By Theri Aronson ’20
On Jan. 29, Claremont Mckenna College hosted four “Women in the Law Panelists” in the Athenaeum.
The first woman to speak was current Chief Civil Rights Officer at CMC, Nyree Gray. Gray’s dad encouraged her to go to law school, despite her doubts she could be one of the only African American women in a white, male dominated profession.
Gray discussed how Claremont Mckenna was able to provide her the resources and counseling she needed to get into a law school that was right for her.In law school, Gray fell in love with constitutional law and dedicated herself to the work.
“When you find the work you love doing, it’s hard to find the balance between self and work because what ‘we’ do [practice law] is an all consuming type of work,” Gray said.
She wanted to yell when asked if she had met a significant other yet. “Do you know the kind of work I do?”
After graduating law school, Gray worked for eight years as a Professor of Law and the Dean of Students and Diversity Affairs at Southwestern Law School where she was able to provide students with academic advising and personal counseling. Later in her career, she started her own law firm, Abbott & Associates, where she was able to do contractual litigation and constitutional litigation, “my first love,” as well as labor and employment law.
“Pursue that law degree, even if the road to that J.D. may seem daunting,” Gray said. “If you look around at the people who are changing the world…you’ll find they’re mostly women, and probably, have a law degree.”
The next panelist to speak was Marci Lerner Miller. Marci Miller graduated in the class of ’89 cum laude from CMC. From Claremont, she then went on to New York University School of Law. After law school, Miller spent time dabbling in litigation and employment law on the side of unions. She describes her experience at a larger, corporate law firms as a time where she learned a lot about how to be a lawyer. However, it was not until later in her career that she found the work that made her passionate about the law.
Miller said that she used to think of herself as someone who did not have time to have a child. “Given the demands of my work, when I was starting out, I was spending 35-40 hours a week in the firm as a young lawyer working in a big firm,” Miller said. “Little could I have imagined that four children would come along.”
After starting their family, the Millers discovered that their youngest had some pretty serious learning disabilities. Given the demand of her son’s condition, Miller decided to take a few years off so she could devote herself to her children. Frustrated that her youngest was not accepted into the ‘mainstream system,’ Miller shifted gears and got back to work. She enrolled herself at UCLA where she received her Certificate in College Counseling, with a practicum in counseling students with learning disabilities.
“It was my fresh start,” Miller said. “The work is work, and it will always be challenging, [but] it felt personal this time.”
The next speaker, Ruth Calvillo CMC ’11, was the youngest panelist. In high school, Calvillo never saw herself at a prestigious undergraduate school like CMC. In fact, it was not until she received a full-ride scholarship from the POSSY foundation that she even considered college as a possibility. Calvillo was the first person her family to attend college and to pursue a masters.
Right out of college, Calvillo worked for Teach for America in Tulsa. TFA wanted Calvillo in Tulsa in order to provide a mentor for the Latin American teens in the community. Calvillo felt grateful for the opportunity to combine both her passions, working with teens and education.
After completing TFA, Calvillo decided that all the good she could do in Tulsa outweighed her doubts about staying there. Latino teens needed a Latino mentor, someone they could look up to in a community seriously lacking in diversity, so she decided to attend Tulsa Law School. She was only the only Latina woman in her graduating class, but at one point, the only Latina in the entire grad school.
Calvillo had always known that whatever she did, she wanted to give back to her community that had provided her with so much support growing up. “There’s always been this cycle of poverty running through my head,” she said., “It makes me ask myself questions like: Where and Who needs the most help, and what can I do to lighten the load?” After law school, Calvillo landed her first job working with victims of assault in Tulsa before deciding to come back to Los Angeles where she took a job in immigration law. Today, Calvillo works for the Central American Resource Center, an organization dedicated to working with families who have been separated at the border.
The final speaker, Meredith Brown P ’22, has practiced in virtually all areas of immigration law. She is active in the Immigration Project, and the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association. This past year, Meredith Brown was asked to join the Los Angeles County Bar Association Immigration Section. Her passion for immigration came from Brown’s travels after college to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, where she worked with local civil rights non-profits.
In the 80s, countries like El Salvador and Guatemala faced brutal civil wars which have had lasting, damaging effects on smaller communities outside the capital cities. Brown describes having been an active witness to many of these human injustices,
“Getting involved in the local solidarity movement aligned me with the Latino Movement,” Brown said. She almost moved to El Salvador, when she met an El Salvadorian man who encouraged her to come back and continue her work in Los Angeles. She is married to this same man today, and has two children with him.
Browns also dabbles in civil rights law — she was part of the group to challenge the travel ban policy in 2018. She has also defended many incarcerated Latinos in Los Angeles court.
These women are truly dynamites of the law, and their unceasing ambition in their respective practices is demonstrative of that. They are living proof that the people that are changing world actually are the women …with a law degree.