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Ruth Thurman Retires From Stetson Law


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Professor Ruth Thurman.

Professor Ruth Thurman. Click for high-resolution image.

On May 31, 2009, Ruth Fleet Thurman will retire from her full-time position at Stetson University College of Law, leaving behind a legacy that began almost five decades ago.

As her son began kindergarten in 1960, Professor Thurman began her legal studies at Stetson University College of Law, graduating three years later as the only female in her class.

“It was a lifelong dream to go to law school,” said Thurman, whose eyes still sparkle with enthusiasm. “We studied the Supreme Court when I was in the sixth grade, and that’s when I decided that I’d like to be a lawyer.”

After graduation, she practiced law for nearly 13 years and was the first woman to serve as assistant state attorney in the 6th Judicial Circuit of Florida. In 1975, she was asked to join the Stetson faculty and has the distinction of being Stetson’s first tenured female law professor.

In addition to her teaching duties, Thurman had responsibilities for career placement, alumni relations, editing the Stetson Lawyer, publicity and continuing legal education. She launched Stetson’s first bankruptcy seminar with Judge Alexander Paskay.

Thurman has written articles, monographs and books on professional responsibility and family law, also her major fields of teaching. She is a former member of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners; the Board of Visitors of the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s School; The Florida Bar Committee on Certification, Designation and Advertising; and is past president of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers.

She served on The Florida Bar Special Study Committee on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and the editorial board of The Florida Bar Journal. She also served on the advisory council of the American Bar Association “Ethics 2000 Commission,” and the ABA Legal Writing Committee. She is a life fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and for many years was a member of the House of Representatives of the Association of American Law Schools. She was a founding member of the Canakaris Inn of The American Inns of Court.

In 1989, Thurman was a visiting scholar at Wolfson College and member of the Faculty of Law of Cambridge University in England. In 1994, Stetson University awarded her the Homer and Dolly Hand Award for Excellence in Faculty Scholarship. Professor Thurman earned her LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law in 1984. In 1998, she received the “Unsung Hero Award” from the Stetson Child and Family Law Association for “outstanding service to children and families of Tampa Bay through work with the Stetson University College of Law.” In 2005, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Stetson University College of Law. In 2009, she was honored with a bronze relief of her likeness as a “Legal Pioneer” by Vice President and Dean Darby Dickerson.

Thurman said that she will have fond memories of her students and colleagues, but that she is pleased with her decision to retire. University President H. Douglas Lee — who will himself retire this month — approved the faculty and Dean’s recommendation to name Thurman a Professor Emeritus.

“I feel that I’m leaving the school in good hands. I’m really proud of the law school, and I’m happy about my contribution to it.”

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When you began at Stetson, were your male colleagues welcoming to you and other female students?

I felt very much accepted. People were really nice to me. I think there were some, particularly the younger unmarried students right from undergraduate school, who were somewhat dubious about what women were doing in law school. But we had an older student body, and many of them were married and supporting families while they were in law school.

How did you respond to those students who were dubious?

Because I had been out of school for a while, was married and had a child, I was certainly amused by it. I was so grateful for the opportunity to be here that I couldn’t take too seriously any skepticism about my being here. [laughs]

What are your fondest memories of Stetson University College of Law? What will you miss the most?

Some of my fondest memories have been time spent with colleagues. In the beginning, when our faculty was small, everyone who wasn’t teaching a class during the lunch hour came over to what we called the coffee shop at that time, the cafeteria. We were able to have informal time together. And, of course, I loved teaching. I will miss the students.

What was your favorite aspect of relating with students and the teaching process?

There’s a lot of satisfaction in helping these eager, young students get a grounding in the law and preparing them for the profession. Through the years, I’ve had a number who where children of friends, second generations of students, and children of classmates. Thousands and thousands through the years.

How has the field of law changed for women since you graduated as the only female in your 1963 class?

When I started in law school, and even when I graduated three years later, I think that less than three percent of the lawyers in the country were women. This year, I think it’s more than 30 percent. When I started teaching in 1975, 20 percent of the student body was made up of women, and 25 percent of the entering class that year were women. So it was a big surprise to me when I walked into the classroom the first time to see so many women in the class. And now, it’s not unusual for there to be more women than men in our entering classes and student body. So that’s been a big change.

Have we reached true gender equality in the field of law?

From the time I started teaching, it was not unusual for the three top students to be women. And it took a little while for the firms to be willing to hire them. And as placement director at Stetson, I can remember telling prospective employers if you want the brightest and the best, you’ll hire the women. There was one who was number one in her class, was married to a lawyer, and was eight months pregnant, and I told the prospective employer that he should hire her, that she had been editor-in-chief of the Law Review. He did, and she’s had an illustrious career. I think national statistics show that women are still not in the upper echelons of their partnerships, although there are certainly a number who are. But true gender equality, I’m not sure that we’ve reached that yet.

What do you think of President Obama’s selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court nominee?

Oh, I’m very excited about that. After hearing the president’s announcement and hearing her response, I think she’s probably a very wise selection. I think she’s extremely well qualified.

Why would you recommend the legal profession to young people?

I would recommend it for the same reason that I wanted to do it. I think it’s a helping profession. To help people resolve their problems is a high calling. Law as an institution is so essential to civilization. To have a hand in that is profoundly satisfying.