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Joanne Garvey honored for breaking the glass ceiling

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

San Francisco tax attorney Joanne M. Garvey still clearly recalls the reaction of the law firm employers in her first job interviews as a top law student more than four decades ago: "But you're a woman!"

San Francisco tax attorney Joanne M. Garvey

"The next line was: 'But we don't hire women,'" Garvey says. "There was one who said, 'We had a woman once,' and then trailed off."

That didn't stop Garvey, now 68, from launching a successful legal career and paving the way, in many instances, for other women attorneys. She was the first woman president of the San Francisco Barristers, the first woman president of the Bar Association of San Francisco and the first woman to sit on the State Bar's board of governors. She helped launch the State Bar's Taxation Section — the bar's first section — and later received its first lifetime achievement award, named after her. She helped found California Women Lawyers. And she was the first woman to serve as the California State Delegate to the American Bar Association's House of Delegates.

Many opportunities have come her way, she says, and she has sought to bring other women along with her. "What I have always tried to do," she said recently, "is have coattails."

For excelling in her field and opening doors for others, Garvey has been chosen, along with four other women lawyers, to receive the American Bar Association Commission on Women's 2003 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award this month. The award is named after America's first woman lawyer.

Garvey's legal career spans back to the late 1950s. After receiving a master's degree in history from the University of California in Berkeley, she worked as a playground director for a year while reflecting on a career path. "Women didn't go to law school," Garvey says. But those who knew her suggested that she go into law because of her penchant for arguing.

Winding up at Berkeley's Boalt Hall, Garvey was one of just five women in her graduating class. In her first job, her sole offer from a firm, she was the only woman attorney working at a Santa Barbara law firm that specialized in taxation. She was one of only two woman lawyers in Santa Barbara.

While she quickly discovered her niche in the "problem solving" of tax law, Garvey had strong ties to the Bay Area. During one of her many visits north, she heard that some San Francisco firms were looking for tax associates. So, on a whim, she walked into one of them uninvited one day and wound up in interviews with every attorney there. By the time she returned to work in Santa Barbara, a job offer was waiting for her.

Garvey went on to spend 25 years at Jordan, Keeler and Seligman in San Francisco. In 1988, she joined Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe, where she now continues to work as a "retired partner." During her many years of practice, she has represented clients in state courts as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.

A nationally recognized expert in taxation, she has handled tax and business transactions, nationally and internationally, for domestic and foreign clients. She has involved herself in tax legislation and regulation, testifying at numerous state legislative hearings.

These days, she's in the "enviable" position, she says, of being able to choose her cases, which now primarily involve state tax matters. In addition, the 5-foot-11-inch attorney has, during the past eight years, taken up basketball, a sport from her younger days. With Garvey at center on one of California's top squads, her team won a silver medal in the national Senior Olympics two years ago.

Recently, Garvey also has been at the forefront of state and national efforts to revamp the rules relating to the multijurisdictional practice of law. She served on the ABA commission that recently crafted national model rules and on both state Supreme Court panels that developed a proposed set of new rules for California attorneys.

But Garvey can't name any particular accomplishment as her finest. "I always used to say I haven't done it yet and maybe that's still my attitude," she said.

"I'm still looking to see what else I can do."

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