Vol. 43, No. 7
Four of the Greatest
Patricia A. Clark (1936–2004)
by Alli Gerkman, Kelly Sweeney
About the Authors
Alli Gerkman is Director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers at IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. She is a member of the Professional Advancement Committee of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, which nominated Patricia Clark for this honor—email@example.com. Kelly Sweeney is the Chief Deputy Clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado. Following graduation from the University of Colorado School of Law, Kelly served as a law clerk for Judge Clark for more than seven years—firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Ann Clark was born in 1936 in Buffalo, New York. She received her BA degree from Goucher College in Maryland and, after two years at Duke University School of Law, transferred to the University of Colorado School of Law, receiving her LLB in 1961.
Clark met her husband, James A. Clark, in North Carolina. They married in 1956 and moved to Colorado in 1960. James Clark, who passed away in 2009, was also a notable attorney in Colorado, retiring from Baker & Hostetler in 2004. Bruce Pringle, a former colleague of Clark’s husband, said of James Clark, "He was devoted to his work and to his wife."1 The Clarks lived a private life and did not have children. They raised German Shepherds and Dobermans on a 100-acre property in Parker.
The First of Many Firsts
"She was a corner partner—and that means something in the large law firm world," said Dee Simon, who began her forty-one-year career as a legal secretary to Patricia Clark at Holme Roberts & Owen (HRO).2 It meant even more to be a woman with a corner office in a large firm during 1965–74, the years Patricia Clark practiced at HRO, a Denver mainstay for more than 100 years. (HRO merged with Bryan Cave in late 2011.) In a letter to The Colorado Lawyer, HRO partner James E. Bye said that Clark "broke new ground for women attorneys in Denver." She was the first woman hired by the firm and, Bye believed, the first woman hired by a large Denver firm. Bye wrote:
In the winter of 1965, Kerm Darkey of Mountain States Employers Council, Inc. and a friend of Pat, asked me why large law firms did not hire qualified women lawyers. I responded that Holme Roberts & Owen would certainly hire a woman lawyer provided she was a qualified applicant. Pat was an extremely qualified applicant in all respects, and she began her legal career with Holme Roberts specializing in estate planning.3
The gravity of her role was not lost on her—nor was it lost on those around her. "She was breaking barriers," Simon said. "And I think she was very well aware that she was setting the tone for others."4
The late 1960s and early 1970s was the era of the three-martini lunch, now recognizable only through the lens of history and television shows like Mad Men. Denver lawyers crowded the tables at hot spots such as the Cosmopolitan Hotel at 18th and Broadway.
Clark often recounted an incident from her first day at HRO. A friend and male associate stopped by her office and said, "Pat, we’re all happy that you’ve joined the firm, but with whom will you go to lunch?" As Clark told it, in those days, self-respecting male lawyers did not have lunch with female lawyers.
So she kept to herself, distanced herself from the off-color humor that permeated male-dominated offices in those years, and focused on her work instead of being "one of the guys." The industry, still tolerant of blatant gender bias, hadn’t caught up with women like her yet, so she became a hardened, respected perfectionist. But the playful spark that some of her closest colleagues and mentees would see in her in later years already existed. Rumor has it that when the University Club denied her entry because she was wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress, she simply removed her pants and donned her tunic as a dress.
"I will always remember Pat as someone who successfully met new challenges with vigor and enthusiasm, and by doing so, made these challenges less daunting for those following in her footsteps," Bye said.5
The First Woman on the Bench
Pat Clark attending a law clerk’s wedding in May 1997.
In 1974, Clark left her corner office to serve as the first woman on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado. At the time, only a few women held similar judgeships around the country.
The vigor that James Bye saw in her carried through to her time on the bench. During a time when the Bankruptcy Code was replacing the Bankruptcy Act, she saw many matters of first impression. Hal Lewis, a clerk for Judge Clark in the early 1980s, recalled her approach:
Judge Clark thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of analyzing and resolving these matters. Judge Clark has the gift that most exceptional lawyers have of instinctively identifying the key issue to be addressed in complex matters. It was not uncommon for her to raise issues from the bench during hearings that the participants had not seen or appreciated.6
On the bench, Judge Clark had high expectations for herself, for those who worked for her, and for those who appeared in front of her. For her part, her opinions were well reasoned and written in a distinctive, clear, and easy style. Her expectations of thorough preparation and good work product raised the bar for all around her. No matter how well her law clerks or attorneys in court thought they knew or analyzed issues, she had an uncanny way of asking pertinent questions that had not been considered. Her ability to get to the heart of the matter in the courtroom was based on her sharp intellect and perception, as well as her ability to seriously consider the issues and pleadings before taking the bench. She kept everyone on their toes when she started a hearing because she did not always call on the movant, but rather on the person she thought could give the best summary of facts and law in response to her opening question: "Why are we here?" If you were a former clerk for her or any other bankruptcy judge, you could count on being the recipient of her queries—which often felt like an interrogation.
