A Conversation With Marna S. Tucker
(Appeared in Washington Lawyer, October 2002)
A 1965 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, Marna S. Tucker has established herself as one of the preeminent and best known of the District’s domestic relations lawyers. She entered the field by happenstance. Before joining the firm of Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank LLP, she served the public sector with the Neighborhood Legal Services Program and as an aide to Congressman Allard Lowenstein. Tucker has the distinction of serving as the first woman president of both the District of Columbia Bar and the National Conference of Bar Presidents, and on the first D.C. Bar Nominations Committee when the Bar was formed in 1972.
You were born and raised in Texas, correct?
No. I was actually born in Philadelphia and moved to Houston when I was in the second grade. So I was reared in Texas.
What was your childhood like?
Houston was great place to grow up. It had a small-town feel about it even though it was a large city. I never had a key to my house because we never locked the doors. Although the bayous have now been cemented over as protection from the mosquitoes, we used to go to the bayous and have great adventures.
I went to public schools, and although I
had a delightful childhood, the one thing that was out of kilter
was that the schools were not integrated. My childhood was remarkably
free of any kind of diversity and I regret that.
When I went to college at the University of Texas in the late 1950s, the integration of schools was becoming a public issue. The university admitted black students, but the dorms were segregated, the organizations were segregated, and movie theaters and restaurants in Austin were segregated. I spent a large part of my college years in organizations trying to integrate the University of Texas. We participated in protests trying to get the board of regents to change their policy. It’s hard to imagine that situation in today’s world, but those events strongly influenced my later years. They validated my belief in the importance of peaceful protest for principles of equality.
Why did you choose the law?
There were a few different reasons. One was that the courtroom and the law always fascinated me. When I was growing up, Houston had some remarkable criminal trials including bizarre murder cases. The city had fabulous trial lawyers like Percy Foreman. Sometimes I would go down to the courthouse and just sit and observe. Watching those lawyers try a case was like going to the movies. The drama of it captivated me. I wanted to do what those lawyers were doing.
Secondly, I was going out with a guy who
told me how much he admired a woman who was an international lawyer.
I thought maybe I ought to be a lawyer. This was at a time when if
you weren’t married in your early twenties there was something
wrong with you. One of my main goals was to get married, so I wanted
to please this guy who thought being a woman lawyer was really neat.
This reason seems trivial now, but it was compelling then.
Finally, I majored in political science and took some undergraduate courses that dealt with law. I enjoyed the courses and found them challenging. It all kind of converged. It wasn’t a clear choice. I can’t say that I knew exactly what I was getting into. Choosing law school felt right, but if other things had come along at the time, I could have gone a different way.
My parents didn’t have any money, so I had to get a scholarship to go to law school. I applied to two schools—Harvard and Georgetown—and I got into both. I was very proud to get into Harvard. I got an acceptance letter that said I was one of 25 women in the incoming class of 500. Although the dean later denied it in my discussions with him, everyone knew there was a quota of 25 women in each class at Harvard. Georgetown, however, offered me more scholarship money, so I came to D.C.
Even though the University of Texas had a wonderful law school, I wanted to get away from Texas. Going to law school was an odd thing for a woman to do at the time. I felt that if I went away to law school, people would think it was all right that I didn’t go home and get married like all of my sorority sisters.
How many women were in the class that you entered at Georgetown?
Georgetown was much smaller than Harvard when I attended. We started with nine women in a class of 180 students. Five women graduated—all of us at the top.
We didn’t have the privilege of being ordinary students. I was at Georgetown between 1962 and 1965, when women comprised less than 2 percent of the profession. The fact that people treated me differently did not make me upset or angry. I knew what I was getting into, and I did what I had to do to finish law school. Back in those days, I didn’t know what sex discrimination was.
Did you sense that women were treated differently?
This is hard to believe, but at Georgetown Law School all the men wore sport coats and ties to class. Those were very traditional times. Now professors are happy when the law students are fully clothed. My daughter just graduated from law school and she wore jeans and T-shirts. But I wore high heels and a suit to school every day. You’ve got to picture a sea of sport jackets and ties with a handful of women. I always wore bright colors. The women stood out because there were so few of us.
