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Art imitates life: meet the ‘First Lady of Law’

Daily Journal
By Ira M. Friedman and David H. Friedman

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO.  I must point out that I am not a television critic, and I am not giving away any plot points since the show has already aired.  I should also point out that this show is as violent as they come; however, the story lines and acting make this one of the best shows on television in my humble opinion.

The story of “Boardwalk Empire” takes place in Atlantic city in the beginning of the Roaring ‘20s with a passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 16, 1919, which prohibited “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.”  Congress then passed the Volstead Act on Oct. 28, 1919, to enforce the law.

On the heels of the 18th Amendment, the 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, which allowed women in the U.S. the right to vote.  The era of the passage of these two amendments created a period of American history rich with interesting stories and colorful people.

It is within this unique historical period that “Boardwalk Empire” takes place.  There is a storyline in “Boardwalk Empire” that has a character by the name of Esther Rudolph, who is an assistant U.S. attorney.  As I was watching a scene with the fictional character Esther Rudolph, I thought “what are the chances of the U.S. Department of Justice appointing a woman lawyer to head up the government’s efforts to enforce prohibition?”

My thought was not made based on being a chauvinist, but an unscientific guess that there were not very many women lawyers in 1920.  And as I suspected even fewer women working as federal prosecutors.  I wanted to disprove my theories, so I began to do a little research about women lawyers with the Department of Justice in the early 1900s. 

Now comes the part where art imitates life.  Enter Mabel Walter Willebrandt, born in Woodsdale, Kan. On May 23, 1889.  She graduated from Tempe Normal School I 1911, which later became Arizona State University, my alma mater.  Before completing her law degree, she was principal and taught at Lincoln Park Elementary School in South Pasadena.  In 1916 she received her law degree from the University of Southern California and a masters in law in 1917.  She was admitted to the California State Bar in June of 1916 (State Bar Number 4332).  She was popularly known as the “First Lady of Law.”  She represented prostitutes without being paid, handling more than 2000 cases.  She also campaigned successfully for the enactment of a revised community property law in California.  During World War I she served as head of the Legal Advisory Board for draft cases.

Least you think that her appointment as assistant attorney general on Sept. 27, 1921, was just to enforce the Volstead Act, her portfolio also included federal taxation and federal prisons.  Her salary was $110 per month, $10 per month more than she was earning as principal and teacher.  While assistant attorney general, she argued 40 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  I was impressed with Willebrandt’s accomplishments before I read this statistics, but after reading that, I grew even more in awe of the First Lady of Law.

As assistant attorney general, she argued for the federal prosecution of major bootleggers saying that prosecuting speakeasies was “like trying to dry up the Atlantic Ocean with a blotter.”  Think of her as a prohibition era Melinda Haag (the U.S. attorney who is currently prosecuting the medial marijuana dispensaries in Oakland.)

As assistant attorney general, she argued for the federal prosecution of major bootleggers saying that prosecuting speakeasies was “like trying to dry up the Atlantic Ocean with a blotter.”

During the beginning of her tenure as assistant attorney general, she successfully prosecuted the Big Four of Savannah, which supposedly was the largest bootlegging ring in the county.  She initiated 48,734 prosecutions from June 1928 through June 1934, resulting in 39,072 convictions.  That is close to an 80 percent conviction rate.  Willebrandt was obviously not given her position to increase the diversity of the U.S. attorney’s office.

After leaving her post as assistant attorney general, she went into private practice in both Washington and Los Angeles.  She represented the Screen Directors Guild and California First Industries, a producer of grape concentrate commonly transferred into table wine.  She was the first woman to chair a committee of the American Bar Association on aeronautical law.

I do not know if the writers for “Boardwalk Empire” poked around and found this interesting woman lawyer who was far ahead of her time, or if they just thought it would be an interesting plot point.  Maybe it’s pure coincidence.  Regardless of how this character came to be the real life story of Willebrandt would make for an interesting movie or mini-series.  Of course if Mr. Scorsese makes the firm I can envision a darker portrayal of Willbrandt as a cussing, tobacco chewing lawyer, who would carry a razor in her shoe to slash any punk criminals that get in her way of taking down the big bootleggers.

The lingering question I have, to which I am now sure that records no longer exist, is did she receive equal pay of a man for equal work? I suspect not.

Author’s note: this article was written in the first person since after being together for 39 years, and in practice together for 13 years, Ira and David tent to think alike.

Ira M. Friedman is a partner in Friedman & Friedman, Lawyers in Los Angeles.  He is a certified family law specialist, and can be reached at [email protected].

David Friedman is a partner in Friedman & Friedman, Lawyers in Los Angeles.  He is a certified family law specialist, and can be reached at [email protected].

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