Judge Shapiro Blazed Trail for Women in Legal Profession

I remember conversations with her about pending opinions. It felt like a Talmudic discussion where I had the opportunity to observe a mind work like none I ever had seen before — or after.

Last month, we lost Judge Norma L. Shapiro. She was a “trailblazer” in so many respects.
Judge Shapiro graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1951. She was one of the top three students in a class composed almost exclusively of men.
After law school, she became the first woman to be a law clerk for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice (Justice Horace Stern). But that was just the beginning of many firsts.
In 1956, she became the first woman partner at the prestigious Dechert law firm. At the time, there were few women partners in big law firms.
Then came her judicial appointment. In 1978, she became the first woman to be appointed as a judge to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Shapiro has received so many awards that they alone could be the subject of an article. So I mention but two.
In 1993, Shapiro was the first recipient of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Sandra Day O’Connor Award. This award was given to the judge because of her dedication to mentoring, promoting and advancing women lawyers.
With many awards in between, in 2014, the Philadelphia Bar Association honored Shapiro with the Justice William J. Brennan Distinguished Jurist Award. She received this award “in recognition of her adherence to the highest ideals of judicial service and her significant impact on the quality and administration of justice.”
I am not a mere bystander. I knew Shapiro well because I had the privilege to clerk for her in 1985 and 1986.
I remember conversations with her about pending opinions. It felt like a Talmudic discussion where I had the opportunity to observe a mind work like none I ever had seen before — or after.
Of course, Shapiro had to confront various degrees of gender bias throughout her career. But the judge did not let gender bias stop her or define her. She simply crushed it.
The judge also faced less-than-civil attacks in a highly publicized case where she enforced a settlement agreement between the city and the private plaintiffs regarding prison overcrowding. The judge’s dignity and dedication to the rule of law remained unwavering, even when she faced merciless and baseless political attacks.
So many women understandably speak of the judge as a role model. I want to say, as a man, she was a role model for me, too. How lucky I am, as a man, for my first mentor to have been such a remarkable woman.
Her brilliance and strength were matched only by her kindness and warmth. To her law clerks, she remained a lifelong source of wisdom, encouragement and friendship. I am lucky to be able to say she was my friend.
Shapiro was deeply proud of her Jewish heritage and active in Jewish philanthropy and education, including the Jewish Publication Society. Indeed, Shapiro often spoke about how the experience of being Jewish and the values of the Jewish faith informed her sense of justice.
But nothing was more important to the judge than her family. She was an adored grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, sister, wife and daughter. My thoughts are with her family as I write.
At the shiva for the judge, I had the opportunity to hear her family, particularly her children and grandchildren, talk about her with such love. She played an integral role in each of their lives. She cherished them and they her.
Yes, she was an extraordinary judge. But she also was an exceptionally generous person, devoted to her family, friends and colleagues.
With her strong convictions and relentless work ethic, the Judge also was fun. She had a wonderful wry sense of humor and anyone who had the privilege to work for her also had the joy to laugh with her.
In Hebrew, there is an expression, Eshet Chayil. It means a “woman of valor.” The judge was a woman of valor in every aspect of her life.
May her memory be a blessing to those whose lives she has touched. While I will miss her immensely, it will be for me.
Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris, LLP.


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