State’s first female lawyer turns 100, will speak at Tulane

A CENTURY OF KNOWLEDGE

It’s not every day that a young college graduate makes history just being hired, but for Marian Mayer Berkett, that’s exactly what happened.

In 1937, with the country stuck in the depths of the Great Depression, Berkett graduated first in her class from the Tulane School of Law and headed out to search for a job.

She was not met with enthusiasm.

“He looked at me and said that, being a woman, I had no chance of getting a job as a lawyer,” Berkett said of her interviewer, smiling as she sat comfortably in her St. Charles Avenue condo. “And that next time I went looking for a job, I should make an appointment.”

Displaying the unshakable determination that would serve her well throughout her career, Berkett took only the latter comment to heart.

Making an appointment this time, she went on to land a job as a trial lawyer for Deutsch and Kerrigan — becoming the first female attorney hired by a Louisiana law firm.

Berkett, who celebrated her 100th birthday in March, dismisses the importance of being “first.”

“Sooner or later, it was going to happen,” she said. “I never embraced the idea of being a ‘woman lawyer.’ I just wanted to be a good lawyer, man or woman.”

According to her peers, Berkett is more than just a “good lawyer.” In fact, on March 22, she was one of 12 inductees into the Tulane School of Law’s first Hall of Fame. She will also give the baccalaureate at the school’s commencement May 18.

“Marian is a truly remarkable figure in Louisiana legal history,” said David Meyer, dean of the Tulane School of Law. “She is among the most respected and influential lawyers, not just in Louisiana, but the American South.”

The Association for Women Attorneys in New Orleans also recently recognized Berkett for “her trailblazing and leadership in law.” The award was presented to Berkett in March in honor of her 100th birthday — a milestone she is enjoying.

“If you’re going to write about me, write about my birthday,” Berkett said, proudly noting that she had four birthday parties before the date even arrived.

Not a bit shy, she was nonetheless taken aback when one celebration included her niece leading an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” with a bunch of strangers in a ladies’ room.

“It’s amazing what a little thing like turning 100 means to people,” she said, recalling a time when she had tried to get a table at a favorite restaurant and was denied.

“I told them it was my 100th birthday and the people sitting right next to us just got up and gave us their table. And then the chef made some beautiful desserts for me. I don’t know if turning 100 is a disaster or a lucky thing, but I’m going to use it. It’s fun.”

It’s this attitude of using what you’re given that helped make Berkett a force to be reckoned with.

“I was once arguing on the question of a lien on a building,” she said. “I didn’t win the case, and, being a woman, I think the judge tried to soften the defeat by telling me he could have decided the case either way. Well, when I went to appeal, I used that information in my favor and said that the previous judge had been undecided. He heard this and exploded. He was so mad. Fortunately, I never had to argue in front of him again.”

For more than 70 years, Berkett practiced almost every kind of law in New Orleans. Along the way, she wrote a comprehensive history of workman’s compensation in Louisiana, rallied tirelessly against Huey Long and created a charter for Jefferson Parish.

Berkett was married to Dr. George D. B. Berkett, an orthopaedics surgeon and professor at Tulane. He retired in 1981 and died in August 2002. They had no children.

While she no longer tries cases, Berkett is not officially retired.

“I’m still on the stationery at Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles,” she said, adding that she can still write a good brief and analyze cases.

And the woman who admits she may have been seen as a bit of an “iron lady” during her career still enjoys a little fun.

“You know I read about this 100-year-old woman who had just made her first hole in one. I thought, what took her so long? I have two,” she laughed. “She said it was accidental. I agree. Any hole in one is accidental.”