ALBANYLAW Magazine | Fall 2022
10 Extraordinary Women of Albany Law
More than half of current Albany Law School students identify as women, but only 37 percent of American lawyers are female, according to the American Bar Association.
The road to equity is long, but these Albany Law School trailblazers are paving a path for others to follow.
Many of these alumnae are the first woman and/or woman of color to serve on a particular bench or hold an office. Their paths to become the knowledgeable, accomplished, and courageous leaders they are today started at Albany Law School.
Hon. Zainab Chaudhry '98 - First Muslim-American on Court of Claims
Judge Zainab Chaudhry ’98 never encountered a lawyer until after college.
Her parents were both physicians and she planned on a career in medicine as well. But after meeting with an estate attorney after her father’s death, Chaudhry noticed the lack of Muslim and South Asian representation in the legal field which inspired her to pursue a career in the law. Chaudhry was later inspired to seek judicial office thinking about her young nieces and nephew, and wanting them to know that “they can be judges or anything else they want to be when they grow up, and that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance.”
Now, she is the first Muslim gubernatorial appointment to the New York State bench and on June 3 she was officially sworn in as a Judge on the New York State Court of Claims, a statewide court with exclusive jurisdiction over civil lawsuits seeking money damages against the state.
As a first-generation American, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, the first in her family and local Muslim community to go to law school, the appointment has impact beyond her.
“It is an incredible honor and privilege to have been chosen by Governor Hochul for this appointment as part of her commitment to making sure the courts of this State reflect both excellence in skill and experience, as well as the rich diversity of our State,” she said. “In all my years of appearing in various courts all over this State, I had never seen a judge that looks like me on the bench. And even if I had, I still might not have believed enough in myself to dream of attaining such a position. But I am here today because there were countless people who did believe in me and who saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue this path.”
Prior to her appointment, Chaudhry was a Principal Court Attorney in the New York State Court of Appeals, and before that, an Assistant Solicitor General in the Office of the New York State Attorney General.
“The key to success in all of those was effective legal writing, the foundations of which I learned in law school, during my legal research and writing classes and participation in law review, as well as through several brief writing experiences in moot court competitions,” she said. “I [have] learned that I truly loved doing legal research and writing, diving deep into cases analytically, and thinking about the law from a broader perspective, all of which has served me well throughout my career and which I will now carry with me into my judicial position.” Chaudhry has always been drawn to serve others, she said.
“Service to others has always been an important part of my life generally, so before even beginning my first day of law school, I knew that I wanted to use my law degree to that end as well,” she said. “I never imagined that after graduation I would embark upon a career in which I have been able to use my skills and experience to serve the people of this State more broadly—and now to do so from the bench—which has been, and is, such an incredible privilege.”
As far as being a trailblazer, she hopes it opens doors for many more to follow. “I have often been the only woman attorney of color—and sometimes the only attorney of color—in the legal offices in which I have worked, or the appellate courts in which I have appeared as an advocate (including among the panel of judges). At times, especially early in my career, I felt like my experience was unique and that maybe I didn’t belong,” she said. “I hope that my appointment will inspire other Muslim and South Asian women, and women of color more generally, to pursue a path to the judiciary or other service in our state courts. The judiciary should be truly representative and reflective of the population it serves.”
Online extra: Read an in-depth interview with Judge Chaudhry inn our Alumni Spotlight section.
Kathy Sheehan '94 - First Female Mayor of Albany
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan ’94 knew that being the first female mayor of a three-century old capital city was an important milestone.
Her first few days in city hall made her see the magnitude.
“There were women leaders in the city who worked on Common Council, who had held other offices, but never mayor. I realized they had laid the groundwork and had been working towards this for a really long time. I think it wasn’t until I got into the role that I fully began to appreciate how hard people had worked and how much work still needed to be done to lift women up and get women into rooms where really important decisions are being made,” she said. “Once I got into office and started interacting with people in the community as mayor, not as a candidate any more, I realized that particularly for young girls and young women, it was really important, and that the women whose shoulders I stand on, it was important to them, too.”
Elected in 2013 after serving as the city’s treasurer, Sheehan credits much of her success as mayor to her Albany Law School education.
“Lawyers learn how to solve problems, and that’s a really important skill,” she said. “You figure out how to say, ‘Here is the roadmap, and now I’m going to figure out how to navigate it, so that we can get to where we’re going.’ I think that’s where the real value is. With respect to the work that I do now, I’m constantly thinking about, ‘How do we get to where we need to go, and what are the barriers that are in the way? Why are they in the way?’ Sometimes there’s a barrier there because we should slow down, or we don’t really want to go down that path, and sometimes it’s that we need to figure out a different path. I really loved that about my law school education. It was really about solving problems.”
