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A Legal Pioneer for Women and Dispute Resolution: Judge Dorothy W. Nelson

published October 08, 2007

( 49 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)

What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.

<<"My first inclination was to be a social worker," she says. "After World War II, when I was leader of a boys' club for underprivileged eight-year-olds, I found that when I observed and complained to authorities about their special needs (health, food, parental inadequacies), I was told that 'the law says this or that.' I decided that...lawyers appeared to have the inside edge."

Nelson adds that she wanted to be in a profession that aimed "to serve other people."

"Lawyers have the training and skills to bring about real change in society and assist others," she says.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in political science from UCLA in 1950, Nelson set about launching her legal career. In 1953, she earned her law degree from the UCLA School of Law and was admitted to the State Bar of California the following year. For her first job out of law school, she worked as a research associate at the University of Southern California Law School. She worked alongside USC law professor James Holbrook on a project to investigate the courts in Los Angeles and recommend improvements. The study, which took three years to complete, was titled "Survey of Metropolitan Courts-Los Angeles Area."

"We recommended 32 the state legislature, most of which were adopted," she says.

Nelson adds that some of those changes included the creation of a court executive officer, the consolidation of courts, the improvement of juror pay, and the keeping of court statistics.

Nelson went on to receive her Master of Laws degree from the University of Southern California Law School in 1956. The following year, she joined the school's faculty as USC's first woman law professor.

Nelson "rocked the boat" and raised eyebrows during her first year at USC by inserting materials on mediation, the closest thing to consultation, into her seminars on the administration of justice.

"I began teaching about mediation and arbitration and other forms of appropriate dispute resolution…in the early 1960s, before it was being taught elsewhere," she says.

As a member of the Bahá'í faith, Nelson strongly believes in consultation to resolve conflicts peacefully as an alternative to litigation. She was one of the early proponents of Dispute Resolution.

Reflecting on the impact her actions at USC had, she says, "One day at a faculty meeting, I overheard a faculty member say to another, 'Just what is this thing called mediation that Dorothy is teaching in her seminar?' The response was, 'Oh, it's a woman's thing. She is trying to get everyone to love each other.' Well, it gives me the greatest pleasure to say that Dispute Resolution (particularly mediation) is one of the hottest topics in the justice system today."

During her tenure as a law professor, Nelson was involved in a number of other law-related activities. She was involved in private practice, handling family, juvenile, and adoption matters. She also formed two major corporations, Woolstone Inc. and California Limestone, and did all their legal work. In addition, she served on the Federal Indigent Defense Panel and wrote trusts and wills.

"But teaching and writing were my main activities," she says.

Nelson thrived at USC Law School. She was named its interim dean in 1967 and dean in 1969, becoming the first woman dean of a major American law school.

Nelson set out to raise the bar at USC once again as interim dean and dean of the law school. As interim dean, she helped establish a dispute resolution center. She says it was the first dispute resolution center at a law school anywhere in the country. She also assisted in founding a number of other organizations.

"While dean, we established the Western Center on Law and Poverty (in conjunction with [the] UCLA and Loyola law schools); the Chicano Law Center; the Center on Law and Aging (with the School of Gerontology); and the Center for Preventive Law, etc., etc.," she says.

Nelson also set out to improve the inner workings of the law school by pulling the staff together in a manner that had never been attempted before.

"When I became the first woman dean, one of the senior faculty members called me into his office and advised me to arrive at the next faculty meeting 15 minutes late to show the faculty who was boss. Instead, I rushed home and baked five dozen chocolate cookies and arrived 15 minutes early to greet everyone. I also announced that we would have food at all faculty meetings henceforth. I have always found that in meetings and in crisis situations, food brings people closer together and improves communication immeasurably," she says.

As a woman who changed the legal system according to her own views, Nelson believes women have unique perspectives and great opportunities to advance the legal field.

"While men and women must achieve full equality with respect to education, employment, salaries, and advancement opportunities, men and women have some distinct attributes which must be present if we are to have a just and peaceful society," she says.

Nelson has observed that many women opt out of the legal profession because they feel that it's necessary to conform to a male model which values long hours and neglect of family in pursuit of material wealth. She suggests that female attorneys who also want families should not back down from their perspectives and values as women.

Nelson recalls one example of this that occurred when one of her brightest, most qualified former woman clerks became pregnant after she joined a major law firm.

"She called to tell me that she was pregnant but had told the law firm that she had already hired a nanny and would be at work the day after the baby was born. The day after the baby was born, she called me from the hospital and said, 'Judge, I've got a problem.' I said, 'I know what it is. You don't want to go back to work right away.' She agreed. I told her to call the law firm and ask for three months' leave. She did, and the leave was granted.

"Two months later, she called and said, 'Judge, I have a problem.' I replied that I knew what it was. She wasn't ready to go back to work full-time. I told her to decide just how many hours she would like to work and ask the law firm to let her remain on a part-time basis. She worried that she wouldn't make partner as soon as her contemporaries. My reply was to ask her if that was her purpose in life-to make partner as soon as her peers. She did call the law firm, and the request was granted," Nelson says.

Three months later, the senior partner of her former clerk's law firm called Nelson and told her that three of his young male associates who had families said they had observed Nelson's former clerk's example and wanted to spend more time with their families.

