Many years after Martha Barnett became the first female lawyer hired at the prestigious Holland and Knight law firm, she got to see her personnel file. On the back of one of the evaluation forms, a senior and highly respected member of the firm had written, "Well, if we have to hire a woman, I guess she's as good as any." Barnett, 52, and now a partner at the firm, came into the practice of law when it was a boys' club and women were gate-crashers.
But, according to her colleagues, Barnett pierced the thick resistence with superlative legal talents and personal charm. The male senior partner who had been so skeptical of a woman in their midst eventually became one of Barnett's biggest supporters and a mentor to other women hired by the firm. Barnett brought down barriers with a cajoling demeanor, not militancy.
Tracy Nichols, a partner of Barnett's at Holland and Knight, says that if a door of opportunity was closed to her, "Martha blew out the hinges and had the smarts and Southern charm to make the men think they were gallantly holding the door open for her."
Today, at a meeting in Atlanta, Barnett will become president-elect of the American Bar Association, only the second woman to hold the position. Her term as president will start in July 2000. She follows in the footsteps of a number of great Florida lawyers who have headed the 417,000-member organization, including Chesterfield Smith, a colleague and longtime supporter of Barnett's.
National leadership is nothing new for Barnett. The Tallahassee resident and fifth-generation Floridian has served on Florida's Constitution Revision Commission as well as an ABA task force that examined the status of women in the profession. Known as one of the country's most respected lawyers and lobbyists, with a client list that reads like an excerpt of the Fortune 500, she retains a strong commitment to providing legal services to the poor. In 1994, along with fellow Holland and Knight partner Steve Hanlon, Barnett persuaded our reluctant Legislature to pay $150,000 each to the survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre.
Throughout her career, Barnett has been a principled advocate, even in a profession which encourages a winning-at-all-costs attitude. She will bring dignity, respect and the proper priorities to the helm of the nation's largest association of lawyers.