Monday, December 22, 2008

Nettie Cronise Lutes: Ohio’s First Woman Lawyer

On that spring morning in 1873, Nettie Cronise appeared poised and confident as she stood before three judges of the Ohio Common Pleas Court. Beneath the calm exterior was a nervous, apprehensive young woman. The judges’ decision would shape not only her future, but also that of hundreds of other Ohio women in the years ahead. Despite her fears, Nettie was ready to present her qualifications for admission to the Ohio Bar Association.

With her she carried recommendations from four of Seneca County’s most prominent attorneys. They had offered to present the application on her behalf. Her colleagues knew that most judges opposed the idea of women lawyers. Indeed, at the very moment Ohio legislators were launching a successful campaign against all women seeking the right to vote.

While grateful to her colleagues for their offer, Nettie chose to confront the challenge personally. To her great joy and relief, the panel granted her a license. Nettie Cronise became the first woman in Ohio to practice law! Six months later, her younger sister Florence would follow in her footsteps.

Born in Republic, Ohio, in 1843, Nettie was the daughter of Dr. Jacob and Katharine Staub. While she was still a child, her parents divorced. Nettie and Florence moved with their mother to the home of their grandfather Judge Henry Cronise. Nettie attended school in Tiffin and studied at Heidelberg College and the State Normal School in Bloomington, Illinois. Nettie taught for a short time in Illinois, but returned to Tiffin to read law at the firm of Warren P. Noble.

After Florence’s admission to the bar, the Cronise sisters opened their own practice in Tiffin. A year later, Nettie married fellow attorney Nelson Lutes. When Nelson began to lose his hearing, Nettie dissolved her partnership with her sister and joined her husband’s firm. Through extraordinary teamwork, they developed a thriving corporate law practice in federal and district courts throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Nelson’s deafness demanded the couple have an especially thorough knowledge of their briefs, the evidence, and their opponent’s trial strategy. In the courtroom, Nettie silently repeated testimony to Nelson, enabling him to deliver opening and closing arguments and examine witnesses. Their skill and preparation made them a formidable team. Few courtroom observers ever realized that Nelson was totally deaf. The “Lutes Combination,” as they were known in legal circles, continued their highly successful practice until Nelson’s death in 1900.

Nettie Cronise Lutes’ remarkable accomplishments have not been forgotten. In recognition of her groundbreaking efforts, the women of the Ohio Bar Association present an award each year in her honor. The Nettie Cronise Lutes Award is presented to a woman lawyer who has “improved the legal profession through her own high level of professionalism and a commitment to opening doors for girls and women.”

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