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Alumni Newsmakers

Opening Doors

Beverly Rezneck

It took the American Bar Association a couple of tries before it could get word to Eleanor "Eldie" Acheson, JD '73, that she had been selected for one of the organization's most prestigious awards, an honor whose past recipients include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder.

The delay was telling: Ms. Acheson's schedule was so jammed that she had no time to return the calls.

"My assistant left a call slip from a woman in California, a lawyer whose name was not familiar to me," she recalls. "I was thinking, 'Somebody with a claim, somebody doing something on behalf of a client.' But I didn't have a minute to spare at the time so I put the message aside."

Later that day the caller phoned again. This time Ms. Acheson, vice president and general counsel for Amtrak, was out of the office at a meeting.

"When I was finally able to return the call, I expected it to be some kind of business situation," she says. "But it was to congratulate me on being a recipient of the Margaret Brent award. I had no idea I'd even been nominated."

Margaret Brent, the first female lawyer in America, landed in the Colonies in 1638 and proved herself a master negotiator and an accomplished litigator as she entered—and won—124 court cases over eight years. Since 1991, the ABA's Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award annually recognizes five women who have achieved professional excellence in the legal field and who have opened doors and influenced other women to pursue law careers. Recipients do not have to be ABA members.

While Ms. Acheson said it's "overwhelming" to think of herself as a Margaret Brent award winner, it's not such a stretch for those who know her. She has been a familiar name in law, policy, and political circles for more than three decades. Her work in the Clinton administration is credited with helping to dramatically boost the number of women in the federal judiciary.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her assistant attorney general for the Office of Policy Development in the U.S. Department of Justice. For more than seven years she led the agency's policy work in a range of areas, from human trafficking and racial profiling to Native American law enforcement and DNA identification. Most notable, however, was her push to add women's names to the list of nominees for federal judgeships.

"Overall during Eldie's tenure, the percentage increase in women judges on the federal bench was 83.5 percent," according to the recommendation that Ms. Acheson's supporters submitted to the ABA. "In raw numbers, the federal judiciary grew from having 91 women judges to 167."

GW Professor of Law Amanda Tyler worked for Ms. Acheson at the Justice Department before going to law school.

"She was then and remains today a huge inspiration to me—the epitome of a great woman lawyer and leader who has earned the deep devotion of all those who have ever worked for or with her," says Professor Tyler, who joined former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, herself a Margaret Brent award recipient, in putting forward Ms. Acheson's nomination.

"She has been a treasured mentor and great advocate—all this, meanwhile, as she has promoted the cause of women in the profession more generally and with tremendous success," Ms. Tyler adds.

Ms. Acheson, who is married to Emily Hewitt, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, is known for her pro bono work. And from 2005 to 2007, she was the founding director of public policy and government affairs at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the nation's first LGBT civil rights advocacy organization. 

When she graduated from GW, there were few female lawyers and even fewer female judges. "My biggest role models and the people who helped me the most, in addition to some very powerful lawyers at my first firm—Ropes & Gray—were the few strong women who were pioneers in the field," she says. "It seems almost obvious that you would do the same when you have the opportunity."

Ms. Acheson comes from a family deeply engaged in the law. Her father, David, is a prominent lawyer. Her mother, Patricia Castles Acheson, was a historian whose work included a book on the Supreme Court. Her grandfather, Dean, was secretary of state in the Truman administration. But Eldie Acheson didn't jump on the law bandwagon immediately. She studied history as an undergraduate at Wellesley, where she was a classmate of Hillary Clinton, spent a summer teaching high school, then worked for a year at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.

"It was at the Urban Institute, where I was working as a research person, that I saw law as so inextricably bound up with the making of social policy and with justice issues. It became clear to me that I wanted to go into law," she says.

Ms. Acheson was the first female lawyer at Ropes & Gray, where she worked for 19 years, as well as the first female partner in its litigation department.

Athough she grew up in D.C., she follows a family tradition: Cape Cod is where she goes to relax. And by "relax" she means hiking, tennis, and sailing with nieces and nephews. "In between sailing and other activities, we do a massive amount of eating and talking about eating," she says with a laugh.

—Mary A. Dempsey