Though history is filled with flamboyant, larger-than-life characters whose every move is chronicled, exaggerated and made into legend, it’s a given among historians that the true, fundamental changes in the world are the ones made quietly by unsung heroes.
With typical modesty, Audrey Talley begs off being included even in that latter category. But her accomplishments suggest otherwise.
The Philadelphia securities lawyer has been breaking down barriers ever since she was a young woman from Tennessee. She counts herself among the first waves of women and minorities to attend a major law school (Boston University), was the first African-American female partner in both law firms she has worked for, and was the first black woman to serve as chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Yet she explains away her achievements with a self-deprecating shrug.
“I think I have been fortunate in that I have had a lot of great opportunities open up for me,” Talley says with soft-spoken tones that occasionally dip into a Southern drawl. Her colleagues are more willing to sing her merits, though.
“She is quiet but forceful — very thoughtful, warm,” says Jane Dalton, vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar and a partner at Duane Morris. “If I had to choose an actress to play her, I’d choose Katharine Hepburn: Audrey has that grace and dignity about her that’s not loud, it’s just there.”
She was raised in Nashville, as one of seven children of a mailman and a housewife. A bookish, imaginative girl, she wasn’t considering a law career when she started at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1971. Her first love was dramatic literature—reading it, seeing it acted out. From Vanderbilt, where she graduated in 1973, she went west for a combined program in drama and, naturally, film studies at the epicenter of the revolution in American cinema — the University of Southern California.
“It was a blast, and I had interesting classmates, interesting people and the best professors,” she says. “My most memorable moment was when John Houseman grilled me on a paper I did on a production he was involved in during the 1940s called ‘The Haitian Macbeth.’”
Being cross-examined by the intimidating law professor from The Paper Chase turned out to be a portent of things to come. Deciding that her oral and writing skills might prove useful in law school, she decided to give it a shot at the Boston University of Law, just to see if she enjoyed it.
“First year is like a bear, a big grizzly bear, but in the end I decided I could see myself doing this,” she says.
After earning her J.D. in 1981, she developed a reputation as a negotiator, the kind of lawyer who calmly finds the points of agreement between two parties and builds a consensus from there. She became a partner at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young and then at Drinker Biddle & Reath, where she has been since 1997.
Though she’s lionized by colleagues for taking a leading role with innumerable charities, and for making the bar more accessible and aggressive in serving its members, the resident of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood might prefer being remembered as a gardener, working the soil in her yard like her mother taught her to back in Nashville.
“I’d rather not be a standard bearer because it’s a heavy burden to carry,” she says. “But once you’re out there you’ve got to do it right. You’ve got to do it in a way that helps whoever’s behind you.”