Novelist and Judge Barbara Levenson JD `81 Shares Career Advice w/Young Alumni, Students at Table of 8 Dinner

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Never take no for an answer. That’s the advice of author and retired judge Barbara Levenson, J.D. ‘81, during the Young Alumni Committee’s Table of 8 dinner.  

Retired Judge Barbara Levenson, J.D. '81

Now a novelist of a successful legal mystery series, Levenson had a long path filled with successes and obstacles. She grew up in the small town of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, eventually moving to the big city of Columbus when she was in high school. She attended college in Michigan in 1953 and 1954, where she formed the desire to attend law school.

At the first meeting with her college advisor, she expressed her goals and was met with resistance. “Oh no dear, women shouldn’t be going to law school - what about becoming a teacher or librarian instead?” the counselor said. “I showed him,” Levenson remarks, “by becoming a journalism major since I have always loved to write.”

Levenson met her husband at the University of Alabama. They settled in Columbus and had two sons. Levenson, with her husband’s support, decided to run for the Columbus Board of Education, becoming the first woman to win an elected office in Columbus.

The election was difficult. “I had my two sons dress up in their Boy Scout uniforms and collect signatures door-to-door. My husband and I signed up supporters in front of grocery stores.” Levenson needed 1,500 signatures — and was ultimately successful. She was later elected by the other board members as President of the Board, and was even able to impress some board members who thought a woman’s place was in the home.

The Levensons moved several times due to her husband’s work at Merrill Lynch.  From Columbus they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she was appointed to the governor’s commission on early childhood education.

After another move, this time to Miami in 1975, Levenson’s husband encouraged her to follow her dream of going to law school by attending Miami Law, which was not far from their new home. Although there weren’t many women in law school at that time, Levenson applied and was accepted. She would go on to be one of the founders of the campus organization for women law students, which is known today as Miami Law Women.

Levenson’s favorite professor was the legendary Professor Richard Hausler. “I dearly loved his Contracts class,” she said. At the time, Contracts was split into two semesters at the law school, and Levenson won the book award both semesters. Being an older student at the time, Levenson found a great group of fellow older law students. “Most of these older law students were looking to start second careers,” she said.

So, what was her opinion of the law school experience generally? “I loved just about everything in law school,” she said. “Because I really wanted to do it, it came easily to me. I’ve always loved to argue, so what better place than law school?”

Speaking to how law school prepared her for her future career, Levenson credits the Socratic method of teaching. “If you can stay on your feet and answer the questions and use everything that you’ve learned — the law, the ability to speak — all of those things really come forward in the Socratic method.” Overall, “law school stretches your mind and helps you to think in new ways that you never thought you would.”

For her 1L summer, Levenson found a job at the State Attorney’s Office working for Janet Reno. “I loved it there,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed criminal law and I knew I wanted to do trial work.” Levenson would return to the State Attorney’s Office in her last semester of law school as a Certified Legal Intern, working in the mornings and attending classes in the afternoon and evenings. She tried cases in the juvenile division, and stayed as an assistant state attorney for another 4 years.

After the State Attorney’s Office, Levenson decided to open her own law firm, where she worked on cases surrounding criminal defense, constitutional questions, and employment discrimination. She did that for nine years until her husband suggested she run for a judgeship in the circuit court of Miami-Dade County.

“I ran against an incumbent, which was unheard of — incumbents usually just walked right back into their seats. Everybody advised me that it was a terrible idea” she explained. “And while I was running, a former incumbent who had left the bench decided to run again as well.” Adding to her challenge was Mother Nature — one week before the election, Hurricane Andrew hit and the election had to be postponed a few weeks. Levenson ultimately won, “and everything else I guess is history.” She would spend 12 years on the bench and five years as a senior judge before retiring completely in 2009.

After retiring from the bench, Levenson found herself having more time on her hands to pursue her desire to write. “As a kid, I used to entertain my friends by writing plays for them and telling stories when we had sleepovers,” she said. She started writing short stories and sharing them with her friends. “Everyone would say, ‘they aren't really stories - if you string them together, they’re really a book.’” Those suggestions are what led to Levenson’s first book, Fatal February. That book became the first of an expanding legal mystery series, including Justice in June, Outrageous October, and Neurotic November.

Levenson is currently working on Dangerous December, the next installment of the series. When she is not writing her next great novel, she works as a team with her certified therapy dog, Maggie. They volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes.  “It’s the best volunteer work that I’ve ever done,” she said.