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ABA's first female president receives its highest award

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Roberta Cooper Ramo

Roberta Cooper Ramo. Photograph by Kathy Anderson Photography.

It took a few years after earning her JD in 1967 before Roberta Cooper Ramo, one of six women in her class at the University of Chicago law school, landed a job in a law firm. After scaling that barrier, she hit another: A senior partner said she had just spent $50,000 worth of time working on the probate of a $25,000 estate.

There was no book for the task and no one had shown her how to do it, Ramo replied, “so let me create a system for our firm and no one here will have this problem again.”

She did—with word processors (known in the early 1970s as automatic typewriters), as well as her experience in system efficiency gained as a youngster in New Mexico helping in the family’s clothing-store chain.

It wasn’t long before Ramo was invited by a couple of other law firm management gurus in Texas to come to a meeting of an obscure ABA section that supported such work. She joined, and a few years later, in 1975, published a popular book, How to Create a System for the Law Office.

Ramo was selected as the first woman to chair the Economics of Law Practice Section in 1983-84, which now is the ABA’s Law Practice Division.

That and further experience in the ABA helped develop a new path to higher ABA leadership, which traditionally had been the preserve of those involved in the more general politics of the state and national bars: Ramo became ABA president for 1995-96—the first woman to hold the position.

A week before the Nominating Committee selected her as its nominee for the post in February 1994, the New York Times noted that two women were on the U.S. Supreme Court, women were about to take the top two jobs at the U.S. Department of Justice and now, in the ABA, “perhaps another, even more formidable barrier will fall.”

Ramo’s collection of firsts as a woman and as a lawyer is impressive, and at this year’s ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago she received the association’s highest honor, the ABA Medal.

“I think it’s a great tribute to all the people who have supported the causes I’ve been interested in,” Ramo says, “including making the ABA an important speaker and actor in the American justice system.”


Ramo’s signature effort, begun as president-elect in 1994, was creation of the Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence. But as president, she was busiest trying to save the Legal Services Corp. The LSC was targeted for elimination in an effort led by Newt Gingrich, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. Ramo worked closely with Republi-can members of Congress to keep the LSC alive, though its mission was significantly curtailed.

“I spent most of my personal time on that,” Ramo says, “and a lot of it was behind the scenes.”

A longtime partner at the Modrall Sperling law firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ramo maintains a full schedule working at law, for the bar and in the public interest.

Among a lengthy list of activities, she is president of the American Law Institute (the first woman to serve in the position); a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and chair of the nonpartisan Think New Mexico, which seeks solutions to move the state from its position near the bottom of many national rankings, including education and children in poverty. And, appointed by the U.S. Senate, she co-chaired a committee to review governance of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 after allegations arose of misspent funds, cronyism and nepotism.

Still, Ramo always had time to help others, especially women in the law.

“She’s been such a mentor to me over the years,” says Mary Torres, who came under Ramo’s wing in 1996 as a young lawyer at Modrall Sperling. Torres was chair of the State Bar of New Mexico’s Young Lawyers Division and Ramo the ABA’s president. Torres now is ABA secretary.

“Roberta really helped me a lot when I wanted to get on the Nominating Committee,” says Torres, who recently opened a solo practice in Albuquerque.

“From her I learned how it really works.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Another Peak for Ramo: The ABA’s first female president receives its highest award.”


Print and initial web versions of “Another Peak for Ramo,” September, should have identified ABA Secretary Mary Torres as a former chair of the State Bar of New Mexico’s Young Lawyers Division.

The ABA Journal regrets the error.
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