In addition to her work as the 75th mayor of Albany, Sheehan serves on the Albany Law School Board of Trustees and regularly returns to share insight on the opportunities in Albany with current and prospective students.
“A lot of the students end up staying in the area after law school. I think it’s not only because we’re a capital city, but we do work hard to ensure that people have access to experiences and to internships and to the types of law that they’re interested in, whether it be health law, labor law. You name it; it happens here,” she said. “The law school really embraces the students. You walk in, and you’re welcomed, and you’re in this environment that is big enough that you meet lots of different people, from lots of different places and from different perspectives and have access to all the education and opportunities you can imagine. But it is small enough that you really felt like you were part of a family.”
Looking ahead, Sheehan has many hopes.
“I think that we also need to push barriers, set the bar high, and demand a seat at the table. All you have to do is see what’s going on in Washington right now to realize how important it is to have diversity at the table. I’d hope that nobody looks at anything that they want to do, any job that they want to hold, any opportunity that they want to take advantage of, and think, ‘I don’t want to be the first. It’s hard.’ It is. It’s exhausting, and we need to keep doing it,” she said.
Judge Soma Syed '03 - First Bangladeshi-American Judge in New York State
Judge Soma Syed ’03 and her family immigrated to New York City from Bangladesh when she was 12 years old. She dreamed of being an attorney.
After Albany Law School, she started her own practice and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. After winning an election, she started as a City Court Judge in Queens in January, the first Bangladeshi American to do so.
Before her position on the bench, she balanced her practice with caring for her parents. Opening her private practice in Jamaica, Queens—the same neighborhood her family first settled in—set the foundation for her strong ties to the people she now serves as a judge. In a way, she says, it also honors her parents lives and legacies.
“It was a very difficult time,” she said “But I honor them by continuing to foster their entrepreneurial spirit and hard work ethic.”
In private practice she worked on real estate sales, family and immigration matters, nonprofit law, and civil litigation.
Being a well-rounded attorney in the community helped her see how the law can help all people. She could dive deep in certain areas to help particular clients or broadly engage with emerging issues to help many.
“Working on emerging issues is not always possible in private practice, you are sometimes limited in your scope.” When the opportunity came up to serve her community as a judge, she felt it was time to take a chance.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to be elected to this position. It’s my hope that it serves as an inspiration for all Bangladeshis,” she said. “Having a diverse background has equipped me well as a judge. I understand the issues on both sides.”
Even with her dedication to her work and community, she has remained involved in several bar associations and professional organizations—a passion that started at Albany Law School.
“It’s so important to have a network and to learn from other professionals. It is one of the most valuable aspects of my career,” she said.
She is the immediate past chairperson of the New York State Bar Association Lawyer Referral and Information Service and the immediate past president of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association.
Hon. Shirley Troutman '85 - Second Black Woman on NYS Court of Appeals
Earlier this year, Hon. Shirley Troutman ’85 became the newest Associate Judge on the New York State Court of Appeals. She is the second Black woman to serve on New York’s highest court.
In March, she returned to her alma mater to accept a Kate Stoneman Award.
When she accepted the award, Troutman referenced the quote, “there is no force equal to a woman determined to rise” from W.E.B. Du Bois, and noted his famous saying certainly applies to the story of Kate Stoneman.
“When I was a student, that description certainly didn’t apply to me. Yet, as I stand here today, I realize, that by using the knowledge I gained within these very walls, I indeed have become that woman,” she said.
Though she did not see the path ahead while she was a student, if there were more people of color in those roles, the path might have been clearer, she said.
Now, for the future generations, there are footsteps to follow.
“It is not enough to be the first who breaks down a barrier, it is equally important not to be the last. I know today that I stand on the shoulders of Kate Stoneman as the tenth woman and the second woman of color to serve on the Court of Appeals,” she said. “I know that I must do what
is necessary to not be the last.”
Before her current role, she was a Justice on New York State’s Appellate Division, Fourth Department, and she was the only African American judge on the bench.
“Becoming a prosecutor was not part of a plan I had for myself,” Troutman said in a 2018 interview with Albany Law Magazine. “However, I can say without hesitation that becoming an Assistant District Attorney was the best thing that ever happened to me. I developed self-confidence, and a passion for trial work.”
Previously, she served as a trial judge in New York State Supreme Court, assigned to the Eighth Judicial District, where she handled matrimonial and general civil litigation matters. Before that she was a County Court Judge, where she handled felony criminal cases, appeals, and civil matters. Additionally, she served as a City Court Judge, where she presided over criminal and civil cases within that court's jurisdiction.
Academically, she has been an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School, a lecturer for the New York State Judicial Institute, a presenter in various CLE programs and seminars, and as a faculty member for the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence.
Prior to joining the bench, Troutman was an Assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, Assistant State Attorney General and an Assistant District Attorney.
