A retired Spokane County Superior Court judge who inspired respect – and occasionally fear – during her 37 years on the bench will receive an outstanding judge award from the Washington State Bar Association.
Judge Kathleen O’Connor, who hung up her robe in January after making history as the first woman elected to Superior Court in Spokane County, was nominated by the Spokane chapter of Washington Women Lawyers.
She’ll receive the WSBA’s Apex Award for Outstanding Judge Sept. 29 at the association’s annual dinner in Seattle.
“It’s sort of ironic for 2016, because I only worked one month,” O’Connor said laughing, before adding that she was “very grateful” for the nomination and the award.
O’Connor was a founding member of Spokane’s chapter of Washington Women Lawyers. She earned her law degree from Gonzaga Law School in 1975 and made newspaper headlines soon after when she opened a family law firm with another female classmate.
At the time, many professional societies and networking groups excluded women from membership. O’Connor said the chapter helped correct that by giving women a chance to connect with each other and share strategies for dealing with sexism at work.
Today, the group serves a similar function and works to address issues like family leave at law firms and the low number of female attorneys who become partners or take on leadership roles in law firms. It’s grown significantly since O’Connor’s early days as a lawyer.
“There are many members of WWL I don’t know, and this is a good thing. I used to know every woman lawyer in town,” she said.
O’Connor earned recognition during her career for far more than her role as a pioneering woman. When she retired, colleagues on the bench recalled her exacting standards, willingness to mentor young lawyers and judges, and enthusiasm for staying current on case law and helping others do the same.
“Most attorneys seek out her courtroom, because though she can be a rigid taskmaster, she is also consistent, decisive, efficient and prepared. Exacting, maybe, but always fair,” retired Judge Tari Eitzen wrote in a column for the Spokane County Bar Association’s newsletter shortly before O’Connor retired.
Emily Arneson, the president of the local WWL chapter, said she doesn’t know O’Connor well personally, but remembered seeing her speaking with a large group of law students who were invited to the group’s annual holiday party last year.
“The law students were standing around the table and she was just standing there chatting with them. She’s always willing to give of herself in that way, as a mentor,” Arneson said.
Arneson said the Spokane WWL chapter has never made another nomination that she knows of, but leaders felt they had to recognize O’Connor after her long career.
“Our whole board agreed unanimously that we wanted to do this,” she said. “We felt that Judge O’Connor did great service to the bench and we were sad to see her go.”