With the Socratic method we never knew whom the professor would call on. There would be times when the professor would say, “Mr. Sullivan,” and I could see Mr. Sullivan sitting there, and if he wasn’t prepared, he would not stand up. We called it “fox holing.” If the professor called on Miss Tucker, there was no way I could look around for the other Miss Tucker to stand up. There was a spotlight on us because we were oddities, and some of the professors would sort of toy with us when we were called on. Certainly nobody ignored us. If I stood up and made a jerk of myself responding to questions about a case, it would have been nice if people were not paying attention, but people paid attention to what we had to say because we were a novelty. It wasn’t possible to be ordinary in law school. There was pressure on us all the time.
Did you want to be a certain type of lawyer when you got out of law
I wanted to be involved in civil rights law. The civil rights movement deeply affected me when I was in college and constitutional law fascinated me. Georgetown had adjunct professors who were handling civil rights cases at the Justice Department and I took the night courses and seminars they taught. I wanted to make a difference and change society.
In the summer of 1964, when three college
student civil rights workers in Mississippi were killed, I was working
as a summer intern in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
I wanted to work at Justice after graduation trying cases in the
South and I applied for a position. But even though the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination was just passed by Congress,
the Justice Department was not anxious to hire women as trial lawyers
in the South. Moreover, Justice Department lawyers traveled in mixed
racial company from small town to small town. It was dangerous work
and it was not something the department wanted women doing. They
hired women to stay in Washington and handle the voting rights cases,
but I wanted to be where the action was.
I complained to the associate dean at Georgetown,
A. Kenneth Pye, and told him that I wanted to be a lawyer in the
South dealing with civil rights cases and that I’d like to
help poor people. He said, “I’m chairman of a new organization
called Neighborhood Legal Services and you could do legal work for
poor people here. Would you be interested?” I said, “In
So my first job was to work as assistant to the deputy director of Neighborhood Legal Services Program. The program was brand-new, and it was a wonderful start to my career. I still believe the work the Neighborhood Legal Services lawyers do is the work of saints.
Did you stay in that program for very long?
To publicize the new program I wrote an article called “Justice in Sneakers” describing my experiences as a neighborhood lawyer. I wrote about handling eviction cases, moving clients in my car to get their stuff off the streets, running them to court, and being sued for pursuing these cases. The article came to the attention of the director of the national legal services program of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and he asked if I wanted to go out to San Francisco and be the deputy director of the western region. That area covered California, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and Hawaii; all places that I had never been. I thought, Wow, I could do good things in beautiful places. I went to interview for the job in San Francisco and got the position. It was an administrative job, and for several years I worked with local bar associations within these states to set up new neighborhood legal service programs.
One of the programs was the California Rural Legal Assistance Program, which represented a lot of farmworkers. It was a political hot potato. The growers were up in arms that a federally funded program was representing farmworkers. They were trying to stop the program. I had to negotiate directly with Ronald Reagan, who was governor at that time, as well as with his aides Lyn Nofziger and William Clark, to avoid a gubernatorial veto. My job was to figure out what to do about it. That was heady stuff for a young person.
Did you miss the courtroom?
No, I didn’t. I was speaking before a lot of groups. I was doing a lot negotiations, and I wasn’t behind a desk that much. It was an entirely different experience, but one that was satisfying and challenging. I still look with pride at the ongoing programs and their good works.
In 1969 you left to work for U.S. Representative Allard Lowenstein.
Yes. I was a product of the time. The Vietnam War was in full swing and I was opposed to the war. I look back at my job choices and they had so much to do with what was going on nationally. Allard Lowenstein was a congressman who was opposed to the Vietnam War. We had a mutual friend who told me that Lowenstein needed to have people on his staff that could help him fight against the war. When Lowenstein came out to California, I met him, and he hired me. That got me back to D.C.
What were your duties?
My responsibilities were supposed to be poverty issues, but it turned out the entire staff was focused on the war. I was the person assigned from Al Lowenstein’s office to work with a bipartisan group of four congressmen: Don Frazier, Don Riegle, Paul “Pete” McCloskey Jr., and Allard Lowenstein. This group created a committee calling for a referendum on the Vietnam War. This seems so primitive, but at the time there hadn’t been a congressional vote on the war because the arcane procedures of the House of Representatives allowed an avoidance of a recorded vote. It was a strong lesson to me on how Congress could avoid being accountable to their constituency.
One reason the Vietnam War ended was because
of the huge impact of student protests on campuses and here in Washington.
We had floods of students coming in to Washington during the summer
of 1970 and they all wanted to do something. We rented a townhouse
right by the Capitol and devised a way to utilize these students.
