Mom Support: Monique Lillard '83 encourages women in law, starting with her own mother

March 13, 2024
Christine Byrd
Monique Lillard (left) and Louise Lillard
(From left) Monique and Louise Lillard

When Monique Lillard graduated from UCLA Law in 1983, about one-third of all newly minted lawyers were women. Today, women represent more than half of law school graduates. Monique has long been dedicated to supporting women law students – beginning, in a unique twist, with her own mother.

A “reasonable person”

While TV’s Perry Mason glamorized the legal profession for an entire generation, Monique was inspired by a woman lawyer on a short-lived series in the early 1970s called “Storefront Lawyers.”

“She drove a cool sports car, was pretty and was always right,” Monique remembers. So, after studying history at Stanford University, Monique returned to Los Angeles and enrolled at UCLA Law.

“My nerdy secret is that I really liked law school, especially that first year,” Monique says. “My brain had always thought along the same line as lawyers. It thrilled me to realize, ‘They have a word for this!’”

Two of those words were “reasonable person,” and when Monique learned that term in her torts class, it immediately struck her that the definition perfectly suited her mother, Louise D. Lillard. Monique’s boyfriend, Duncan Palmatier, and her cousin Lisa Case ’82, both law students at the time, agreed: Louise was meant for law.

“It was her nature,” says Monique. “She spoke very well, didn’t back down from an argument, and was relentlessly rational and straight-line in her thinking.”

Louise earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French from UCLA. In 1941, at the end of the Great Depression, she became a teacher. She watched with interest as her alma mater opened a new law school in 1949, just down the street from her home.

“She thought, ‘I can’t do that,’” explains Monique. “When you’ve scrambled for money your whole life, you don’t risk a good job for a new profession that women aren’t welcome in, with a weird notion that you’re going to become a woman lawyer.”

Instead, Louise taught French at Beverly Hills High School for 35 years and, with her husband, Richard, raised Monique in West Los Angeles.

“We started to realize it was a terrible loss to the legal profession that she had never gone to law school. She would have been a fabulous lawyer,” Monique says.

Mother-daughter duo

Top to bottom: Monique Lillard and Louise LillardMonique and her family lobbied the recently retired Louise to study for the LSAT and go back to school at the age of 63.

“I was convinced no law school would want me because of my age,” Louise wrote in UCLA Law magazine years later, in 2000. “But under pressure from Monique and Duncan, backed by my supportive husband, Richard, and by my niece Lisa, I finally agreed to apply to five L.A. law schools. … Months later, they glowed triumphantly when all five schools — first of all UCLA — accepted me. Of course, I chose UCLA.”

The mother-daughter duo were media darlings at UCLA Law, riding a wave of feminism in the legal profession that was punctuated by the 1981 appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Louise enrolled when Monique was a 3L, and the pair were written up in the Los Angeles Times, the Beverly Hills paper Pico Post, and national news outlets. Their story was celebrated within the school and across the profession as a triumph of feminism — and second chances.

But pivoting to a new career in her 60s wasn’t all smooth sailing for Louise.

“She definitely experienced some imposter syndrome,” remembers Monique. “She wanted to understand everything right away, and doubted herself when she couldn’t remember everything or understand something immediately.”

Near the end of her first year, Louise was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. Her classmates recorded lectures and shared notes while she was out, and when she returned to school, her husband carried her books between classes until she recovered her strength.

At age 66, Louise took the California bar exam. Her anxiety about the test was made worse by well-meaning colleagues who told her not to be disappointed if she didn’t pass the first time. But Louise channeled those nerves into energy and passed on her first try.

She then fulfilled her long-deferred dream of practicing law, working first as a litigator at the firm Dieterich & Associates – founded by UCLA alumnus Chris Dieterich – where she enjoyed traveling to cities all around the country collecting depositions. She later became an arbitrator where she focused on securities work and protecting investors. She didn’t really slow down until her mid-70s.

Supporting women

Meanwhile, Monique launched her career with a clerkship for Ninth Circuit Judge Cynthia Holcolm Hall, and then worked as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. After rotating through different departments and settling on labor and employment, Monique realized she didn’t love litigation. It was the pure thinking that had defined her first year of law school that she truly enjoyed. Since her mom had been a teacher and her great-grandfather, grandfather and father had all been in higher education as professors or administrators, education felt like the family business.

Susan Westerberg Prager, then dean of UCLA Law, and Carole Goldberg, then associate dean, helped Monique take the steps necessary to transition to academia, and she received an offer to join the faculty at the University of Idaho’s College of Law.

In 1987, Monique moved to Moscow, Idaho, which she describes as being almost like the fictional TV town of Mayberry, where everyone knows everyone. In this college town with its tree-lined streets, Monique discovered that despite a lifetime in L.A., she was a small-town girl at heart.

Women remain underrepresented among Idaho’s lawyers. When Monique and Louise launched their careers, about 8% of all lawyers in the U.S. were women – a figure that has grown to 38%, but lingers around 30% in Idaho.

One of several women hired by UI’s law school around that time, Monique served as an informal mentor to many students, offering support, encouragement and, from time to time, an office to cry in. She became a co-advisor of the Women’s Law Caucus, helping to bring Idaho’s female
judges, successful lawyers and alumnae to campus to speak with students and faculty, and even hosting events in her home. In the mid-1990s, she served as associate dean of the law school, and women’s enrollment as law students at UI reached new heights.

In 2013, Monique was named Woman of the Year by the University of Idaho Athena women’s association for her “clear and sustained dedication to women’s professional enhancement at University of Idaho.” In 2020, the College of Law honored her with its Diversity and Human Rights Award.

“I fell into the role naturally because of my personality and the relatively small numbers of women on the faculty,” she says of her lifetime championing women in law. “But I really, really want fairness for everybody, and equal opportunity for everybody. It drives me crazy when blockades are put up for women that aren’t put up for men.”

Monique continues to be inspired by the bold decision made by her mother, who passed away in 2005. Recently retired, Monique is almost the same age Louise was when she earned her J.D.

“I’ve thought about her a lot recently, and I don’t know if I could do what she did,” Monique says. “Law school is often compared to military boot camp, and it’s really amazing to think that she learned a whole new language and a whole new way of thinking at her age.”

As Monique helps bring UCLA Law classmates together for their 40th reunion, many of them find themselves starting a new chapter as well, whether contemplating retirement or a second career. Louise’s memory is a timely reminder: It’s never too late to pursue a dream.

“It drives me crazy when blockades are put up for women.”

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