in growing and developing a diverse team of lawyers. Acheson led the push on behalf of women lawyers.
“It was difficult,” said Acheson of her efforts to diversify the law firm. “I felt sort of super-privileged to be where I was, but that wasn’t enough.”
Acheson also saw the need for more lawyers at Ropes and Gray to take on pro bono cases in the Boston area. At the time only senior lawyers were afforded these opportunities, so Acheson helped develop a more robust pro bono program.
“Lawyers wanted to do it, so to set up a kind of structure and opportunities, for people to kind of jump in on things, seemed very important and gratifying,” Acheson said.
Acheson’s parents were committed to civil rights and instilled in her early in life the value of equality, fairness and equal opportunity.
Acheson came from a legacy of attorneys who served as her inspiration to pursue law. Early on, she saw them serve in high-level appointed positions and in national organizations. She is the granddaughter of Dean Acheson, former secretary of state during the Harry S. Truman administration, and daughter of David Acheson, who once served in the Department of Justice. Her uncle is still a practicing attorney.
“I grew up with people who were lawyers working in important public service jobs, doing really interesting and compelling things,” Acheson said. “Being a lawyer is at the fulcrum of change in American society.”
She saw that being a lawyer was an extraordinarily powerful profession that can do things for good. In addition, her mother was an American history teacher and author who focused on U.S. Supreme Court history and the Court’s important watershed decisions.
Acheson felt the legal profession was the best way to contribute to communities, society and the nation’s system.
After completing law school she had a series of fortunate opportunities that solidified her passion for law. She had a clerkship with a prominent federal judge that opened doors for her to practice law in places that probably otherwise would not have been available.
“Some people say ‘you make your own luck,’” Acheson said. “But, sometimes you’re just really lucky. I think I ended up being extremely lucky a lot of times.”
Acheson was appointed by President Bill Clinton to assistant attorney general for the Office of Policy Development, overseeing the judicial appointment process of the entire Clinton administration.
Even though three of the four Congresses under Clinton were unfriendly to his policies, the office was extremely productive, Acheson said. They fought their way through 370 judicial appointments. This set a record for number of appointments, diversity and overall quality, based on American Bar Association ratings.
“It was extremely challenging and gratifying for what we were able to get done,” Acheson said.
She also worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She also argued a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court, Feeney v. Commonwealth. Although she lost the case, Acheson is proud that they won in a three judge district court decision .
Acheson served for 15 years on the board of Women Inc., a Boston-based residential treatment center for mothers who are recovering from substance abuse.
The work the organization did was critically important to the women and children involved, Acheson said.
She represented the organization with its legal needs, and helped Women Inc acquire federal and state grants.
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