Alumni Spotlights

Katherine (Adams) Courtney, B.A.’03: Empowering women attorneys in Rochester and beyond

June 5, 2018 by Lisa M. McMahon, M.A.'09

Nearly 300 female attorneys from the Rochester area belong to the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys, and this year, Niagara University alumna Katherine (Adams) Courtney, B.A., ’03, has been chosen to lead them as their 36th president.

Katie’s interest in law stemmed from an elective class she took on constitutional law with Dr. Peter Baxter, associate professor of political science and director of the office of prelaw advisement. She enjoyed that class and the challenge it provided so much that she added a minor in law and jurisprudence to her social work major. Dr. Clementine Laverman, then director of the social work department, helped Katie obtain a clinical placement with Haven House in Buffalo, working in Family Court with victims of domestic violence. The placement was a perfect combination of both of Katie’s interests.

It was also a turning point, of sorts. Katie was well-aware of the role of a social worker–her mother was one, and Katie frequently volunteered at the home for pregnant young women where she worked, so she saw the day-to-day duties of the job. And Katie knew that she was interested in the macro level of social work, which focuses on larger scale social problems, so that she could make a more significant impact on the communities she would eventually serve. But the clinical placement made her realize that even focusing on that particular aspect of social work would limit what she could do.

“When they placed me in Family Court with the domestic violence victims, I was told I could sit in the back of the courtroom,” she explains. “The victims were going in for temporary orders of protection, and they were being re-victimized by the judge and by their accusers, and I couldn’t do anything to help in my role as a social worker.”

That’s when she began to consider pursuing a career in public interest law. After winning a free LSAT review course during one of Niagara’s graduate school fairs, Katie decided that she was being called to that profession and applied to the University at Buffalo, where she enrolled in its JD/MSW dual degree program.

Katie continued her work with victims of domestic violence while in law school, and also completed internships with law firms that focused on educational matters, and with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

When she graduated, Katie obtained a job with the Empire Justice Center, a statewide legal service provider that represents the poor, disabled, and disenfranchised. She worked in its Rochester office, representing children with disabilities who had been denied benefits from the Social Security Administration and providing community education.

Katie remained with the center for about five years, until her current position, attorney advisor with the SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations, became available. When the judges she had worked with in her role with the center suggested she apply for the position, she agreed, because it would give her the flexibility she needed as the mother of two--and now, four--young children (with fellow NU alum Daniel Courtney, M.S.Ed.’06).

In addition to her role as attorney advisor, Katie is also a national trainer for the agency, giving her an opportunity to share her expertise with new employees.

Katie has also shared her expertise as a member of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys, and has served a total of eight years on its board of directors in various positions. This May, she was installed as GRAWA’s president.

“It’s very humbling that people think I have those leadership capabilities and poise to move our organization forward,” she says of the nomination.

Katie first got involved with the organization (a chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York) when she graduated from law school, and benefitted from the support and resources it offered for professional development. Taking the helm of the organization this year is a way for her to give back, she says, as well as to support its mission in a greater capacity. Her goals for her 12-month term are ambitious—implement its newly completed strategic plan, grow the organization, and develop thoughtful, mutually beneficial collaborations within the community.

Katie is looking forward to the challenge of this new role, and considers it as she has everything on her professional pathway thus far—as an opportunity to step out of her comfort zone a bit and see where the journey takes her.