PIONEER LAWYER GETS HER DAY

JOHN CAHER Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: C3

Date: Sunday, March 13, 1994

Women who have made it in the legal profession are gathering Monday at Albany Law School to pay tribute to the pioneer who blazed the trial for their own success.


Katherine "Kate" Stoneman, a turn-of-the-century suffragist who tenaciously fought her way into the bar, is the focus of a day and evening of appreciation that has attracted some of the top lawyers in the region and Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. "Imagine what delight it would give Kate Stoneman, who fought for her singular place in the bar, to now find women, in the plural, on the highest benches of this state and nation and distinguishing themselves throughout the legal profession," said Kaye, the first woman ever appointed to the state Court of Appeals, New York's top court.


The Kate Stoneman Day celebration begins at 3 p.m. Monday, when Marcia Alazraki, a 1976 Albany Law School graduate now practicing in New York City, speaks to a class. It continues at 6 p.m. when Kaye delivers the first Kate Stoneman lecture in the Dean Alexander Moot Courtroom.


Later, Kaye, law Professor Bernard E. Harvith and attorney Helen M. Pratt of Dansville will be presented with the first Kate Stoneman Awards in recognition of their efforts to expand opportunities for women.


"This celebration is designed to reflect the spirit of Kate Stoneman ... and recognize people in the legal profession who are actively seeking change and expanding opportunities for women," said acting Dean John C. Welsh.


Stoneman bucked tradition, history, the odds -- and the state Supreme Court -- to win her place in the legal profession at the age of 45.


Stoneman, one of eight children, was born in a Lakewood farm family and spent most of her working life -- some 40 years -- teaching at what was to become the State University at Albany, but she had an itch to practice law, and knew the itch wouldn't go away until she scratched.


Research by Novick and Williams suggests that Stoneman got the urge to study law when she was named executrix of a large estate left by a great aunt in Troy. Stoneman clerked for a lawyer and, after a couple of years, figured she knew her way around the law and decided to sit for the state bar exam. She passed on her first attempt.


Yet, state Supreme Court Justice Judson S. Landon refused to allow Stoneman to practice law. Reason: She was a woman and women, according to Landon's reading of the state law, couldn't practice law without "special legislative action."


Stoneman and her friends were outraged and mounted an immediate and intense lobbying campaign. Within days, both houses of the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to amend the law. On May 22, 1886, Stoneman became the first woman in New York state to join the bar. It would be another quarter century before women were afforded the right to vote.


She started a law practice at 136 State St. A decade later, Stoneman was admitted to Albany Law School as a "special" student and earned her degree two years later, when she was 57 years old. She died May 19, 1925 and is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.


Now, there are over 10,000 female attorneys in the state and many law schools, including Albany, report that the number of women studying law equals or exceeds the number of men. But women attorneys say there are still obstacles to overcome.


The Kate Stoneman Day activities are open to the public. Seating, however, is limited and anyone interested in attending should call Gail Brown at 445-2301. A reception for the award winners -- Kaye, Harvith and Pratt -- begins at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a dinner buffet at 7:30 p.m. The cost for the buffet is $10.