Speak Softly, Shatter a Glass Ceiling
Anne Marie Whittemore and the charisma of quiet competence
Published in 2009 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on June 22, 2009
The office of Anne Marie Whittemore overlooking Richmond is all peach-tones and tranquility—the perfect place for a woman who seldom speaks above a hush. Perched behind an executive desk, she leans forward, and her eyes, startlingly blue, lock on. She speaks slowly, deliberately, her mind sifting every word.
Yes, she says, she was one of a handful of women at Yale Law School in the 1960s. And yes, she says, anticipating the question, after law school she was the first female clerk hired by U.S. Appeals Court Judge Albert V. Bryan Sr. Yes again, she says, she was the first woman lawyer hired at McGuireWoods (then McGuire Woods & Battle), and, yes once more, she was its first female partner.
Yes, yes, yes, the 63-year-old attorney has broken her share of glass ceilings. It’s just that, despite some discrimination—upon initial hire, for example, one McGuireWoods attorney expressed concerns that she might become pregnant during a case and leave the firm high and dry—Whittemore believes she benefited from her lone-wolf status. “If you look around in those early days of my practice, I was one of the few women,” she says. “So that naturally led to opportunities for me by reason of being a woman.”
Of course her timely arrival on the legal scene, just as law firms were becoming predisposed to give women a chance, is not the reason for her success.
“People hang on her every word,” says Richard Cullen, chairman at McGuireWoods.
Recently, Whittemore has been part of legacy litigation stemming from the days of former CEO Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco. She won’t talk details, but adds, “It’s accurate to say that I had the opportunity to advise clients who had issues that arose in connection with some of the very well-known corporate scandals.”
Scandals? Meaning Enron and WorldCom?
Yes, she says quietly.
Her specialties include complex commercial and securities litigation. She’s been chairman of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and she is currently on the boards of Owens & Minor, Inc. in Mechanicsville, Va., Albemarle Corp. in Baton Rouge, La., and T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. She knows the corporate world.
But these are unhappy times for corporate types. “It’s very difficult for a director if management is making misrepresentations to the board, just like it is to the shareholders,” she says. “I think that when you dig into some of the more well-publicized corporate failures, you had diligent directors who were being just as misled as the shareholders.”
She warms more readily to the subject of her membership on college boards—including past work for Virginia Commonwealth University and Old Dominion University. Currently, she’s on the board of Hampden-Sydney College, where her son is an alumnus. This affinity for academics runs in the family.
Of Whittemore’s three siblings, one sister is a pathologist, the other is an elementary school principal, while their brother is a Jesuit priest and a dean at Fordham University. Add Whittemore, and this one family has almost everything covered: education and medicine, the law and religion.
Her parents met under less-than-ideal circumstances. Her father, Robert R. Grimes, was a doctor assigned to Patton’s army during World War II and arrived in southern England in anticipation of the invasion. When London was bombed, the U.S. Army dispatched doctors to help overwhelmed city hospitals. In one operating room he walked into, Whittemore says, “There was a young woman with a textbook open in front of her beginning an operation. … She had just graduated from medical school and was training as a surgeon.”
Her name was Vera McMullen and they were soon married. Whittemore was born, after the war, in Southampton, England, but the family soon moved to the United States. The couple settled in northern New Jersey and became family practitioners, working out of their Ridgefield Park home.
One summer when Whittemore was young, the family couldn’t afford a trip to England so her father, a history buff, arranged for a vacation to Virginia. Whittemore’s mother fell in love with the state. “It reminded her of England. So almost every summer we would take a family trip down to Virginia to be a surrogate for my mom having the opportunity to go back to England,” she says. “That developed my affinity for Virginia.”
As a high school student in northern New Jersey, Whittemore attended the Academy of Holy Angels, an all-girls school. Her undergraduate degree was from Vassar, which then accepted only women.
The experience instilled convictions about the quality of single-sex schools—the linchpin of a case that made headlines in the 1990s when Whittemore represented the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in its attempt to remain all-male. “I felt that from the standpoint of educational policy, and also from the standpoint of constitutional law, we had a very good case to make,” she says.
She made her stand alongside a McGuireWoods veteran, Robert H. Patterson Jr., another product of single-sex education (VMI).
According to Josiah Bunting, former VMI president, Patterson was the more flamboyant of the two. Striding the courtroom, he’d asked one witness if he’d ever “worn the uniform of your country,” and buttonholed another about how much he’d been paid to testify. “It was like having a confederate lieutenant general—smart, gruff, funny,” Bunting says.
In contrast, he adds, Whittemore possesses “the charisma of quiet competence.” This low-key approach “is the most forceful kind of advocacy,” he says. “No condescension. No false humility. Just someone on top of her game, who knew the case thoroughly and argued it persuasively.”
Whittemore, Patterson and a team of attorneys prevailed for VMI. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Ted Olson, the future solicitor general and a veteran of dozens of cases before the Court, represented VMI in this final leg of the battle. This time the school lost. VMI now accepts women. “But just as it was always a first-class male institution,” Whittemore says, “it will be a first-class coed institution. And once the litigation was over, VMI moved on.”
Whittemore did, too. In 2000 she represented Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III in the appellate portion of a case brought before the Virginia Supreme Court. Gilmore had been sanctioned after intervening in a woman’s decision to remove her husband’s feeding tube. The Supreme Court reversed sanctions.
Whittemore also went to bat for Smithfield Foods, accused in 2001 by North Carolina landowners and anglers of polluting their favorite river. The court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring claims.
And in 2006 she took on the case of Stan Barnhill, a lawyer who faced sanctions from the Virginia Supreme Court after he filed a petition criticizing the court’s reasoning in a ruling against a client. But even Whittemore couldn’t rescue him. He was fined and suspended for one year from practicing before the high court.
“A lawyer has an ethical duty to be a zealous advocate,” she says. “And I would not personally or ethically take on a matter in which I did not believe that I could advocate zealously for my client.”
While she’s involved in conservative causes, she also spearheaded the Commission on Virginia Courts in the 21st Century, which proposed that the court system be more accommodating for non-English speakers. “Judges and clerks have to be able to administer the judicial system for a population of people who increasingly do not speak English,” she explains. “And I believe that one basis on which people who do not speak English can develop a respect for our court system is if they can understand what the court is doing.”
Over time, her reputation has grown. Five years ago, she married Patterson, her partner from the VMI case, and, she confirms, the McGuireWoods partner who long ago worried about hiring a woman.
It was once common to say Whittemore was the best woman lawyer around, says Cullen, the McGuireWoods chairman. Nowadays, he adds, “She has the reputation for being the best lawyer around.”