The Association for Women Attorneys honored the late Bartlett attorney Mary Wolff at the organization’s annual banquet Jan. 31. It was the first time the AWA has given the Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award posthumously.
Wolff, a Germantown High School graduate and valedictorian, was known for her tenacity and the high bar she set for the next generation of attorneys. She graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University and turned down a full scholarship to business school at Harvard to attend Boston University School of Law, where she received a juris doctor degree. She began her career in 1975, when women faced many gender barriers. At first working with a Memphis law firm, she founded her own practice in 1988. She was on the team of lawyers who saved Union Planters Bank from failure. (See her professional biography here.)
At the AWA banquet, her partner and law school classmate Patrick M. Ardis spoke about Wolf’s passion for life, the law and doing the right thing.
“She was brilliant, but she was not cerebral,” he said. “Those that knew her understand that she evaluated movies based on the number of car crashes.”
After she graduated, she interviewed at a prominent Memphis law firm, where the man said to her, “Our wives know our secretaries go home at 5 o’clock. What are we going to tell them if we hire you?”
Wolf said he could tell his wife she wouldn’t work for a jerk like him.
It was a different world, back in 1975. Many conveniences were also absent: The Internet, cell phones, fax machines or even a dry copy machine. And there were no women partners in Memphis.
The attorneys at the banquet clapped when Ardis said the first major trial she sat in on was a $44.5 million verdict that was collected … in 1977.
“Word got around that Mary Wolff wasn’t a ‘good woman lawyer’ … but that she was a lawyer, and a lawyer whose standard of care and whose standard practice was never mediocrity,” Ardis said. “For those of you who knew her and loved her, let me explain to you: There was only one standard good enough for anybody that practiced law next to her, and that included me. It better be the best damned work in the nation, I don’t want to hear any excuse for it not being right, and if you don’t like the heat in this kitchen, get the hell out. That was Mary Wolff. It was going to be 100 percent, 100 percent effort and no excuse for being second-rate.”
He said she turned out to be a great lawyer and then excelled beyond that to become a great humanitarian. “Nobody has ever been denied representation at Wolf Ardis because they can’t pay for it.”
Ardis gave one example: In 1992, representatives of the Margolin Hebrew Academy came to the firm, saying one person had stolen $600,000 and they couldn’t stay in business. Two weeks into the case, he knew he could recover the money and would have to put at least one lawyer in jail and take another’s license. So Ardis conferred with Wolff, saying there was just one problem: He estimated it would take $1.2 million to get their money back. The only solution he saw was for them to do the work for free, even though it put their entire law firm at risk.
She thought about it and said, “You’re right. We have to do this.”
They did, and they won.
Ardis said she turned down this award last year because she knew she was dying, and she wanted it to go to someone else. He ended his speech with a toast to her memory.
The banquet also included the induction of 2017 officers, multiple presentations and the awarding of scholarships to the following law students:
- Stephanie Berish, who received the Miss Dorothy Osradker Scholarship
- Karlyn Washington, who received the Judge Rita Stotts Scholarship
- Kelly Hagy, who received the Susan Clark Scholarship
- Lisa Stagich, Ashley Finch, Holly Stanford and Callie Tran, who each received an AWA Scholarship