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Article Published August 12, 2020

Breaking Ground: Marilyn Shaw Carves Her Path

By Maria Caulfield/

Marilyn Shaw used to dig into her books and legal cases when she was a lawyer in Philadelphia, then later, in Houston and Washington, D.C.

But after 19 years of working as a partner in the energy law practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP, she retired from the legal profession and now finds much satisfaction digging into soil as co-president of the Garden Club of Madison.

“My co-president is Philippa Mannino who is a long-time member of the garden club and was one of my sponsors when I joined,” she says.

Asked about the club, she says it’s “a wonderful, caring, welcoming group of women who share my love of gardening [and] the hands-on aspects when we are digging and dividing perennials to prepare for the annual sale. We’ve also had learning events on how to divide plants and on pruning. Last but not least, the monthly meetings are a joy with fascinating speakers on many topics from regional gardens to creating a meadow to gardening for pollinators. [It’s] a lovely lunch and time to socialize.”

Although the garden club held a meeting of the board recently, the general meetings, which normally take place at the First Congregational Church Hall, are temporarily stopped due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Marilyn says they hope to have an outdoor meeting sometime in October.

Founded in 1924, the Garden Club of Madison supports numerous projects around town including the Allis-Bushnell House & Garden, the Angie Cama Memorial Herb Garden, the Bauer Park Organic Garden, Daffodils Over Madison, Deacon John Grave House Gardens, the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library, and the East Wharf Circle Seaside Gardens.

Marilyn is also a member of the Madison Coastal Resiliency Commission. She and several other Madison residents were chosen as members.

The commission was formed in 2019 when the Board of Selectmen adopted a resolution establishing the committee in response to a state law that requires municipalities to plan for the potential impact of climate change and sea level rise.

After soliciting applications from residents and conducting interviews, town officials appointed the commission in November 2019. Three subcommittees were also formed: communication, technical, and policy.

“There were so many qualified residents of our town that a decision was made to create subcommittees. I am on the one for communication, interfacing with the community…My interest in volunteering was my concern about climate change and sea rise, especially as to its impact on shoreline communities such as ours,” she says.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the Coastal Resiliency Commission now holds virtual meetings via Zoom.

She talks about these trying days of coronavirus and recalls the courageous work of health care and essential workers.

“In these times of COVID, I think it is especially important for all of us to be kind and considerate of our neighbors and especially appreciative of all the folks in our community who have put themselves at risk serving our community in so many ways,” she says.

She hopes her volunteer work helps cheer a world weary of pandemic news and eager for a hopeful viewpoint.

Working with the garden club, she expresses how nature can engender hope in the simple beauty of gardens and urges others to spread that optimism.

“We will be continuing to plant daffodils in public spaces. But we encourage everyone to plant daffodils along our beautiful stone walls and around mailboxes. Let’s turn Madison into a town in which daffodils are everywhere as a sign of hope for our future,” she says.

Making Her Mark

While Marilyn’s professional background includes years of experience as a lawyer in Philadelphia, Houston, and Washington, D.C., her education began in Massachusetts.

She graduated one of three valedictorians in 1961 from Waltham High School.

From 1961 to 1965, she attended Brandeis University on full tuition scholarship and earned her A.B. in political science. She also worked on campus 20 hours a week.

“I wanted to go to law school, but it was a time when women didn’t become lawyers,” she recalls.

So her mentor, John Roche, who was also the chairman of the Political Science Department at Brandeis, introduced her to Dean Gerard Mangone of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, who offered her a fellowship that covered tuition and living expenses for a two-year master’s degree program in international public administration.

In 1966, as part of the master’s program, Marilyn spent one year in India where she was an intern at the U.S. Embassy and the United States Information Service (USIS).

“I was the first woman to be sent on this program by the Maxwell School,” she says.

In 1967, she earned her master’s degree in international public administration. A few years later, she moved to Philadelphia where she was hired at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) working in public housing programs for projects in Pennsylvania.

“I then moved to work for Gordon Cavanaugh, who was cleaning up corruption at the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). This was an exciting job with lots of responsibilities and which influenced my later career after law school,” she says.

“While at PHA, I started law school at night at Temple University, working full time. In the last two years of the four-year program, I was executive director of an Urban Renewal Project Area Committee. [I] loved that job, but it was tough working all day, then law school, then meetings at night with citizens,” she remembers.

She graduated from Temple University in 1974 with a J.D. She was one of four women in her class.

“Having graduated law school in 1974, there were definitely issues because of being a woman. But I had wonderfully supportive clients,” she recalls.

She then worked in Philadelphia until 1978 for Legal Services Corporation (LSC), specializing in housing and consumer advocacy.

Created in 1974, the LSC ensures that low-income individuals and families have access to justice and due process. It is the single largest funder of civil legal aid in the country and promotes equal access to justice by funding high-quality civil legal assistance for low-income Americans.

In 1979, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she was offered a position as deputy general counsel at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. She spent six years practicing energy law and became head of the Enforcement Office and chief litigation counsel.

In 1985, she was offered a partnership to join Reynolds Allen and Cook (RAC) in Houston.

“After several very successful years, nine of us partners left RAC and opened the first Houston office for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld. After several years, I transferred to Akin’s Washington D.C. office. I was a partner at Akin in the energy law practice for 19 years,” she says.

With 20 offices around the world and more than 1,000 attorneys, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld is considered one of the most prestigious law firms in the U.S. Its headquarters are located in Washington, D.C.

“While at RAC and then Akin Gump—because my expertise was in energy law and especially energy regulatory law—I traveled frequently between Houston and Washington, D.C. I have this memory of getting in the car in Houston and telling my friend, the driver, to take me to the Watergate Hotel, which was in D.C. Talk about jet lag!” she says lightheartedly.

She remembers another incident that illustrates her jam-packed professional life.

“My husband, who is also a lawyer, was also traveling a lot and one time, I was seated [in a plane] in business class. We both had a lot of miles on Continental Airlines and he walked onto the plane. Neither of us had realized the other was on the same flight,” she says, clearly finding the humor in that.

“While I was a partner at Akin Gump, between work responsibilities and raising our daughter, I had little time for volunteer work,” she adds.

Her daughter, Stephanie, is now an adult and lives in Massachusetts. Marilyn lives with her husband, Steven, in Madison where she now finds time to do volunteer work for the garden club and the Coastal Resiliency Commission.

Asked about her legal career at a time when female lawyers were vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, Marilyn replies, “It was a challenge. But I never felt resentful. I think I was very fortunate.”

She describes herself as someone who is “thoughtful, risk-averse, and abhors violence and injustice” and recaps her professional years, “My entire career has been devoted to social justice and public service.”

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