Gail Donoghue juggled headline-grabbing litigation with the outdoor life and now, finally, in retirement, has time to take up the pen.

New York Law Journal: As a lawyer with the New York City Law Department, you’re particularly well known for overseeing representation of the NYPD in a pair of post-9/11 cases — McWade v. Kelly, 05 6754 CV (2d Cir. 2006), which upheld the police practice of searching personal bags in subways, and Handschu v. Special Services Division, 71 CV (SDNY 2003), which broadened police authority in surveillance of political groups. How were you personally affected by these controversial matters?

Gail Donoghue: People had pretty dramatic reactions to me. It raises your stress level, it takes a chunk out of you, it comes with the territory.

I’d go home thinking I needed a drink, but I’m not a drinking person. I would say to myself — even I couldn’t say it to my Upper West Side neighbors in the elevator who were so mad at me — “Look, I’m doing my job.” But I kept it to myself. A lawyer has to be a lawyer. My oath was to give my client the best possible defense. I always clung to that, no matter what.

Sure, but didn’t you sometimes just want to explode?

Fly fishing helps. My husband [Paul Gallo] and I are pretty avid fly fishermen. It’s what we do together — for 25 years now. Some people eat out or go to the movies. We like to be outdoors. In fact, we spent most of June up on the west branch of the Delaware River at the Blue Ribbon trout stream.

Cooking up trout dinners right from the river?

If we’re camping, we’ll eat the trout for the fresh protein. But they’re so beautiful, I usually like to put the trout back in.

Back to contentious cases. How did you feel about them — not as a lawyer but as an ordinary New Yorker?

A proper balance had to be achieved. I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me I couldn’t demonstrate or deliver a message. That would make me livid. But at a demonstration I would also want to feel secure. I would want some eyes and ears around observing the situation — people trained to detect things out of the ordinary and, possibly, dangerous.

I understand these are emotional and touchy issues. Many times, people have impressions of what the police are doing that are not factually accurate. But everyone has the right to say what they think. I sat in on police planning sessions. You have to accept that not everybody knows what you know.

On May 30, you retired after 21 years as special counsel and a member of the Law Department’s executive staff. How do you feel about that?

On one of my last days of work, I was riding my bike home and thinking about my life, and a feeling came over me. You know, I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve had wonderful opportunities and blessings in my life. None of it has had anything to do with wealth or fame or politics. Just the everyday opportunity of doing what I did. I like my life. Probably a lot of people don’t feel that way.

Now I’m retired. The joy of retirement is doing things you didn’t have time to do.

You bicycled to work on Church Street from your apartment on the Upper West Side?

I started biking in ’04, around the time the police were planning for the Republican National Convention. Just in casual conversation with the commissioner for police intelligence, it came out that the subways were a big concern. The commissioner asked me how I got to work. I said, ‘Subway.’ He said, ‘Do you have another way?’

So I got a bike. I’d come home at night, and my legs would feel rubbery, but that passed. I lost 10 pounds and got really fit. The weight just comes off by itself, and it’s great aerobic exercise. I kept clothing at the office, a little rack for my suits.

Is it true you inherited the office of the legendary Edith Spivak, the Law Department’s first female attorney who died in 2005 at 95?

I was lucky my career crossed her own path. Edith loved me. In her mind, I was dedicated, and she admired that. She came to me and said, “I’d be honored for you to have my office.” She even wanted me to have her plants and her mirror.

When did you decide to become an attorney?

I had a relative in the law. One year I went to his office Christmas party and could see he had a wonderful relationship with people who really respected him and needed him. I thought, “Wow! That’s a pretty special thing to do with your work life.”

I’d been a full-time elementary school teacher, but I was never really crazy about being in a room all day with little kids. Then through 1970s I was raising my own children.

Anyway, I started paying attention to lawyer things. I read some books; I spoke to lawyer friends — some of them women. They were all very encouraging. They told me that whether you’re a man or a woman, the law gives you great independence. This was at a time, you understand, when women were beginning to break out of conventional patterns.

So I started at Pace Law School in 1977. I didn’t have a hard time of it. It was great.

How did the men in your life adjust to your new career?

Right after I’d passed the bar exam, my father came to me because he’d got this notice about his being a witness to an accident in South Carolina and how he had to go down there and appear in court to give testimony. I told him he didn’t have to go because it was out of state. If they wanted his testimony, the court would have to come to him.

So he’s staring at the notice, and he said to me, “Well, do I need to speak to a lawyer about this?”

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