Not everyone appreciated her vigor on the bench. After twenty-six years on the court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided not to renew her term. Unnamed members of the Colorado Bar Association told The Denver Post that her demeanor was interfering with the cases, causing some clients to file for bankruptcy protection elsewhere. As the article notes, "Clark didn’t suffer fools gladly and was quick to chastise lawyers who weren’t well-prepared, attorneys said."7 Others stressed that the controversy should not overshadow her career.
"I’m personally disappointed to hear it," said Glen Keller, a former bankruptcy judge who served with Clark for eight years. "She served more than twenty-five years in a sound legal way. She’s deserving of great credit and recognition for the merit that she brought to the position, and I’m sorry to see her go."8
Left to right: Pat Clark, Kelly Sweeney, and Dorie Marshall (Pat’s sister) in Vail, March 1994.
A Mentor and a Friend
On the bench, Clark was known as a firm judge who spared no time getting down to the business before the court. Off the bench, she was a powerful mentor. She was not always easy to work for, but it was only because she expected much greatness from her clerks. One of the key lessons her clerks remember relates to how to handle mistakes and errors. When a mistake happened—and they did—Clark did not tolerate rationalization or assignment of blame. Rather, she urged clerks to identify the mistake or problem, understand how it happened, and develop and implement a plan to prevent it from happening again. It has proven a lasting lesson for her clerks as they have gone on to hold other positions throughout their careers.
As much as her clerks learned from her as a professional mentor, many of them developed personal friendships with her, as well. She was very social—a fact that may surprise many lawyers who appeared before her—and she had a quick, humorous, and sometimes biting wit that endeared her to those who knew her best, some of whom were her clerks.
Hal Lewis found in her a true mentor:
Judge Clark was a wonderful mentor. Her intellectual abilities were apparent both from her courtroom participation in hearings and in her written opinions. Her opinions were well reasoned and written in a distinctive, clear, and easy style. It is satisfying to have been able to assist Judge Clark in drafting  opinions and helping her prepare for upcoming hearings.9
But he spoke most highly of her human traits:
As much as I admired her as a judge, I admire Judge Clark even more as a person. She is a caring, compassionate, and thoughtful person. Judge Clark’s courtroom demeanor often masked her concern, but her compassion for the parties appearing before her was always apparent during discussions in chambers about pending matters.10
Other clerks also spoke of her compassion. Kelly Sweeney, co-author of this profile, recalls that Judge Clark gave her two additional quality years with her sick father:
Before teleworking was an option and the federal government allowed by statute leave accommodations for family illnesses, Judge Clark allowed me to work remotely, encouraging me to spend time with my father in Utah as he succumbed to cancer. During one traumatic holiday when my father was air lifted to Salt Lake City, she called every hospital in the city to try to track me down; upon reaching me, she directed me not to return until my father was released! Her kindness, support, and shoulder to lean on were tremendous gifts that still bring tears of gratitude. She wanted us to put family first, no matter how important the work. She was a leader in her approach to family leave accommodations and reaped the benefits of loyalty and incredible appreciation from all who worked for her.
Activities and Honors
Clark served on the Judicial Resources Committee for the federal courts from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. She was the only representative from the bankruptcy courts and was instrumental in influencing the policy for clerk’s offices and non-judiciary positions. She was a commissioner on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission from 1969 to 1972, a representative to the Tenth Circuit Judicial Council, and a trustee of the Waterman Fund. She was the recipient of the University of Colorado School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award in 1984 and she was honored at the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Judicial Reception in 1993. She had verve for life and exotic travel, from backpacking in the Grand Canyon to traveling though Vietnam.
A Life Too Short
Clark’s life was cut short when she passed away at 67. After a long and often hard-fought career, people who knew her best expected her to continue to be a force long into retirement—likely as a supporter of animal welfare. Though she might not have lived long enough to do everything she wanted to do, it is clear that she continues to be a force in the lives of those she touched during a life well-lived and a career full of the heights that few may accomplish but that all can admire.
1. McPhee, "Lawyer’s Lawyer was a ‘pillar of the trial bar,’" The Denver Post (Aug. 13, 2009), www.denverpost.com/obituaries/ci_13048818.
2. Telephone interview with Dee Simon (Nov. 14, 2013).
3. Bye, "Pat Clark Broke New Ground for Women Attorneys in Denver," Bankruptcy Subsection Newsletter, www.cobar.org/index.cfm/ID/195/subID/1053/CORP/Pat-Clark-Broke-New-Ground-for-Women-Attorneys-in-Denver.
4. Simon, supra note 2.
5. Bye, supra note 3.
6. Lewis, "Judge Clark, from a Law Clerk’s View," Bankruptcy Subsection Newsletter, www.cobar.org/index.cfm/ID/195/subID/1051/CORP/Judge-Clark,-from-a-Law-Clerk’s-View. Lewis is a partner at Lindquist + Vennum in Denver.
7. Colden, "Pioneer bankruptcy judge won’t see her term renewed," The Denver Post (April 22, 2000), extras.denverpost.com/business/biz0422d.htm.
9. Lewis, supra note 6.
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