We knew there would be a vote coming up on the war, but it would
be a teller vote. Teller votes did not record individual votes, just
the final outcome, so there would be no official record of how individual
representatives voted. We were not allowed to go into the viewing
galleries with pencil and paper and write down what they did, so
we figured out a way to have our own record. We assigned every student
to a particular congressman and they learned to recognize that representative.
Each student had a piece of paper with “yes” printed
on it and a piece with “no” on it. They were to watch
their assigned congressman and record the vote by putting the appropriate
piece of paper in their pocket. After the vote we tallied the students’
papers and we knew exactly which way each representative voted. We
publicized the results, making the first vote on the war public.
It doesn’t seem like a big achievement, but in the home jurisdictions
heads rolled on that vote. Knowing we were there influenced the way
people voted. We made the representatives publicly accountable to
Those were the days when bipartisan efforts were truly bipartisan efforts. I learned a lot about how wonderful politics could be when done in a bipartisan way. Those four men—Pete McCloskey, Don Riegle, Don Frazier, and Al Lowenstein—to this day are symbolic to me of the best of American politics. From them I learned you could change things if you were creative enough and that political parties could work together constructively. It was a lot of fun.
After working for Lowenstein, where did you go next?
I became a consultant to the American Bar Association. This was the early seventies and it was the beginning of interest in pro bono programs and public interest law firms. The ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities received a grant from the Ford Foundation to stimulate interest in pro bono programs in large law firms. Although pro bono programs are everywhere now, they were rare before this program started the trend. Warren Christopher was the member of the section’s governing body in charge of the grant. He hired me to fly around the country and meet with law firms and encourage them to support the program. I did that for a couple of years and met a lot of very interesting people and learned much about the politics of private practice.
The firm I am now in, Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank, started out as one of the public interest law firms my grant sought to encourage. The idea was to do good work helping government grantees and local community action agencies in solving the problems of the poor. I joined this firm because it was one of the firms that I had written about when I was working with the ABA and I wanted to do sex discrimination cases.
So the firm hadn’t been organized very long before you joined
No. I joined the firm in 1972, shortly after it was formed. When you joined the firm, why did you want to do sex discrimination suits? First, I was influenced by the civil rights movement, then the poverty program and helping the poor, then the Vietnam War, then by public interest law, and finally by the feminist movement. It was at this juncture that I realized I had been discriminated against and I hadn’t even known it. I became very active in securing women’s rights. That’s what I wanted to do in the law firm.
What kinds of cases would you pursue? Did it take you long to find
your niche in divorce law?
I did some sex discrimination cases, but I mostly did work for some of the partners. I did a lot of tax work and corporate work for community action and nonprofit groups, which the firm still does. At one point, just to pay the bills, I started doing some divorces. It was entirely by accident, but I found I liked working with people in crisis one to one.
I handled a few divorces, and a woman who
particularly liked the way I dealt with her case turned out to be
involved with a senior member of a major law firm. He hired me to
handle his divorce, which turned out to be a huge and notorious case.
After that, divorce cases kept coming in and the volume overwhelmed
me. I needed help. We hired some associates and suddenly we needed
more help and then more help for my clients.
In 1976 the D.C. domestic relations law
changed. It used to be that in a divorce people got the property
that was titled in their name. That meant men walked away with what
was in their names, which was most of the assets. Men usually owned
the pension plans and the businesses. Women generally only got half
the house because it was often in both names. The new “equitable
distribution” law changed the way property was divided. It
was a wide-open, brand-new concept recognizing the partnership of
men and women.
The new law considered a range of issues, such as the contributions of women as homemakers, and distributed things fairly. I was on the cutting-edge of that and loved developing new law. It took a while for women to learn that they had different choices and didn’t have to stay in unhappy marriages because they couldn’t support themselves. That was exciting to see happen. Equitable distribution is now considered old law and we’re now revising it and going in new directions, but it was the opportunity created by this law that built the domestic relations department of our firm.
The change to equitable distribution seems like it would open
many more avenues for litigation than the title-only method.
Yes, it did. At that time I wanted to build the biggest and best divorce law firm in the area, but I didn’t want to be known as a “barracuda,” which was the phrase in the old days. I believed then and now that most people want to be decent to their spouses and seek what I call a “divorce with dignity.” I wanted to practice law that way. I wanted to focus on the decency that most people have in a very painful time. There were a few lawyers in town that felt that way too. We wanted to change the way divorce law was perceived and practiced.
