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Janet Reno on Leadership, Love and Lawyering

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March 9, 2005 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was emphatic about her love both of the law and of her mother -- though she joked that the law was the one career her mother didn’t want her to pursue.

Reno delivered the keynote speech Tuesday, March 8, for the School of Law’s 2005 week-long Women’s Symposium, whose theme was “Women Finding Their Voices.”

Surrounded by an overflow crowd in the law school’s historic Lincoln Hall, Reno talked about how she finally got a chance to reflect on her amazing career path when she was flying out of Washington, D.C., to go back home to Florida as a private citizen. 

“If you would have told me that I would be the U.S. Attorney General,” she said, “I would have said, ‘You are crazy.’” Despite her Harvard Law degree, she had a hard time getting a job as a lawyer because she was a woman. Fourteen years later, she noted, she was made a partner at a private law firm.

Reno attributed much of her inspiration and persistence to her mother, who took it upon herself to build the family’s home with her own two hands, though she had no construction experience, and who became an investigative reporter after raising her four children.

The house her mother built prevailed when surrounding homes were devastated by Florida’s horrific hurricanes.

“She showed me that you can do anything you want to if it is the right thing,” she said.

The thousands of cases that came under her purview when she was State Attorney General for Dade County, Fla., taught Reno the importance of investing in early childhood to get at the roots of crime, a key lesson that she took to Washington, D.C. In her policymaking as attorney general, she vigorously pursued reforms that addressed violence against women and problems of troubled youth.

In her talk, she continually emphasized that being a lawyer was about taking opportunities to reach out and influence others -- to make the right decisions no matter how you’re doing in the opinion polls.

She implored everyone to get involved in some way with public service work and to work toward ensuring the right to vote and providing quality education and care, starting with infants, for all.

She also talked frankly about the careful fact gathering that went into her high profile, and often controversial, decisions involving the siege at Waco, Texas, the conviction of terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman (aka, “the Blind Sheik”), the Independent Counsel investigation of President Clinton and the Elian Gonzalez case.

Earlier in the day she met with Northwestern law students and their professors and commented on how exciting it was to be at a law school with such “marvelous” programs. As she did on an earlier visit to Northwestern, she also cited the work of the school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

“I believe lawyers can work miracles,” she said.

But above all, Reno, whose mother died in her arms, said lawyers should take care of the people who love them most. 

In his introduction of Reno, David Van Zandt, dean of the School of Law, gave a special thanks to the organizers of her talk, the Women’s Leadership Coalition, an organization of law students that brings together attorneys, scholars and judges from around the nation to speak about women in leadership.

“This is such a great example of student leadership,” he said. “And each year the program gets better.”

Topics: Campus Life