"They knew they wouldn't make partner as soon, but they decided their families were more important. I said to the senior partner that I thought it was wonderful that they were making this decision, especially considering the fact that the local bar association was spending close to $200,000 a year offering counseling to young associates who had drug and marital problems. The senior partner agreed, and the environment of the entire law firm has changed. Thus, women lawyers have much to offer in improving the lawyer's workplace," Nelson says.

After Nelson had served 10 years as dean, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1979. She assumed senior status on the court in 1995.

In 1985, Nelson and a group of attorneys and judges established the Western Justice Center Foundation. The initial plan was to make use of the bungalows adjoining the Ninth Circuit Courthouse in Pasadena and place tenants there who would be compatible with the courthouse.

"When the bungalows we were in were designated surplus property in 1985 and Chief Judge [James R.] Browning asked Judge [Anthony M.] Kennedy [now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice] to come up with ideas for compatible tenants, the idea for the Western Justice Center Foundation was born," she says.

"Judge Kennedy went off to Washington, DC, and I asked a group of prominent lawyers and judges to join me in forming a nonprofit corporation called the Western Justice Center Foundation to develop a research center to promote peaceful resolution of conflict among children, courts, community, and government."

Nelson says that when she was the dean of USC Law School, she always wanted to develop such a center in the western part of the United States.

"In the words of former Chief Justice Burger, litigation is fine for some cases, but to think it is appropriate for all cases is a mistake," she says. "Our adversary system is too costly, too inefficient, too painful, and too destructive for a civilized society."

Since its founding, the Western Justice Center Foundation has developed a number of programs designed to teach peaceful conflict resolution to children, youth, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. Included among these programs are the Children's Workshop, the Models of Unity Program, court workshops, the Peer Mediation Invitational, and Creative Classroom Management, which Nelson says is "for K-6 teachers to infuse conflict resolution education throughout the curriculum and to maximize child-centered problem solving."

Last year, the foundation collaborated with the Pasadena Police Department and Los Angeles County Bar Association Dispute Resolution Services to launch a mediation and dialogue program designed to improve relationships between the police department and the community. The program provides opportunities for citizens and members of the Pasadena Police Department to engage in open dialogue through mediation sessions. It combines individual mediations of citizen complaints against the police with larger dialogues between community members and members of the police department.

"It is tremendously rewarding to help people and groups resolve conflict of all kinds through consultation, mediation, and dialogue," says Nelson, whose goal is "to always have a win-win situation rather than a win-lose situation."

Nelson, who is also chair of the Ninth Circuit's Dispute Resolution Committee, says her biggest influences have been Roscoe Pound, the former dean of Harvard Law School; her husband; and her religion.

As an appellate judge, Nelson sits on the bench one week per month and hears 30 to 35 cases, which last 10 to 20 minutes per side. She writes opinions during the remainder of the month. She says that she and the other appellate judges hear a variety of cases:

"We handle everything from serious criminal cases (capital cases, drug cases, rape, robbery, murder, pornography, etc.) to immigration cases, constitutional law cases, commercial cases, employment discrimination cases, environmental cases, Clean Water Act cases, Voting Rights cases, etc."

Nelson says that what she likes most about being an appellate judge is being able to contribute to making the "American judicial system the best in the world and being able to significantly affect the lives of others." She adds that she also really likes working with her law clerks.

"I enjoy my three law clerks immensely as one of the best parts of the job," she says. "They come from outstanding law schools and assist in my research and writing and in preparing for my court calendars. They are a source of continuing education for me, for they have had courses with the most prominent and accomplished law professors in the United States."

She says that some of the most difficult challenges she faces as an appellate judge are having a "heavy caseload, [not] having enough time to do adequate research when briefs are not as good as they should be, and balancing public service demands on my time with court and family demands."

Nelson says she considers the most important issue facing the legal community today to be giving the community access to a justice system, not necessarily courts, that will provide fair resolution of disputes and solve problems.

Nelson advises law students to get involved in their communities:

"Become active in your community so that you will understand its needs, and mold your aspirations to bringing about peaceful resolution to conflict, which will lead ultimately to a peaceful society."


Nelson, Dorothy W. "First Women: Dorothy W. Nelson." Ms. JD. February 6, 2007. (accessed October 1, 2007).

Dorothy W. Nelson

Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (appointed by President Jimmy Carter in December of 1979)

Former Dean and Professor of Law, University of Southern California Law Center (first woman dean of a fully accredited law school; first woman professor of USC Law Center)

Chair, Board of Directors for the Western Justice Center Foundation (promoting peaceful resolution of conflict among children, in the community, in courts, and in government)

Co-Chair, Sino-American Conference on Mediation and Arbitration, Beijing, China (1992)

Winner, ABA Dispute Resolution Section, D'Alemberte/Raven Award (April 2000)

Chair, Ninth Circuit Dispute Resolution Committee (2000-Present)

Recipient of the Thurgood Marshall Career Achievement Award (2005) and the University of Oregon School of Law 2007 Meritorious Service Award

Specialty: Law Reform

Author of Judicial Administration and the Administration of Justice (West, 1957)

Author of numerous articles on women's issues and Dispute Resolution, including "Ninth Circuit Appellate Practice" (1995), "Dispute Resolution in the Federal Courts-One Judge's Perspective," "Issues and Challenges Facing Judges, Lawyers, Court Administrators, and the Police," and "17 Ohio State J. on Dispute Resolution" (2001)

Married to the Honorable James F. Nelson, Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court (Ret.)

Two children: Franklin Wright Nelson and Lorna Jean Nelson

Member, National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) of the Bahá'ís of the United States (1967)

( 49 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.