Happy 100th Birthday, Shirley Bayle ’54
07.27.20 — The School of Law is sending warm birthday wishes to Shirley Bayle ’54, a longtime Boston trial lawyer who turns 100 today. Bayle began law school in 1947, when the school was housed in a “beautiful, five-story mansion” on Beacon Hill, she recalls. “I found I really enjoyed the law. It changed my life,” says Bayle, who lives in Lexington, Mass., and still handles the occasional client call.
Northeastern “was very progressive,” she adds — except for gender equity in bathrooms. There were so few women students at the time that the only bathroom they could use was in the basement. Bayle became pregnant with her first child during her first year and, with no elevator in the building, had to climb down and back five flights. “I really enjoyed all my time there — except racing up and down the stairs,” she recalls with a laugh.
For more than 60 years, Bayle practiced as a highly regarded litigator in the Boston area, including serving on the plaintiff’s team in a medical malpractice case that she and her long-time law partner, Raymond Young, say inspired the best-selling novel The Verdict, which became a 1983 movie starring Paul Newman. Bayle’s illustrious career included a stint as a Massachusetts assistant attorney general working for then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who, when he left to work for the Nixon administration in 1969, recommended Bayle as the first general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.
“That was another trial by fire,” recalls Bayle, with a smile. “It turned out the psychiatrists had been so busy running their own legal department they felt I was terribly superfluous.” Referring, tongue in cheek, to a course on legal psychiatry she’d taken at Northeastern, “I explained to them, ‘It’s quite all right that you know more law than I do — I know more psychiatry than you do, and I’ll help out.”
Born in 1920 in New York City, Bayle graduated in 1942 with honors from NYU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics. During World War II, she was an economist at the War Labor Board, in charge of keeping labor costs down in the paper industry in New England. After wedding Andrew Bayle, an engineer, she moved to Boston and enrolled at Northeastern Law. She remained married to Andy Bayle for 66 years until his death in 2009.
“I loved Northeastern because it introduced me to a field I really enjoyed,” says Bayle. “It had great instructors and interesting courses,” including the legal psychiatry course, in which she was not only the sole law student — the rest were lawyers, judges and police officers — but also, as was the case so often in her career, the sole woman.
When Northeastern Law closed its doors in the early 1950s for financial reasons, students were automatically transferred to Boston University but were granted diplomas from Northeastern, says Young, who met Bayle at Northeastern Law, where he taught tax aspects of real estate transactions, a course he developed. After taking two years off following the birth of her second child, Bayle headed to Harvard Law School in 1953 as a 3L, joining the second class there to admit women. Northeastern bestowed a law degree, cum laude, upon her after she finished her final courses at Harvard.
Legal jobs weren’t easy for women to land at the time — Bayle says she’s grateful she never learned to type and couldn’t be pigeonholed as a legal secretary, as many women JDs were. With her degree in hand, Bayle joined the Legal Aid Society doing domestic relations cases, “mostly poor women who wanted to get rid of abusive men,” she says. In 1964, she and Young formed Young & Bayle, a partnership that lasted almost 50 years, where her practice included family law and probate. But her real passion was trial law. “That was a part that interested me. With a broad smile, she adds, “It gave me a chance to be able to talk uninterrupted.”
Time and again, judges and other lawyers seemed thrown by her presence. “The interesting thing is, the judges didn’t know how to deal with a woman in court,” Bayle recalls. In one case, a judge threatened to dismiss her lawsuit; she said she would appeal. “He said to me, and I will never forget it, ‘You can appeal but after you've decided what you’re going to wear, what are you going to say?’”
But Bayle’s skills prevailed time and again, including a medical malpractice case in which a different judge told her she had no case. She not only won a jury verdict but many lawyers later told Young that Bayle’s closing argument was among the best they’d heard, Young recalls.
“Of course I had this feeling that the whole weight of women in the law profession was on my shoulders because if I made a mistake [then] every woman was stupid and wasn’t qualified so it was up to me to do the very best I could — which I did,” Bayle says.
In what she describes as “the funniest” of these incidents, she was trying a jury case against two male defense attorneys, and the judge insisted on calling the three lawyers “gentlemen” each time he addressed them. On the day of closing arguments, the judge told Bayle he owed her an apology because he should have been addressing them as “gentlemen and lady.”
“I said, ‘Think nothing of it, your honor. You know what Lady Astor said to the English Parliament when this question arose: She said, ‘Gentlemen, we are fighting for equality not superiority — we already have that,’” recalls Bayle. “And he laughed.”
Photo courtesy of Shirley Bayle.
Bayle was appointed by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to the State Ballot Law Commission in 1977.
Among other honors, including being appointed by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to the State Ballot Law Commission in 1977, Bayle was awarded the 2007 Gideon’s Trumpet Award by the Senior Partners for Justice for her commitment to representing the indigent.
Today, Bayle says she is heartened at how far women in the profession have come. “I think women have made the biggest strides in the legal profession of any profession, even doctors,” Bayle says. “I enjoy the fact that women have equality in the law more than anywhere else and that there is no job too big for them — not even the president of the United States.”
— Elaine McArdle
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