She is also designated as an Advanced Science Technology and Resource (ASTAR) fellow, which is a program sponsored by the United States Department of Justice. As an ASTAR fellow she serves as a resource judge for members of the judiciary of New York State handling complex cases involving scientific evidence.
Troutman was co-chair of the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, appointed by then Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. The Commission is responsible for developing programs to address and eliminate barriers to racial and ethnic fairness within the court system and to help ensure equal justice in New York State. She was also a member of the Ethics Commission of the New York State Unified Court System and was a Member of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics.
First (and youngest) in top New York Posts
HON. ARIEL LASHER ’19: JUDGE, J.D., AND CAREGIVER
Hon. Ariel Lasher ’19 very likely became the youngest female judge in New York State at age 26.
In early 2022, she became the town justice in Providence, a small Saratoga County town of about 2,000 people.
While in law school, she also earned her Master’s in bioethics from Albany Medical College alongside her J.D. The first-generation college graduate is also the primary caregiver for her mother.
She said her education not only allows her to help the residents of her hometown navigate their way through the courts but offers her a unique skillset combining law and medicine to help her make ethical decisions and help her mother.
“As a caregiver, I see providers falling behind on the principles [of bioethics]. I appreciate having the knowledge and being able to advocate for my mother, but it bothers me a little because I know not everyone knows those things. And they can’t stand up for themselves at that time. They have to go and suffer and face the harm before they realize something went wrong four appointments ago,” she said.
CLASS OF 2011 ALUMNA TOP LAWYER IN CAYUGA COUNTY
Brittany Grome Antonacci ’11, District Attorney of Cayuga County, is the first woman to serve as district attorney in the Finger Lakes-area county.
Antonacci took over the top spot on January 1, 2022 as Acting District Attorney when the prior leader became a judge. In November 2022, she was officially elected to hold the position.
While at Albany Law, she was Executive Editor, Albany Government Law Review and was the Competition Chair in the Anthony V. Cardona ’70 Moot Court Program. These experiences along with internships and time in the Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid Clinic solidified her interest in public service.
“I knew I always wanted to be a public servant, whether that was a prosecutor or any other type of public service position. But once I had the opportunity to intern at the Albany County District Attorney’s office, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. It’s an amazing internship program,” she said.
Hon. Elizabeth Garry '90 - Presiding Justice and LGBTQ+ Voice
As Hon. Elizabeth Garry ’90, Presiding Justice on the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department was finding her public voice, her law school community helped show her just how important representation can be.
At the law school’s inaugural LGBT Law Day event in 2015, she closed her speech with, “love and courage.”
“Albany Law School certainly helped me as I was developing my public voice as a representative of the community in my judicial role. Being there and sharing some of my story was very helpful—hopefully to some of the audience—but it was certainly helpful to me, in starting to better understand how important it was to share that part of my identity more broadly,” she said. “From the inside looking out, what I was always focused on was simply being a judge, and being a good judge. Being the best judge that I could be—and this was not particularly mixed with my identity as a member of the LGBTQ community. But I came to understand that it was meaningful to other people to share the more personal [part of my] identity. And that it was a source of inspiration, the demonstration of courage, and that it would be helpful to people. That was a very powerful moment in my own development.”
Soon after, she became co-chair of The Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission of the New York State Courts, which provides training and resources for judges and court personnel to foster a supportive and compassionate workplace. As a Board member of the International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges, Garry started that organization’s scholarship committee and reviews letters, often with personal stories from young legal professionals and their journeys with personal identity, and it serves as a reminder of, “a critically important part of [her] role.”
“I knew people who had faced rank discrimination early on. And it was pervasive and it was powerful and it was career stopping. Even for me, as a young lawyer, that was very true. The discrimination, the stigma, was absolutely terrible. And you couldn’t get past it. And so that’s where I came from. So, to keep making sure that we can all be who we are, and have personal liberty, is a value that I actively embrace and actively work for. And it’s surprising to me to see and hear how hard it still is.”
Justice Garry now serves as a regular judge for the Albany Law School Anthony V. Cardona ’70 Moot Court Program, welcomes new students to Orientation, serves on the Board of Trustees, and attends various law school events—in addition to several profession-wide engagements—and is a mentor to many young professionals.
The mentorship is especially special as Garry points to her time as a confidential law clerk to New York Supreme Court Justice Irad Ingraham ’60 as being crucial to her development.
“That is really and truly where I developed the dream that somehow I too might actually be a judge,” she said. “Working with Judge Ingraham, that started to open my mind to that possibility. He’s been a lifelong shining example to me. And I appreciate that. That’s the heart of mentorship. Somebody that you can think of and think, ‘Well, he did things justly and fairly.’ That’s what we’re all aiming for.”
Judge Lillian Wan '00 - First Asian-American Woman on NYS Appellate Division
Judge Lillian Wan ’00 is the first Asian American to be elected to a judicial seat in Kings County. She officially took office in January 2022.