It’s very hard, painful work, but the culture of the domestic relations bar in the District of Columbia is respectful and civil. I’d like to think that my firm contributed to that culture.
At the same time that you were starting your practice at Feldesman,
Tucker you were involved in other ventures including teaching at
some of the local universities.
Yes, Brooksley Born and I became friends through the newly formed women’s rights organizations that we joined, and we taught a course on women and the law as adjunct professors at Georgetown and Catholic universities.
I was also active in the American Bar Association and I’ve remained so for all these years. When I first became active, it was a way for women to earn a credential and become respected in the profession.
You were also involved in the D.C. Bar’s founding in 1972.
The federal government had created a new mandatory District of Columbia Bar as part of the new local court system. The existing Bar Association of the District of Columbia was a voluntary bar association and it was a very conservative group. We had a meeting of the Washington Council of Lawyers—a progressive group of lawyers interested in public interest law—to see if we could influence the formation of the new Bar. In the hope that young lawyers would be represented, we decided to try and get a seat on the nominating committee that would be nominating candidates for the new Bar officer positions. The selection of the nominating committee was to take place at a meeting of all District lawyers at the Mayflower Hotel; everybody in attendance could nominate candidates. If you were a lawyer and you were there, you could vote. So we created a telephone tree and called all the young lawyers we knew to get them to attend the organizational meeting. We had five names that we were going to vote for in the hope of getting one candidate on the committee. Our group was diverse—women and men, black and white. Pat Wald and I were two of the people on our list. We had a great turnout from the telephone tree and we got every single one of our people elected to the nominating committee. It was a coup. The next morning the court that had set this up was asking themselves, What does this mean? Who are these folks?
We felt it was important to be responsible regarding the people we nominated as candidates for Bar offices. We tried to look to a broad group of people for leadership of the Bar, and we wanted lawyers who had established reputations. We nominated Barrett Prettyman Jr. as a candidate for president. We weren’t picking radicals; we just wanted a more representative and progressive group of people. And we succeeded in achieving diversity. I am extremely proud that the D.C. Bar has maintained its diverse and all-inclusive nature.
You were elected president of the D.C. Bar in 1984. Why did you think
it was important to become Bar president?
Actually, it wasn’t planned. It caught me totally by surprise. I was on the Board on Professional Responsibility and was also on some Bar committees, so I had my hands full. One day I got a call from the nominating committee saying, “We’d like you to run.” I thought, What? and then, Wow! There had been women nominated, but no woman had ever been elected. I thought, Why not?
It was a no-lose situation because it was an honor to be nominated. There was no shame in losing that election. I had a wonderful opponent, Mike Curtin, who is a first-class guy. We enjoyed the race, which was a wonderful experience, and I ended up winning.
I wasn’t prepared for what my election meant to other women. The letters I received and the invitations I got to speak blew me away. I didn’t fully realize the significance to women in having a woman as leader of the Bar. I now appreciate the power of symbolism.
What types of letters would you receive from women?
Letters describing how exciting it was to see a woman as president and wishing me well. It was the volume that surprised me. In my inaugural address I said it was wonderful to be the first, but I longed for the day when I’d lose count of how many women served as president because I certainly didn’t want to be the last. I have lost count. [President-Elect Shirley Higuchi will be the sixth.] This past year we had two women running against each other.
Is it tough to be Bar president, maintain a practice, and have
It is for the young! It was a huge balancing act. But you don’t do it alone. The first person I talked to was my husband. I said, “I have to go to all these events and you won’t be thrilled going to these meetings, dinners, and events.” He said a very wonderful thing: “I want you to do it and I want to be with you. I would rather be with you at a Bar meeting than not be with you at all.” It was a lovely sacrifice by him and a gesture of tremendous support.
Our children came first. My major
accomplishment after 1975 wasn’t becoming Bar president, it
was raising our children. In 1975 I became a mom and that changed
my life. If I had a meeting and one of my children was sick, I was
with the child. The meeting would go and the world didn’t come
to an end. I was raising my children during a period of great transition
in the roles of men and women as parents. I found that men were changing
their attitudes. Previously, when men were late to court, the excuse
men would make to the judge was “Your Honor, I’m sorry,
the Metro was stuck.” It was not “macho” for a
man to admit to his parenting responsibilities in open court. But
it became more acceptable for men to say, “Your Honor, I’m
sorry. It was my turn to drive the kids to school this morning.”
