Mary Kennedy Brown Society Hosts Inaugural Women’s Summit

by Kenny Berkowitz

Five years in the making, the Mary Kennedy Brown Society’s Women’s Summit debuted on March 10 as a daylong celebration of Cornell Law’s female graduates, starting with their pioneering impact in law, business, and education, and continuing into the present with panels on increasing diversity, expanding opportunities, and developing networks in a post-pandemic world. Titled “Women in Entrepreneurship and Leadership,” the day included a recognition ceremony for the Law School’s oldest living alumna, a keynote on how to promote diversity in law, entrepreneurship, and business, and opening remarks by Jacquie Duval ’92, president of the Mary Kennedy Brown Society.

“Things have changed in three years,” said Duval, whose plans to host the event in 2020 ended with the arrival of the pandemic days before the conference. “The way we work, and the way we communicate. The way we gather, the way we learn, and the way we do business. The rights of women and girls have also changed with the harrowing impact of the Dobbs decision. But one thing that has not changed is the impact that Cornell Law School has had on our lives. Looking around this room today, I’m thinking about the foundation, the friends, and the opportunities that Cornell Law School has provided me, and I am truly grateful.”

Setting the stage, Jens David Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, shared stories of the Law School’s pioneering women—including its first three female graduates, Mary Kennedy Brown (Class of 1893), Helen Mae Colegrove (1896), and Frances Kellor (1897)—before honoring Muriel Kessler, Class of 1948, who continues to practice at ninety-eight years old.

“You are truly an example of what it means to be a lawyer in the best sense,” said Ohlin, gifting Kessler a clock to represent the way she has “stood the test of time to be here with us today. You have without a doubt earned your rightful place in Cornell Law School’s history, and I’m confident your story will inspire future generations of women lawyers. Your legal career may have been founded at Cornell Law School, but your perseverance, intellect, and courage are entirely your own. We stand in awe of your accomplishments as a lawyer.”

We wanted to start a clinic that would
offer students a high quality, experiential, hands-on transactional opportunity that could have immediate community impact.

Celia Bigoness

As attendees rose, Kessler accepted the gift. “This is Women’s History Month, and here I am,” she said, pausing until the cheers stopped, “at an audience of women lawyers, top in their field, many of whom are graduates of my alma mater, at a Women’s Summit by women lawyers, for women lawyers, in honor of the first woman graduate of the law school, Mary Kennedy Brown.” She continued with the highs and lows of her time at Cornell Law, the discrimination she faced, and the gratitude she feels, concluding with “the moral of this story: determination, perseverance, reward. In spite of life’s challenges and overwhelming odds, if you push, you will succeed.”

More lessons followed. There was a morning session on “Cornell Women in Entrepreneurship: A Lawyer’s Perspective,” moderated by Celia Bigoness, director of the new Blassberg-Rice Center for Entrepreneurship Law, with a panel that included an associate in big law, the program director of Cornell’s Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship, a Law School alum who works as a jewelry entrepreneur, and an undergrad tech entrepreneur creating a platform for teaching math to children with disabilities.

“We are innovating by the minute here at Cornell Law School,” said Bigoness, outlining her vision for the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic. “We wanted to start a clinic that would offer students a high-quality, experiential, hands-on transactional opportunity that could have immediate community impact. We wanted to engage students in interdisciplinary work, train them to build relationships with businesspeople in a variety of industries, and take advantage of all Cornell’s resources.”

Adele Smolansky, B.S. ‘23

There were three continuing legal education programs, “In the Business of Being a Woman Lawyer,” about the challenges faced in branding and leading businesses,” led by Maria Fernandez ’92; “Diversity and Disruption in Venture Capital,” led by Duval, which focused on overcoming barriers to women and people of color in the venture capital industry; and “Communities & Networking Post-Pandemic,” led by Ann-Marie Luciano ’01, on the pandemic’s impact on working and networking.

Then, after lunch and networking among alumni and current students, there was a keynote by Natalya Johnson A.B. ’07, J.D. ’10 about “Raising the Bar: Promoting Diversity in Law,

Entrepreneurship, and Business.” “There’s a lot of buzz around entrepreneurship and women and entrepreneurship,” said Johnson, senior counsel at Johnson & Johnson and president of the Garden State Bar Association. “But how do you influence? How do you transform an organization? How can we better serve our clients? How do you shape the external environment?”

