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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Woman's Place : She's an influential attorney, but you won't find her on Court TV. Instead, Abby J. Leibman of the California Women's Law Center tries to do her gender justice in the back rooms of government.

August 21, 1994|JUDITH MICHAELSON

Say the words woman and lawyer , and the image of Leslie Abramson, the sharp and maternally tender Menendez defender, is instantly summoned. Or perhaps that of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Say women's rights lawyer and it's Gloria Allred, master of sound bites and class-action suits.

But in less-watched circles, another name is synonymous with women's causes: Abby J. Leibman, a self-described "not yet an A-string player."

Co-founder and executive director of the California Women's Law Center, Leibman advocates reform on a panoply of women's issues, from child care to child custody, domestic violence to discrimination. Her field of battle is rarely the courtroom, but rather the hearing rooms, committee rooms and conference rooms where public policy is written. Her clients tend to be women in the generic: immigrant women, disabled women, battered women.

The Simpson case media frenzy is at a full boil when Leibman calls a news conference at her mid-Wilshire offices to announce the establishment of the Battered Truth hot line. Wearing a courtroom-blue dress and speaking at a fast clip without notes, she attacks the myths surrounding domestic violence:

"We've begun to hear comments in the public and repeated in the press about whether or not women ask for it. . . . We don't ask this when we have stranger-to-stranger violence," she says with disgust. "We don't ask (if) I am walking down the street, (whether) it is my fault somebody hits me over the head with a baseball bat. But if that someone happened to be my husband, then suddenly we begin to ask, 'Was I inviting this kind of behavior?' It is no more valid in this context than it is in any other felonious assault."

After the news conference ends, Leibman announces to the assembly of activists, reporters and photographers that she has work to do and retreats to her office, leaving the lint of informational details to her colleagues.

That determination to get where she's going quickly sometimes translates to brusqueness. Even her closest colleagues say so. And Leibman concedes: "I am impatient."

Still, she is known for forging collaboration, not only within her immediate circle, but also among the scores of public officials, activists and lawyers whose interests intersect her own. Women's groups, community groups, civil rights organizations, anti-poverty alliances and even the occasional individual call upon the 5-year-old, five-person law center, seeking information, technical assistance--justice.

"Her work is impacting a lot of women," says Katherine Spillar, national coordinator of Feminist Majority Foundation, which is working with the NAACP and the law center to achieve gender balance in the Los Angeles Police Department, among other reforms. "She's hard-working, result-oriented and no frills. 'Let's get this done and move on.' "

*

As the 37-year-old Leibman tells it, sitting in her windowless office decorated with diplomas and Georgia O'Keeffe's poppy poster, the idea for the nonprofit law center dawned over dinner at Stratton's Grill in Westwood.

At the time, Leibman was running the Child Care Law Project at the public-interest law firm Public Counsel, where her work involved easing zoning restrictions on "family day care" to create more spaces for children. Across the table was Jenifer McKenna, then executive director of the Los Angeles Women's Bar Assn.

The two were commiserating, Leibman recalls, about the lack of a centralized place in Southern California to go for help with women's rights issues, such as the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., or Equal Rights Advocates in the Bay Area.

"So, we looked at each other and (I) said, 'Someone should really open a woman's law center here .' And we thought, 'if we don't do it, nobody will.' "

Within weeks, a dozen or so women were gathered in Leibman's living room to brainstorm and to volunteer for such tasks as raising money and filing incorporation papers.

A year later, Leibman quit her job and opened a large one-room office in Santa Monica. "We partitioned (it) off so we could live," says former managing partner Sheila James Kuehl, an attorney who recently won the Democratic primary for the 41st Assembly District seat. "Abby had always wanted a private office where she could close the door." Soon, McKenna joined them.

Today, the center, built on private donations, has a nearly $400,000 annual budget and receives funds from individuals, corporations, law firms and such charitable groups as the James Irvine and Ford foundations.

It works the way Leibman, who draws a salary of about $65,000, envisioned it--as a shepherd of big issues. "We wanted to look much more comprehensively at women's civil rights," she says, "the notion being that the issues all related to one another, and it's difficult to pull one away from the other."

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