And the judges said, “Fine, I understand.” This has become
In terms of balancing my time at the law firm, my partners were very supportive. You can’t serve as Bar president without your firm making sacrifices because you’re not bringing in your share of the revenue. But they saw the benefits to the firm of my serving the Bar. Again, you don’t ever do these things alone.
One of your children recently graduated from law school, correct?
Yes, my oldest, Cecily, just graduated from Yale Law School. She is going to clerk for a judge on the Eleventh Circuit. She has also received the Chesterfield Smith Fellowship, and after her clerkship she will work as an associate with Holland & Knight at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. It is an understatement to say that I am proud my daughter is going to work in such an important area. I’m thrilled she chose this path. The symmetry in our early careers cannot go unnoticed.
My son Micah will be a senior at Princeton, and he wants to be a film director. As we speak, he is in Russia for the summer. He is studying Russian and making a movie for his senior thesis so he can apply to film school. He keeps our family current with the changing culture of entertainment—a welcome alternative to a family of lawyers.
Has it been tough to do divorce cases for almost 30 years now?
It’s a very hard practice, and it is not for the weak of spirit. You are helping people in terrible pain. Whether they want the divorce or don’t want the divorce, they are suffering a tremendous loss. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, an undertaker, or a lawyer; you have to handle people dealing with loss in a very careful, respectful, supportive way. That takes a lot of energy.
Being a lawyer is not just being a
litigator. As a divorce lawyer, you fill all of a lawyer’s
different roles: counseling, problem solving, legal strategy, and
courtroom work. It’s the combination of all those roles that
I enjoy about being a divorce lawyer.
One reason this work is difficult is because regardless of whether you win or lose, at the end of the day your clients are never happy, because they’ve lost their spouse and the dreams and expectations for their family. That is something no court can give them.
Is there a certain type of client that is your ideal client?
Actually, I like diversity. I never know what’s coming through the door. Each case is a challenge. The hardest cases are people who have unrealistic expectations and are unprepared to compromise. Clients who are well mannered and thoughtful through the grueling process are easiest to work with.
How about divorces with children?
They’re very hard. You have to protect the interests of children because unless a guardian ad litem is appointed nobody represents the children. Right upfront you have to make sure your client realizes that you are going to consider the long-term interests of the children and they must as well. Money is money and property is property; they can disappear at the end of the day and more can be made—it’s a temporary problem. But the way parents behave during a divorce affects their children forever.
Look at the percentages: somewhere
around 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, but for children of
divorce the odds of their marriage failing is something like 80 to
85 percent, just because their parents were divorced. It’s
understandable because they are not raised in an intact marriage
and the role modeling is not there. Good marriages don’t just
happen. Children mimic their parents’ relationship; having
a “good” divorce is critical to them.
In this year alone I’ve run into two
former clients of mine who have both said how appreciative they are
that they still have good relationships with their ex-husbands. These
are the types of cases I’m most proud of. Their kids are grown
and have thrived. Everybody is living happily. In those cases it’s
because we kept the negotiations on target and we kept our focus
on the right things.
That is a lesson that I try to convey to my young associates. Your ultimate goal is to create an alliance between the parents concerning the children, no matter what else happens.
Over the course of your career as a divorce lawyer, have you seen
changes in the perception of divorce?
When I started practicing, the burdens on men and women were much different. Men went to work and the women stayed at home and raised the kids. The law reflects the way things in society have changed. The majority of parents both work outside the home. Divorce law now recognizes marriage as a partnership being dissolved, and women fare better economically than in the past. Also, we now have a presumption of joint child custody, which recognizes the rights of both parents, so men fare better as parents than in the past.
When you have a high-profile couple separating, does the publicity
change the way you do your job?
It puts a lot of pressure on you. Divorce is a very private thing; I don’t talk about my cases to the press. For my clients, it is a very personal, difficult time of their lives, so I think the best I can do is not have them involved in the press. Most of them don’t want publicity, but the press has its job to do. District of Columbia divorce records are public and the press can go down and get the divorce records and ask the neighbors questions. I try not to respond to it. I’m a lawyer, not a press person, and I do my job best if I keep my clients’ business out of the papers. The best publicity is that they settle the case amicably.