Influential Voices: Beth Garfield

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Influential Voices: Beth Garfield

Champion of workers’ rights

by Lindsay Owens on Saturday, February 11, 2012 - 2:44am

The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond.  To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality.  Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members -- representing many communities, including financial, legal, nonprofit and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you.

Beth GarfieldFor most law students, the lure of working in a corporate firm is irresistible.  Beth Garfield chose a different path.  She became a union lawyer and later a founding partner of a law firm in Los Angeles that specializes in labor and employment issues. She has represented a diverse group of workers — from longshore workers and electricians to hotel room attendants, home healthcare workers and teachers.  She has drafted influential legislation on behalf of workers in California and testified before the state Legislature in Sacramento.  She also spent six years as a union organizer, representing more than 16,000 Los Angeles County clerical workers.

The early draw of social justice issues

Garfield served her community well before she took her first union case.  As an undergraduate at Stanford, she was an integral part of the women’s movement and was one of the founders of the Center for Research on Women (the precursor to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research).  She also served as student body president and filled her spare moments and summers teaching on the Navajo Reservation and working with children with disabilities.

At graduation, Garfield received the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education.  Her award reads: “For the vigor and spirit which characterized her Presidency of the Associated Students; for her initiative and energy on behalf of children in the Stanford community; for her consistent, lively, and thoughtful efforts to educate the University about its women and its women about themselves; and for her impatience with passivity and non-participation in the affairs of society.” Garfield left Stanford better than she found it.

At law school, she was president of the Women Law Student’s Association and fought for admission of more women, African American and Latino students.  She also worked with the United Auto Workers in Detroit, which solidified her commitment to becoming a labor lawyer. 

The road less travelled

Garfield has always been a bit of a rebel. When her father’s attorney told her in the mid-1960s that women couldn’t become lawyers, she instantly vowed to prove him wrong. And while her classmates at Michigan Law were being “wined and dined” by the major corporate law firms, Garfield held steadfast to her goal of becoming a union lawyer. This was no small feat—her parents weren’t thrilled with her decision, and pursuing a social justice career wasn’t encouraged at her law school. “Being in law school is like being in a rowboat,” says Garfield. “There is this huge hole in the rowboat and the water just starts coming in and you have to continue bucketing the water out because if you don’t, you’ll just get sucked in.”  Garfield says many students entered law school interested in social justice issues, but only a handful of her classmates ultimately pursued a legal career outside of the corporate sector.

True to form, Garfield also sidestepped convention when she founded her law firm. She took issue with the traditional hierarchical law firm model in which junior associates were too afraid of looking bad in front of the senior partners to admit they didn’t know something. “I didn’t want each lawyer to be a separate fiefdom,” she explains. Instead, she and her co-partners created a collaborative, open-door firm where all attorneys, young and old, could share ideas, talk through issues and ask for help. Garfield says she is constantly learning from her colleagues, and that this collaborative environment is one key to her firm’s continued success.

Although straying from the traditional model of success hasn’t always been easy for Garfield, she has no regrets. She advises young people at Stanford with an interest in social justice to stick to their guns. Garfield laments that college seniors who want to pursue careers in service are often discouraged when they have difficulty finding jobs while their peers are lining up jobs with companies that recruit on campus. Although there is no clear career pipeline for service-oriented jobs, Garfield says there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference. “You have to be willing to chart you own path,” she advises, “and you have to be open to exploring alternative avenues.

Challenges for the next generation

Susan Heck, Beth Garfield and Myra Strober at a Clayman Institute Advisory Council MeetingFor Garfield, one of the greatest obstacles to gender equality in today’s economy is unequal pay. “When women and men occupy the same jobs,” she says, “the answer is easy—the wage discrimination is irrefutable. But the difficulty is when you have female- and male-dominated professions and need to prove that jobs are comparable.” In her work organizing and representing hotel room attendants, home healthcare workers, clerical works and teachers (all largely female jobs), Garfield has been at the forefront in resolving issues of unequal pay.

The second issue that Garfield sees as vital to the success of today’s women’s movement is to ensure that women have control over their work life.  She believes this is just as important for the lowest hourly wage earner as it is for the highest-level corporate executive.  As a partner in her own firm, Garfield had flexibility in her work schedule when her two daughters were young. Although she worked many hours, she “had the freedom to attend their activities and be involved in their lives.” She says that this is extremely important for women and that, “when this is not the case, you see the kind of guilt and estrangement that alienates women in the labor force.”

Garfield’s career is a stunning example of the ability of one individual to affect social change — although she might put it a bit differently. “I think individuals can do great things,” she says. But, for me, being a union lawyer is being a part of a movement and the possibility for change is limitless.”


Beth Garfield received a B.A. from Stanford and law degree from the University of Michigan. She is a founding partner of Holguin & Garfield, a law firm in Los Angeles. Garfield is a member of the Clayman Institute Advisory Council and has served as an elected member of the Los Angeles Community College Board.

This article was written by Lindsay Owens, a graduate student in the Sociology Department and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.