When I was growing up, my parents had 10 children and no wealth. Surprisingly, though, they had an attorney, Miss Eva Minor.
I remember my mother’s uncle, who was conservator for his friend’s widow, had frequent occasion to visit her. My parents had one of her famous $10 wills. So, the thought of a woman being an attorney seemed normal to me. How very fortunate and naïve I was. It was only later that I learned the path for women in the practice of law was not easy. Later still, I came to appreciate the role Miss Minor played in forging the route for women like me.
Miss Minor, you see, studied in a lawyer’s office and passed the test to become a lawyer in 1924. Yes, 1924. She told me that she went to work in order to help provide support for her parents’ large family. When she passed the bar exam, in a year when many men failed it, it was big news. There were newspaper articles in towns across the Midwest. She even made front page headlines in Havana, Cuba. Not only was she the first female lawyer in Kankakee, her career was one of the longest. She practiced law for more than 50 years.
During her long career, she was enormously successful. One prominent aspect of her career was representing the railroads. As testament to her success as a trial attorney, Dick Ackman, another legendary attorney who came along much later, told me he once tried a case against her to a small verdict in his client’s favor. When he asked her how his client would get paid, she told him she’d have to check on it. She’d never lost a case before.
I had the good fortune of being able to seek out Miss Minor’s advice as I began my legal career. It was most enlightening. When I reported a job offer that I received after law school from a lawyer who I’ve since learned was notorious for his irascible and selfish nature, her diplomatic response was simply, “Best to keep looking.” When I reported an interview with Lenny Sacks, with whom I successfully partnered in the practice of law for 26 years, she assured me that working with him would be rewarding. She was right on both counts.
One day as I was working on an esoteric question involving real estate litigation, I was having difficulty wrapping my brain around the issues. Since her office was just below mine, and she was in the twilight of her practice, I walked down the stairs and asked if she was available. She was happy to see me. During our conversation, she pulled out her “appeal book.” In there, she’d logged her extensive list of cases she’d handled on appeal. One look at the list made me realize she’d participated in most of the landmark cases in the Illinois Supreme Court and Appellate Court to come out of our county. Researching her name in a legal search engine reveals she participated in lawsuits involving the construction of the trust establishing the Fortin Villa, the breakup of a medical practice and enforceability of a covenant not to compete, estate contests involving well-known families and complicated contests over real estate. Many of them still are good law.
As she told me, her solo career got started during the Depression. She represented farmers who had defaulted on their loans and were in foreclosure proceedings. At that time, mortgage foreclosures were tried before juries. She said that the fellow farmers would fill the courtroom gallery for these trials. The sole purpose was intimidation, she reported. It frequently worked. At community meetings, the farmers would pass the hat to pay Miss Minor. What they collected was not enough to keep her law office open. However, after the Depression, when times were better and farmers wealthier, they all remembered the job she had done for them and came to her with their estates.
Miss Minor was not perfect or an angel; and she frustrated and sometimes angered her male colleagues. Her polite and demure demeanor concealed the heart of a relentless warrior. Even after her death, lawyers complained about an incident when she had an attorney appointed receiver of a farm, which appointment was later reversed. By their version, when he went to her complaining that he had enlisted all his friends to farm the ground during his brief tenure, she very politely explained to him that she was very sorry; but could do nothing to see that he was compensated. Listening to them, I think they were confused by the juxtaposition of her personality with her advocacy.
The male lawyers also blamed her for “ruining” the annual bar picnic. It used to be held on the Parish Island in the Kankakee River outside Momence. By all accounts, they were drunken brawls predominated by drinking, nudity and poker games. The most trusted deputy was tasked with tasting the moonshine in the evidence locker and selecting the best of it for the picnic. One day, they looked up to see Miss Minor and Miss Jesse Sumner, the pioneer female lawyer in Watseka, holding on to one another as they waded across to the picnic. After that, their wild shenanigans were no longer permitted.
At one of our last conversations, I was pregnant. Miss Minor remarked to me how wonderful it was that I could have a family and a law career at the same time. In her day, she reminded me, in order to have a successful career, she had to eat, breathe and sleep the law. The times did not afford her the opportunity to do both. How grateful I am that she was there so that career could inspire my imagination to think that I could be a lawyer. She lighted the path for all Kankakee County women attorneys to follow.