EDITORS NOTE: Betty Thompson died Sept. 24, 2012, following a stroke at the age of 88. She practiced almost until the day she died. The Washington Post obituary of Ms. Thompson included quotes from her Ten Leaders profile, written in 2005. Betty was unique, wonderfully candid and proud of being a lawyer, committing herself to the profession in ways few ever have. Her profile is below.
To describe Betty Thompson as a legend of divorce law might be accurate, but it would be missing the point - of her life, of her career, and of her many achievements over the last 50 years. Indeed, she hasn't so much practiced divorce law as lived and breathed it, reminding everyone in the law - and everyone else - that the law is quite properly a reflection of the values and people of our times.
Today, Thompson owns a thriving Arlington-based practice and her reputation for leadership and influence haven't abated. She combines an acute legal mind with a concerned - yet-unsentimental manner. In that respect, Thompson remains a social barometer, calibrated to another, gentler time: "I was practicing law before they even invented discrimination"; "The level of greed today just may destroy us."
The daughter of a contractor in still-rural Falls Church, and scrappy and competitive, she contemplated medicine ("I couldn't stand all that blood") and instead enrolled at George Washington University during the Second World War. "I was just out of high school competing with grown-ups, people with jobs and a sense of purpose." The law came naturally to her. She immersed herself in the rigors of legal writing, and she was undaunted by slights and barriers. "Why say 'woman lawyer'? - just say lawyer," she says today. "In trying to defend ourselves, we're just putting ourselves down."
She regarded herself as a trial lawyer, litigating civil and some criminal cases ("Everyone was a generalist in those days"). By the 1960s, divorce laws barely existed, but society was evolving fast: "My specialty was developed by my clients. It's what they needed me for." As other states passed equitable-distribution laws, Virginia didn't level its marital playing field until 1982 ("We don't give up things easily"). It was Thompson, in the state's most progressive region, who participated with the Virginia Legislature in writing the statute.
Since then she has represented some of the Washington area's most powerful and influential. She is a formidable presence in the courthouses of Arlington and Fairfax Counties and beyond, respected by judges now her junior. Thompson's manner today is authoritative, independent, impatient of poor character, and utterly proud of a profession she knows is essential yet isolated ("No lawyer jokes: It's damned hard work").
Her clients now are not simply referrals. They are the offspring of former clients - even those of one-time adversaries. Her bright, contemporary offices are a visual stimulant. Never married, she loves to travel ("I'm a big sun worshipper - it revives me"). In many respects her staff is family. She lives across from her Rosslyn office ("Like living over the store"), in a flat with a postcard-view of downtown Washington.