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Alumni Newsmakers

GW Alumna Wins D.C. Bar Election

Judy Licht Photography

The new president-elect of the D.C. Bar doesn't own a car, brews her own beer, and is a solo practitioner. In other words, Andrea Ferster, JD '84, is not your typical D.C. Bar officer.

"I'm pretty sure I'm the first president-elect who goes to meetings by bicycle," she says.

Since 1992, Ms. Ferster has run her own small public interest law firm focused on litigation to enforce environmental and historic preservation laws. For 20 years she has also served as general counsel for Rails to Trails Conservancy, an organization that works to create trails from former railroad corridors. Now add D.C. Bar duties to that list. In June, she began the one-year term as president-elect that will precede her yearlong presidency.

"I'm obviously humbled that I'll be joining the roster of the distinguished leaders of the D.C. Bar, including GW's own Joan Strand," she says. Professor Strand, professor emerita in residence of clinical law, was D.C. Bar president from 1999 to 2000, and Darrell Mottley, JD '00, is the group's immediate past president.

Ms. Ferster, who earned her bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence College, became interested in law after taking an undergraduate criminology course focused on the incarceration of people with disabilities—and the role lawyers played in rectifying those injustices.

She enrolled at Northwestern University's law school. During her first year, the George Washington University expanded its free tuition policy for faculty's children to include graduate studies. So she transferred to GW Law School where her stepmother, Elyce Zenoff, in 1963 had become the first woman to join the faculty.

It was at D.C. firm Harmon and Weiss (now Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg) that she handled her first historic preservation case, a three-year D.C. court battle involving southeast Capitol Hill residents who opposed the planned razing of historic Gallinger Municipal Hospital to make way for a prison. In 1989, the D.C. Court of Appeal decided that the prison could go forward.

"It was a crash course in historic preservation, and I found that I liked it a lot," she says. "I am a D.C. native and have a deep appreciation for the city's history and architecture. But at that point in time, historic preservation was only advocated in certain neighborhoods. Now it's clearer that history does not just belong to the affluent."

The Gallinger case brought her together with Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A year later, Ms. Ferster joined the trust, and the two women have worked closely together over the past 24 years on many cases.

"Andrea is so dedicated and hardworking that she was in the office working on a brief with me at night while she was in labor to give birth to her first child," says Ms. Merritt, who also describes her colleague as a master at legal strategy and big-picture thinking.

"Andrea is a relentless advocate. And she doesn't get discouraged, which is difficult in this kind of work because when you lose, it's not just that you lose a case or an issue but the very thing you're trying to protect gets destroyed," she says.

One of Ms. Ferster's best-known preservation cases came in 1994 when she filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and local preservation groups, accusing the U.S. Army of "demolition by neglect" for failing to maintain two dozen historic buildings at Forest Glen, a campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Silver Spring, Md. The campus contained a collection of iconic architecture, including a Japanese pagoda, a Swiss chalet, a Dutch windmill, and an English castle.

Although the lawsuit was unsuccessful, the campus was acquired by a developer now in the process of saving the structures.

Ms. Ferster's first major victory came in a suit that Common Cause brought against the D.C. government and then Mayor Marion Barry. "The city had spent taxpayer funds to try to defeat an initiative requiring it to provide overnight shelter for the homeless," she explains. "Common Cause thought the government had no business taking sides in elections—and with taxpayer-paid brochures and materials."

She also successfully represented environmentalists in a 1997 lawsuit aimed at stopping Corridor H, a federally funded project to lay 100 miles of highway through pristine and historic areas of rural West Virginia. The lawsuit sparked broader opposition to the project and, ultimately, modification of the plan.

The D.C. Bar president-elect's friends and colleagues describe her as thoughtful, deliberate, and immune to distraction.

"She's a very good listener. She's got a sharp legal mind and is very open to working through the issues," says Naomi Cahn, GW's John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law, who met her some 25 years ago through mutual legal friends involved in historic preservation.

"Over the years, I've also been delighted by Andrea's commitment to GW and to mentoring our students," Professor Cahn adds.

For the past decade, Ms. Ferster has tracked her legal victories and losses with home-brewed beer bearing customized labels.

"For the 15th anniversary of my solo practice, I thought I should brew a beer in honor of that special occasion. So I brewed Lost Cause Ale," she says. The label for that brew "of idealism and preservation" shows actor Jimmy Stewart in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

She jokes that she had some Lost Cause Ale at the ready in case the D.C. Bar election didn't turn her way. More fitting, however, is the Victory label ale she brewed in honor of Barack Obama's presidential election—although, as she emphasized, "the two elections are in no way comparable."

—Mary Dempsey