In May 2022, Kathy Hochul appointed Judge Wan to the Appellate Division, Second Department. Judge Wan is the first Asian American woman to sit on the New York State Appellate Division Bench.
“It is, first and foremost, a privilege. I am grateful to be part of this court, part of a brilliant team of jurists. And I'm looking forward to being able to contribute to this great bench. It’s so meaningful for me and the Asian American community. It's hard to believe that it took this long,” she said.
New York City is home to the largest Asian community in New York state.
In 2012, Judge Wan became the first Asian American woman to serve on the New York City Family Court and in 2018, she became the first Asian American woman to sit the N.Y. Court of Claims. She notes that as a law student she never expected to pursue a judicial career. She initially took a serious interest in social work and child welfare, which led her to law in the first place.
“I wanted to go to law school and work in a job that impacts. That really makes a difference and impacts people's daily lives. And when I was in law school, I chose internship positions during the summer that were in the New York City child welfare system,” she said.
During law school, she worked with Lawyers for Children and The Legal Aid Society, Juvenile Rights Division. She then spent nine years as a trial attorney at the Administration for Children's Services in the Family Court Legal Services Division. After that, she began as a court attorney-referee in Kings County Surrogate's Court under Judge Margarita López Torres.
“I worked very, very closely with Judge López Torres and I got to see things from behind the bench. I saw that the judge behind the bench was actually a human being. I found that I loved the view from the bench,” she said. “The role of the judge, is a person who cares, cares about getting it right, and works hard to try to find a solution to the problem.”
Judge Sherri Brooks-Morton - First Black Female Albany County Family Court Judge
Albany County Family Court Judge Sherri Brooks-Morton ’03 knows the importance of family.
Brooks-Morton is a mom of six and the first ever female Family Court Judge of color in Albany County. She serves as the referee, mediator, and decision-maker for many Capital Region families making their way through the court system.
At home, she’s setting an example for her four daughters and two sons.
“Every single day, I try to show them that you don’t have to choose your career or being a mom. In my profession, so many times it’s one or the other. I think that’s really not fair and I know that it’s a hard balance,” she said. “I make sure that when I leave here, I do not bring [my work] home with me. My focus at home is the kids. It’s not something I mastered right away but I have grown to have an appreciation for, especially from what I see every day in the courtroom.”
Brooks-Morton worked as a public defender in Albany County for several years, moving through the ranks from public defender, assistant public defender, to conflict defender.
She has developed an understanding of the struggles public defenders are facing—increasing caseloads and limited resources—which helps her make the soundest judgments. “I think it makes a big difference to have a judge with an appreciation for what it’s like to be an attorney who represents people. The dynamic between an attorney and a client is so unique,” she said.
Brooks-Morton pursued a career in law to provide for her family. She had both of her sons during her time as a law student.
“I knew I really had to do something and have some type of career path to have a better life for them. Becoming a mother made me more focused on working hard and achieving my goals. It has taught me what’s important and how to balance it all.”
Judge Christina Ryba '01 - First Black Person on State Supreme Court, Third Dept.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba ’01 made history as the first Black person to serve on the state Supreme Court bench in the Third Department when she was elected in 2015 in the 3rd Judicial District.
Now, in addition to serving the state from her chambers in Albany, she pays it forward to the next generation. She regularly serves as an Albany Law moot court judge, attends networking events, offers internship opportunities to law students, and attends orientation at her alma mater where she is also on the Board of Trustees.
“It’s nice to have law students come into chambers with their goals and see where they start and how they grow throughout the internship. Some of them are at the top of the class and they hit the ground running. Some bring a lot of other really good aspects to my chambers. I enjoy how diverse they’ve been in their creativity as well as listening to some of their goals. It’s also nice to have new energy around, it can be inspiring,” she said.
Ryba ran for her judicial office after several years in public service as Special Counsel for the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department and Special Counsel to the Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for all courts outside of New York City. In addition, Ryba gained private practice experience as an associate at Nixon Peabody, LLP, and served as an Assistant Attorney General in the Albany litigation bureau. She began her career with the City of Albany in the Albany Corporation Counsel’s office and quickly ascended to General Counsel and then to Deputy Director for the City of Albany Community Development Agency.
“When I was running, I had no template for what it would be like because I was the first Black person to actually be nominated by a major party for the Supreme Court in any district in the Third Department which covers 28 counties,” she said. “Some people didn’t believe I could make it because a minority being nominated hadn’t been done before in the Third Department, much less winning. Now that I’ve won and I’m on the bench, I think it really sets the pathway for others to follow,” Ryba said. “Others see that I’m here, and they know they can do it too. I strongly believe in the motto ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and I hope those who follow in my footsteps will face less barriers than my journey to the bench.”