Muriel Kessler ’48 (seated) with her children Steven Kessler ’82 (left) and Eve Kessler ’85 (right) and members of her extended family

For Johnson, the answer comes in four parts. You make a difference by following your “North Star” to align with causes that feel most meaningful. You leverage your network to create alliances with people who share your passion. You act like an entrepreneur, strategically developing authentic relationships to support everyone in your network. Finally, you keep focused on the people you’re committed to help.

“If you want to drive change, you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves, look around, and see who you can pull up with you,” said Johnson. “A lot of us in this room would not have had the success we’ve had without the people who came before us and drew us along with them.”

The 2023 Women’s Summit was hosted by the Mary Kennedy Brown Society and sponsored by AllianceBernstein; Dechert; K&L Gates; and Sidley Austin. All Law School alumni, regardless of gender, were invited to the summit.

Muriel Kessler: Fighting Gender Discrimination

Muriel Yarmark Kessler ’48

Since Muriel Yarmark Kessler ’48 was eight years old, she wanted to be an attorney. She was influenced by her
father, a realtor, and her mother, a junior accountant.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Kessler graduated from Girls Commercial High School, an all-girls’ high School, and Hunter College, an all-girls’ college, before attending Cornell Law School. At Cornell, she was one of two women in her class of about seventy students, mainly male veterans. It was the Law School’s first class of World War II veterans.

Kessler remembers the gender discrimination she faced at the Law School: Not one professor called on her during the three years she was a student. She later learned that was school policy. Not once was she invited to join her male colleagues at any social event hosted by the professors and their families. Not once was she permitted to join a study group with her male classmates, forcing her to spend three years studying by herself. And only the men were permitted to study at night in the school library. Women were not allowed.

Kessler also remembers being appointed to work in the Law Library, a paid position, which helped pay her tuition. But, although she was doing her job well, Kessler was replaced because, as one of the school administrators told her, the school wanted a male veteran, who was on the G.I. Bill, to take her place and be paid by the school. That, she says, was hurtful.

Yet, despite the open gender discrimination, Kessler persisted. She came back each year because she wanted her dream to become a reality.

Following graduation in 1948, Muriel passed the bar exam on her first try, something only half her classmates could brag about. But her professors would not provide her with written recommendations, claiming they were not allowed to give references to women. And none of the firms interviewing on campus would allow her to be interviewed. So, with no support from the school and without any job prospects in sight, Kessler worked for her family’s lawyer for the first year after graduation, earning $15.00 a week.

In 1949, she and her fellow graduate who was now her husband, Emanuel Kessler, established their own law firm, Kessler & Kessler, and practiced law together until Emanuel passed away in 2016. During the sixty-seven years of their partnership, their practice remained in the heart of midtown Manhattan. And in that time, they raised two Cornellians— Steven Kessler, A.B., ’78, J.D. ’82, and Eve Kessler, J.D. ’85. Since 2016, Muriel Kessler has continued her practice as a solo practitioner.

During her professional career, Muriel served as a judicial hearing examiner in Bronx Family Court, rising to be deputy public administrator of Bronx County; as an active member of the Committee on Character and Fitness, Appellate Division, First Department, a position she has held since 1999; as a court examiner in Bronx Supreme Court, a position she has held for nearly forty years; as the founder of the New York State Bar Association’s Elder Law Section; as chair of the NYSBA’s General Practice Section, while serving on its Executive Committee and its governing House of Delegates for seventeen years; and as president of the Bronx County Bar Association, the Bronx Women’s Bar Association, and the Metropolitan Women’s Bar Association.

On March 10, she was honored at Cornell Law’s inaugural Women’s Summit. As the Law School’s oldest living alumna, she remains grateful for her education, despite the discrimination that came with it. As she advised the Summit’s attendees, “Pursue what you really want to do,” she said, “and don’t let anything stand in your way. Even if it’s hard. Just do what your heart tells you to do.”

Muriel concluded her remarks by acknowledging the positive nature of the Summit. But, she said, she hopes that such summits, while fabulous, will no longer be necessary in the future. “Because, instead of being seen as the best women lawyers in the country, all of us in this room will be placed in a different category: that of the best lawyers around, to do the Greatest Good.”