The College lost a friend who was one of the legal community’s most prominent and respected practitioners when Washington, D.C., attorney Pamela A. Bresnahan passed away March 31 at age 66.
Ms. Bresnahan, who joined the NJC Board of Trustees only last year, was a past chair of the American Bar Association’s powerful Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which evaluates candidates for judgeships, including the Supreme Court. She testified before the Senate during the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Other than being president of the ABA, it’s pretty hard to eclipse that as an achievement,” said Peter Bennett, immediate past chair of the NJC Board of Trustees and a close friend of hers for more than 20 years. “She was the ultimate insider in Washington. She knew everybody and I think everybody respected her.”
NJC President Benes Z. Aldana said, “She was a force of nature. She was passionate about the law, and she made an impact everywhere she went. The trustees and staff who didn’t know Pam already were excited about her joining the board. We will miss her dearly.”
Ms. Bresnahan was a trial lawyer renowned for her skill and tenacity. For the past 26 years, the native Washingtonian was a partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, where she headed the Litigation Practice Group in its Washington, D.C., office.
Longtime friend Bobbi Liebenberg, a partner with Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, said, “She would want to be remembered for her work as a zealous advocate and well-recognized trial lawyer on issues that were really important with respect to professional responsibility and legal ethics. That was the thing she really dedicated her life to.”
Much of her practice involved representing other lawyers, who can be among the most difficult clients for a lawyer to please.
Cory Amron, a longtime friend and a colleague of hers at Vorys, said, “Some of them tried to second-guess her advice and they rued the day. Pam didn’t suffer fools. She knew what she was doing and gave her advice, and if you were a real estate lawyer, for instance, and tried to push back on her advice, that was not a good idea.”
Among her many accolades, Ms. Bresnahan was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America and one of the 50 most influential women lawyers by the National Law Journal. Washingtonian Magazine and The Washington Post both recognized her as one of the top lawyers in the nation’s capital.
Nashville attorney John R. Tarpley, a friend for more than 35 years, said, “Pam was one of those one-of-a-kind people. She loved being a lawyer. She loved being involved in the issues affecting the profession, and she spoke her mind. She gave valuable advice, and she wasn’t afraid to tell anybody what was right. And when I say anybody, I mean anybody.”
Tarpley said the two met as fellow members of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and had remained close ever since.
“She was a fantastic friend and fun to be around. She had a laugh that came from so far inside her. I call it a riotous laugh…. She was one magnificent human being.”
Ms. Bresnahan was known to be just as fierce and loyal a friend as she was as a lawyer. Ken Young, another longtime friend from their days in the Young Lawyers Division, said that when his father was at Johns Hopkins for cancer surgery in 1992, she would take him newspapers and cookies daily. She didn’t know the elder Young, but she was a friend of his son, and that was good enough.
Amron, her colleague at Vorys, said, “If you were her friend, she would go to the ends of the earth for you. And she did — in certain cases she would get on a plane and go help somebody. She had hundreds of friends, so that was a lot of trips to the ends of the earth.”
Bennett of the Board of Trustees said Ms. Bresnahan’s interest in serving on the NJC board came from her career as a trial attorney. She knew about the College’s role in educating and improving the judiciary. He said that, in addition to himself, she was close friends with current trustee and retired judge Toni Clarke and the late NJC board chair Bill Robinson, a former ABA president.
“She was a joiner and wanted to be part of the board,” Bennett said. “I have no doubt she would have chaired the board had she been around a few years. She was one of those trustees who came in and her focus was ‘What can I do to make the NJC a better place? What contacts do I have?’”
He said she had battled breast cancer successfully several years ago, but the disease returned late last year and spread to other organs. Even in her final weeks in hospice, he said, she felt that she was recovering and would be back at work.
Her Washington Post obituary mentioned her survivors as her husband, Peter F. Axelrad, her longtime assistant and friend Teresa Shoemaker, and extended family. It also mentioned her “adored labs,” Charlie and Prince.
Donations in her memory can be made to the SPCA of Anne Arundel County, 1815 Bay Ridge Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21403 or ABA Fund for Justice and Education at ambar.org/donatebresnahan.
Thoughts shared by other friends on Facebook and elsewhere:
“Pam’s generosity of spirit is, I believe, best exemplified by her unsung service to countless students over the years. She never talked about it, but she and Pete were unofficial “sponsors” to scores of USNA Midshipmen. They opened their home to Midshipmen — many of whom were miles and miles from homes and families for the first time — year after year. Instead of spending her Sundays doing for herself, she could instead be found engaged in preparing a home-cooked Sunday dinner for her guests, doing their laundry, and generally serving as “mom” to homesick students.Dwight L. Smith
“Who does that? Pam did. Because she was Pam. She touched many, many lives and will indeed be missed.”
“I have trouble accepting that she is gone. To borrow a military metaphor, she was the first person you would choose to be with you in the foxhole – fierce, loyal and always having your back.”Michael Stone
“I had not seen a lot of Pam outside ABA meetings until I had a double knee replacement and was looking for helpers. I had expected to find mostly friends who had retired, but Pam showed up, took time out of her insanely busy schedule, and just hung out at my house with me to help me out. It was incredibly kind and generous, and we had a great time reminiscing and doing not much at all.”Alison Asti
“Though my time with Pam in the ABA is brief compared to those who spent decades with her, I got to meet her when I came in as a law student officer. She welcomed me into the Maryland delegation with open arms, and it turns out that she knew and had litigated against my mom way back in the day. She and I bonded over being DC practitioners who didn’t quite fit in with the normal Maryland bar crew and she was a mentor who told me I didn’t need to fit in with *any* crew- as long as I did good work and had fun, I’d get my own crew of friends from across the ABA and country. She was right. We sat next to each other at the next 7 meetings of the House, and had a number of late calls between those meetings. Little did I know that our sitting together in Austin in 2019 would be the last time. She was a force to be reckoned with and will be sorely missed.”Christopher Jennison
“We have a Facebook page for our high school class. It’s tremendously moving to see the quantity and quality of heartfelt tributes coming in from our classmates –literally dozens and dozens. Pam was universally loved AND respected among us.”Robert Weinstein