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Bar News - November 14, 2008

Judge Conboy Reflects on a Woman’s Uphill Career Climb


Judge Carol Ann Conboy, 2008 recipient of the Marilla Ricker Achievement Award presented by the NH Women’s Bar Association. In the photo, Conboy a Superior Court judge since 1992, is greeted by Barbara Keshen, left, counsel for the NH Civil Liberties Union, and a former NH Public Defender and prosecutor. Keshen told several anecdotes about Conboy’s demeanor and treatment of litigants appearing before her. Conboy, in her remarks, reviewed her career and spoke of the important role lawyers must play in representing the underprivileged in difficult economic times.

The following are Hon. Carol Ann Conboy’s remarks upon receiving the 2008 Marilla Ricker Achievement Award at the Oct. 15 reception of the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association.

In thinking about what I could say tonight, I considered reminiscing about events in my life that might resonate especially with my sisters at the bar.

I thought back to the day – when I was in the 8th grade – that I announced to my parents (neither of whom had ever seen a college campus) that I would be going to college. My father’s worried reaction ironically set the course of the rest of my life: He said, "Sweetie, you know we don’t have much money, so any help we can give will have to go to your younger brother – who will someday be the head of a household; you’re on your own, kid." Although my student loans were long ago paid off, I am happy that the statute of limitations has expired on questionable parental signatures on those loan applications.

I thought back to the whirlwind of change during my four years at the University of Connecticut. During my freshman year starting in 1965, the women students (only) had curfews, we had mandatory study hours, we needed parental permission slips to be out overnight, and we were prohibited from wearing slacks to class. By the time I was a senior in 1968, flower power prevailed and men were allowed in the women’s dorm rooms (during so-called "parietal hours") to partake in bra-burning parties and other "liberations."

I thought of my introduction to the U.S. Air Force in 1969 when the Viet Nam War was raging. I was one of 26 women who entered Officer Training School – with 800 men. Our male classmates were stunned that we "ladies" could actually march along with them for four hours at a stretch in the blazing Texas sun and could fire 45-calibre automatic pistols with remarkable accuracy. I will confess to you, however, that notwithstanding my rank as squadron commander of our tiny band of women, I was forced to take "remedial swimming" every night until I could pass the swimming test.

I thought of many of the events in my life which have mirrored the tremendous changes in our society that have affected women over the last forty years: I recall with great clarity that day nearly 38 years ago, and nine days after I married Bernie, becoming instantly and unexpectedly mother to his three boys – who are now of course my three grown sons.

I recall the early 1970’s when I taught English to high school girls who were just starting to test their limits – self-imposed and otherwise. I recall my years as a law student at fledgling Pierce Law (a/k/a "Frank’s") when it was still a novelty for there to be more than just a handful of women students.

I recall joining the McLane law firm as one of two "young" women, along with Linda Connell, now one of the more senior partners at the firm. The third woman lawyer was Miss Harriet Mansfield, who had started out as the firm’s bookkeeper and eventually became a member of the bar after "reading the law." Note that I refer to her as "Miss Mansfield." She would have been appalled at the title; "Ms." Then in her 70’s, Miss Mansfield apparently could not keep Linda’s name and my name straight. She referred to us as "the girl on the first floor," and the "girl on the second floor." Our generally similar physical appearance also presented a challenge to senior partner John McLane. I remember one tense lunchtime conversation with Linda. We were chatting about our assignments, and she described a memo she had just completed for Mr. McLane. The legal problem presented was horrifyingly identical to the problem which I had recently researched for him. I held my breath as I waited to hear what her conclusion was. Regardless of whether our answers were correct, I am eternally grateful that we two legal neophytes arrived at the same conclusion.

And, of course, there are many stories from my 16 years on the bench, as one of a still-small group of women judges who are not infrequently addressed as "sir."

But as they say in politics, this is not a time for looking back. The stories from my life will pale in comparison with what all the women here will accomplish in your lifetimes. The challenges for you are surely daunting. Our country now faces a potentially crippling economic crisis, and legal help is desperately needed by so many. But I am confident that you are all up to the challenge. I know that you will not only be effective advocates – but you will also provide the intelligent, compassionate counseling which will be critical in the coming months and years.

I also know that you will generously give of your time and talents when legal help cannot be afforded.

I thank you for this honor and look forward to continuing our work together in this most gratifying profession.

Hon. Carol Ann Conboy, Associate Justice of the NH Superior Court, was admitted to the NH Bar in 1978. She was appointed to the Superior Court in 1992.

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