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A photo in a 1967 newsletter from The Bar Association of San Francisco shows Joanne Garvey towering above 13 men and women as she accepts an American Bar Association service award. Her shoes added a few inches to her 5-foot-11-inch frame, and a stylish bouffant hairstyle also helped. But Garvey has always stood out during her 45-year legal career. In 1968 she became the first woman partner at a major San Francisco law firm. In 1971 she was the first woman elected to the board of governors of the State Bar of California, and in 1981 she served as the first woman president of The Bar Association of San Francisco. Through public service, Garvey has focused on improving access to legal services for all. She co-chairs the ABA’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts commission, and has headed other ABA committees devoted to legal aid. In private practice, she earned a reputation as one of the foremost experts on California’s tax code; she represented Barclays Bank PLC in a challenge to the state’s corporate tax system that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. (She lost the case.) At 71, Garvey continues to practice tax law, working two-thirds time, by her estimate. And she’s still a standout on the basketball court. In 2001 she won a silver medal in the Senior Olympics, and is preparing for a tournament this month. The early years of Garvey’s career follow a distressingly familiar pattern. When she graduated from law school in 1961, she couldn’t get a law firm job in San Francisco-even though she was fifth in her class at the University of California, Berkeley, and was an editor of the California Law Review. She moved to Santa Barbara, where a small firm was willing to hire her. After two years there, she returned to San Francisco and joined the now-defunct Kelso Cotton & Ernst, where she made partner, and moved to Heller Ehrman in 1988. Garvey doesn’t dwell on those past barriers. “She doesn’t carry a chip on her shoulder,” says Heller tax partner Teresa Maloney. “She’s extremely self-assured.” Garvey downplays the sexism she faced: “It was not something I ever spent a lot of time thinking about. I learned early on that the person on the other side would be more disconcerted by me than I was by them. It worked beautifully.” Garvey traces her interest in public service to her time as a playground director in some of Berkeley’s poorer neighborhoods (a job that put her through college). In the late sixties, she revamped The Bar Association of San Francisco’s annual May 1 Law Day activities to make them more than a meaningless ritual. She enlisted disadvantaged kids in mock trials and legislatures and organized a law fair in San Francisco’s impoverished Hunters Point area. Unassuming and direct, Garvey has throughout her career shown other women that they can succeed on their own terms. “She’s a force of nature,” says Heller partner Sara O’Dowd. “She’s always willing to step forward, ahead of the pack. She is her own person.” Judge Joan Irion, now an associate justice on California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, worked as a junior lawyer under Garvey. “She always said, ‘I’ll help you, and you help others.’ “ Back to Main Story

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