Barbara Babcock talks ‘Fish Raincoats’ and a legal career filled with firsts

Fish Raincoats coverThe first woman appointed to the Stanford Law faculty, BARBARA BABCOCK has taught and written in the fields of civil and criminal procedure. Before coming to Stanford in 1972, Babcock served as the first director of the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. On leave from Stanford, she was assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Carter administration. Babcock is the author of Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, a biography of the first woman lawyer in the West and the founder of the public defender movement. She discusses her career in law and her new autobiography, Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.

This book comes on the heels of the Clara Foltz book. Was the process of writing that book what got you started on writing the autobiography?

It may have been. The Clara Foltz book took me many years to finish. I thought: I’m going to die before I finish this and all my obituary will say is ‘She was working on this book all her life and never published’! Also, it was just so hard because there were no papers and she was really an unknown figure even though she was very important in her day. I wrote articles along the way and taught. It finally occurred to me that as long as I kept teaching—and it’s not just the teaching, it’s letters of recommendation and mentoring and counseling—I would never finish. So I retired to finish the book. Then I had a year of selling the book, spreading the word about Clara. I spoke 70 times, all over the country. I don’t think I could do that again.

Then I thought, “Now what?” I kind of missed the discipline of writing. And I had this idea of writing my story, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. Compared to Clara, it was just so easy.

The research was done.

The research was done! And I have, all my life, kept diaries. Daily diaries. They don’t tell a lot about what I was thinking, but they do tell about what I was doing, which brings back memories. And I had a lot of clippings and letters and things. I thought, I have so many stories. The only regret that I do have is the number of people that I love and have really interesting things to say about, but I just couldn’t put them all in. They just didn’t all fit.

Let’s talk about your career, which includes several firsts. You were the first woman to lead the public defender’s office. You joined in 1966?

Yes. Criminal defense is what I wanted to do. The public defender – we started it – the public defender in D.C. It started with Gideon, which came down the year I graduated from law school. And in DC, they were trying to figure out how to supply lawyers to the indigent accused. So they started this pilot program called the Legal Aid Agency for the District of Columbia, and that’s what I always wanted – I wanted to work there. When I graduated from Yale I clerked for Judge Henry W. Edgerton and I met this very charismatic man, Gary Bellow, who was running the agency. It was just a tiny agency at the start with five or six people. It was experimental. But there were no openings, so after clerking I went to work for a criminal defense lawyer called Edward Bennett Williams. I learned what you can do if you have a lot of resources and work very hard. But I still had this ambition to defend poor people, so after a few years I had the opportunity to join Legal Aid – but it was falling apart. The early idealism had been squelched and Gary Bellow had moved on to civil legal aid for the indigent.

Yes – I came and worked at what was still the Legal Aid Agency for a couple of years. Judge Bazelon was my friend, and he had been the friend of the judge that I clerked for, and I went to him and said, “Our little Legal Aid Agency is just becoming a guilty plea mill and this is not what we want.” And he was a consummate politician, and he got this special committee appointed to investigate the service, and they wrote a scathing report about how bad it was. That caused the man who was the director to leave.

Back then the director’s salary was set at $16,000, which even in those days was not much. You couldn’t raise a family on it. So they had a lot of difficulty finding applicants. There were a lot of people who wanted the job, but couldn’t afford to take it. In the end, I just decided I would go for it, and I applied to be the director. I thought that I should. That it was a duty. And I became director in 1968. Then it turned into a huge prestigious job that made my career, but at the time it felt somewhat like a sacrifice, but one that I had to do—so I did.

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