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THE LAW CHOSE HER In college, the thought of a law career never occurred to Gretchen Van Ness, now a lawyer who has garnered her share of attention for high-profile cases involving gay rights and women’s issues. She wanted to be an English teacher. That is — until she became a plaintiff in a lawsuit. During her junior year at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Penn., the trustees at Wilson, one of the country’s oldest women’s colleges, announced they were shutting down the liberal arts school. “They said no one was interested in a women’s college or liberal arts, and no one would come to Chambersburg for either,” recalled Van Ness, now 42. The lawsuit, appropriately enough, ended up in what was called “orphans court” in Pennsylvania. “With the help of the alumni, we sued the trustees and won. We raised $3 million in pledges, we recruited a freshman class and faculty.” And she won a case of poetic justice just recently, when the 400-student college asked Van Ness to serve as a trustee. “I graduated from the school I chose, and I feel I owe the world big-time,” Van Ness said. “It changed my career and my life.” BIO IN BRIEF In 1980, armed with her degree from Wilson, Van Ness began her “legal” career by returning to her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to work as the head reference librarian at the city’s largest law firm, Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle. By the time she left for Boston College Law School several years later, she was being credited for billable research hours. After earning her BC law degree in 1988, she worked in clerkships at the U.S. District Court in Boston, then the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally with the U.S. Sentencing Commission under U.S. District Court Judge A. David Mazzone. A short stint as a litigator at the Boston firm Shapiro, Grace & Haber (now Shapiro, Haber & Urmy) followed, and a solo career began in 1992. “I took some time off to think about what I wanted to do next, and people starting calling me. They’d say, ‘Until you figure out what you’re doing, could you help us out with something?’ What I figured out was that I needed some stationery, because I already had clients.” THE CASES THAT COUNTED Van Ness was part of a team of attorneys who represented gays when they were refused participation in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade in the early 1990s. The case, Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bi-Sexual Group of Boston, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the exclusion because it deemed the parade a privately sponsored event. Van Ness also represented controversial Boston College law professor Mary Daly in the feminist scholar’s tenure case against the college when it took action against Daly for barring men from some all-women theology classes. The case, Mary Daly v. Boston College, et al., settled recently before going to trial. In a high-profile reproductive rights case last year, A.Z. v. B.Z., Van Ness represented a woman who wanted to use embryos frozen by herself and her former husband before their divorce. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took the husband’s side that a divorced party has a right not to have frozen embryos used once a marriage is dissolved. THERE’S VICTORY IN DEFEAT In two of the above cases, Van Ness lost in court and the third lawsuit was settled before trial. But she said she witnessed courage and determination in her clients that made her feel she’d won simply by knowing them. “Each case is important in a different way,” she said. “I learned how difficult it is to change prejudice and fear. The personal courage and integrity of these people knew no bounds. To be able to work with them was an incredible inspiration for me. If you can be a part of the conversation we need to have about society and community, that is one of the most exciting things you can do.” A CHALLENGE AHEAD Van Ness recently was notified that the SJC has agreed to hear an appeal she filed on behalf of an African-American couple who were denied entry to a talk by Muslim leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan because no women were being allowed in. The appeal, which probably will not be heard until next fall, is likely to focus on exemptions to public accommodation laws allowed for religious organizations. THE SOLO LIFE Van Ness worked out of her Jamaica Plain, Mass., apartment for a year, then had an office-sharing arrangement with a small Boston law firm for five years. In May 1999, she found an office suite in the shadow of the Old City Hall on School Street. “I didn’t fit into big-firm life. I had seen it before I went to law school, and it seemed so much caught up in bureaucracy, and it would take a long time to work with a client,” explained Van Ness, who thought she would work instead for a social service agency. “I’m still astonished that I’m a solo — I never expected to do it, and I never expected it to work. But the work is its own reward. I view my clients as my partners.” NUTS AND BOLTS She does online research through Westlaw.com, swears by her Macintosh computer, and uses the Social Law Library in Boston. Area law school students have been interns at Van Ness’ office, and some have worked for her part-time. Her part-time administrative aide, Althea, also is a college student. “If you’re careful about it, you can find some good talent out there. But as a solo, it’s hard to supervise people, so they have to have some maturity,” she counsels others who look to colleges for staffing. Being active with bar associations — she’s vice president of the Women’s Bar Association and running for president-elect later this spring — helps develop contacts throughout the legal community. HOME FRONT “Calli,” an 11-year-old mixed breed hound, was a puppy in bad shape when a friend rescued her and introduced her to Van Ness. Occasionally she spends the day with her human at the law office. “I knew she was my dog as soon as I saw her,” recalled the attorney, who is single. The same summer she adopted Calli, she took in a pregnant Calico and then kept one of the kittens. The two cats and the dog were joined recently by a “rescued” hamster. Their sense of community extends beyond their household’s doorsteps, however; Van Ness has volunteered her legal expertise to a number of neighborhood groups. “There are a lot of lawyers who feel they haven’t got the time to do these things,” she said, “but if lawyers need anything, they need balance in their lives. They need to be citizens, to be regular members of their community.” ADVICE TO PROSPECTIVE SOLOS Clerkships, not law firms, helped Van Ness most in gaining the initial experience she needed to prepare her for well-rounded solo work. “I have a plaintiff practice so I have a lot of client contact. It can be very emotional. But it’s not solely with people in crisis — I represent families in adoptions, and I do real estate closings,” she said. “Law school gave me a professional license, and options and choices that a lot of people in the world don’t have. One of those options that lawyers shouldn’t be afraid of is solo practice. Do something that gives you some sense of reward.”

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