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Most women can share stories about the competing demands of work and family. But the story told when Elizabeth McClanahan ’84 was sworn in as Supreme Court Justice of the Commonwealth of Virginia tops most. While in labor with her second child, she conducted a conference call, giving birth 10 minutes after hanging up.
McClanahan, then chief deputy in the Virginia attorney general’s office, had left a midnight message for her boss. When he phoned her the next morning, “I thought they knew I was at the hospital and still expected me to do it.”
Colleagues who spoke at her investiture ceremony on Sept. 1, her 52nd birthday, praised her strong work ethic. “My parents considered it a privilege to work,” said McClanahan, a southwest Virginia native whose parents taught school and later ran a construction business. “It was a point of pride to get your work permit at age 14.” She never vacationed during spring or Christmas breaks from law school or college at William and Mary. “If you came home at midnight after two weeks of exams, you were still expected to be at work at 8 the next morning.”
An expert in natural resources law, McClanahan spent 19 years in private practice in Abingdon, Va., before becoming chief deputy Virginia attorney general in 2002. She joined the Virginia Court of Appeals in 2003 and was serving her second term when the Virginia General Assembly elected her to a 12-year term on the Supreme Court.
In appellate law, “if you enjoy an academic and intellectual challenge, it doesn’t get any better than listening to and reading the briefs of lawyers making their best arguments on both sides,” she said. But she’s looking forward to the more diverse caseload and greater number of civil cases the Supreme Court offers.
An avid runner and a breast cancer survivor, McClanahan has learned to enjoy every day. “I’ve always been a Christian and believed in the hereafter, but when you see your name and the word ‘carcinoma’ on a piece of paper, you have to embrace the inevitable. Once you’re given a second chance, you do live every day to its fullest.”