Martha Barnett
Martha Barnett (Photo by Sharon Schuster)

Martha Barnett’s career is full of firsts. She was the first woman to practice law at Holland & Knight and the first to make partner there. She was the first woman to chair the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates. But being first was not the goal. “I never wanted to be a lone experiment, but the beginning of a sea change regarding who could practice law,” she says. “I always thought second, third and fourth were more important than first, because that showed women were being more fully accepted into the profession.”

Much of Barnett’s work in achieving this goal was at the ABA. She was a member of the inaugural ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, which documented barriers that women faced, as well as other ABA boards, committees and task forces. “Martha has always shown herself to be at the forefront of improving the legal profession and the administration of justice,” says California Second District Court of Appeal Judge Lee Edmon, who has served with Barnett on the American Bar Endowment Board of Directors.

Barnett, a 67-year-old Tallahassee, Fla., resident, assumed her most prominent role at the ABA in 2000, when she became the second woman elected to its presidency. (Three more women have followed her.) In that post, Barnett dealt with the fallout from the Bush administration’s decision to stop cooperating with the ABA’s vetting of judicial nominees. (The ABA continued vetting, without the White House’s help.) “I spent a great deal of time educating people that this wasn’t a partisan exercise but a service to our profession and our democracy,” Barnett says.

Barnett also supported imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in light of evidence that it has not been administered fairly. “Her tenure as president of the ABA is a testament to her diplomacy,” says Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit, “and to her commitment to ensuring that the justice system truly reflects our society’s basic principles of equity and fairness.”

Paralleling Barnett’s rise at the ABA was her advancement at Holland & Knight. There, Barnett took on a variety of leadership positions, including head of a practice group and office. She would go on to chair Holland & Knight’s directors committee, which was responsible for policy matters at the 1,000-attorney firm. Barnett has represented such clients as the Florida phosphate industry, International Business Machines Corp., Darden Restaurants Inc. and entrepreneur Hank Asher.

But the case Barnett describes as the “defining matter” of her career wasn’t for a major corporate client or business tycoon. Barnett, along with other attorneys at Holland & Knight, represented elderly black survivors of the Rosewood massacre, a 1923 incident in which the town of Rosewood, Fla., was burned by a white mob and several residents were killed. “When you look at someone like Martha Barnett and the various aspects of her career, including representing survivors of the Rosewood massacre,” says Harriet Miers, a former White House counsel, “you can see how lawyers as a profession contribute in a way that makes them very important to society, and you can see how one lawyer can make such a difference.”