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Martha Barnett — who takes over the presidency of the American Bar Association from Bill Paul — is only the second woman to become ABA president. A partner at Holland & Knight, Barnett was at the vanguard of the increasing number of successful female lawyers in private practice and industry. There were few women lawyers in the early 70s, she says, and she was the first woman lawyer to be hired by Holland & Knight. Barnett claims it was harder for the firm than for her: “They learned, I learned but I’d always been who I was and I was just integrating myself into a new environment. For them it involved a whole change in their culture, their way of thinking about things.” This was illustrated fairly early on by the fact that Barnett was pregnant and there was no maternity leave. “They had never had a pregnant lawyer,” she says. Barnett rebelled against both the traditional family career path of medicine and the sexist attitudes of the time to become a lawyer. “My father was a doctor and I always meant to be a doctor until I got to high school and my guidance counsellor said: �Martha you are going to be a nurse — girls are nurses’ and I said: �No I’m not going to be a nurse’ — I didn’t want to be a nurse.” Barnett admits her counsellor was reflecting the thinking at the time, an approach not followed by her own family: “In my family, being a girl versus a boy was not a limiting or an empowering thing. It was an even-handed approach.” It was her husband — about to go to Vietnam — who suggested she take up law. She never looked back. “I knew when I got to law school that I was exactly where I wanted to be.” There is a trace of her southern upbringing in Barnett’s clear and direct voice. She is pretty, petite and vivacious and often uses her arms and hands to illustrate a point. A member of several legal associations such as the Florida Bar, the Tallahasee Womens Law Association and the Tax and Public Interest Law Sections of the ABA, Barnett thrives on the intellectual challenge of law. Although she specializes in the often dry and complex area of tax law, it is clear from the enthusiastic way she talks about her relationship with her family, colleagues and clients that she is also a “people” person. This is evident when she talks of the famous Rosewood case in which she was involved in the 70s. At least eight people were killed and the black township of Rosewood, Fla., was destroyed by a white mob in 1923 following an alleged attack on a white woman by a black man. Holland & Knight represented the survivors. The surviving families had been silent for 50 years and there were no independent witnesses, making it a difficult case to tackle, she says. She says the firm took on a “very emotionally, racially, politically charged subject” which was going nowhere until Barnett received a call from a 92-year-old man claiming to be an eye-witness. “It was the dream call all lawyers wish for,” she says. She describes the tremendous courage of an old man speaking for the first time about the terrible scenes he witnessed half a century ago. “What a big thing it must have been for him to unburden himself after being quiet for so long,” she says. She describes this case — which resulted in State compensation for the survivors — as the highlight of her career: “They wrote books, they made a film about it,” she says. Success for her clients against the odds clearly thrills Barnett: “I’ve always loved being a lawyer. Every day is a different issue, a different challenge.” Barnett is very clear on how she intends to use her year in office: “There are so many programs in the ABA addressing issues I care about, that I decided that I would use the platform that comes with this office to foster how I would promote those.” She is concerned about the death penalty, not only as a member of the ABA but more directly through her firm. “My firm does a lot of these cases on a pro bono basis and I have seen at first hand how important it is to have good qualified lawyers with resources.” The ABA already has a moratorium policy and Barnett has now officially called for a national moratorium on the death penalty until it can be shown the procedure is fair and just. “There is a growing interest in [the United States] in whether there are innocent people in death row,” says Barnett. The time is right, she says, to promote this issue. Barnett is also addressing ways the profession should change to represent the population it seeks to service and the legal services required. She is committed to maintaining her predecessor’s initiative to create diversity — 30 percent of the US population is of ethnic origin, while 92.5 percent of the legal profession is white. In a world where there are no longer effective borders between jurisdictions, Barnett says the profession must be able to serve its clients effectively which means cross state and country. She has set up a Multi-jurisdictional Commission; “The primary objective will be to govern the practice of law in federal and multiple state jurisdictions of the US. The world is a little too big to take on at the moment.” A mother of two grown-up children, Barnett loves outdoor pursuits such as boating, hiking, snow and water skiing or just “lying under a tree reading.” She puts her obvious enthusiasm and happiness down to her own disposition and the supportive environment she has had: “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m an optimist. I think there are people in the world clearly whose glass is half empty and those whose glass is half full and mine’s full.” Visit Law.com’s ABA 2000 Convention Coverage

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