A Lifetime of Law: Pioneer attorney still practicing after 60 years
by Mary Angell
Mary Angell is a freelance writer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a frequent contributor to the Wyoming Lawyer.
Women were "about as common as an aardvark in the courtroom" when Brooke Wunnicke started practicing law in Cheyenne.
The year was 1946, and Wunnicke was Wyoming’s first female trial attorney.
"In those days, reporters were all men. Jurors were all men," she told the Wyoming Lawyer recently. "I tried jury cases to (male) judges, always. I tell you truthfully, I never felt it prejudiced my clients. When they saw I was there for real and prepared and doing my job, I could feel the support. It was literally palpable to me."
Now, at the age of 88, Wunnicke is the oldest active member of the Wyoming Bar and one of the oldest in the Colorado Bar. She serves as of counsel for the firm of Hall & Evans, L.L.C., located in the Chase Building in downtown Denver. Though she’s practiced in Colorado since 1969, Wyoming mementos — including documentation from the Wyoming Supreme Court of her acceptance to the Wyoming Bar and a crystal plaque commemorating her 60 years as a member — are prominent fixtures there.
Over the years, Wunnicke has specialized in diverse areas of the law. She gained extensive trial and appellate experience and served as Chief Appellate Deputy in the Denver District Attorney’s office for more than 12 years. She has authored and co-authored books on business law, taught law classes at the University of Denver College of Law and lectured on a variety of subjects, chiefly professional ethics.
When Wunnicke talks about her years in the legal profession, her love of the law is obvious.
"I’ve gotten so much joy from it," she said of her career. "I have a lot of memories. You never forget your victories and you never forget your defeats — which are always unjustified. You never forget anything funny or sad, so you have to say the trivia is not worth recording."
Wunnicke stands about 5 feet tall. Her white hair and gentle countenance may remind younger lawyers of their grandmothers, but her discussion of the law is as sharp as the plum and gray hounds tooth suit she wore for her Wyoming Lawyer interview.
Wunnicke recalled the early days of her career when she was often the only woman in the courtroom.1 While most attorneys asked members of the jury to remove themselves if they felt they could not serve impartially, she concluded with the following: "You may have noticed that there is a difference between the attorney for the opposing counsel and the attorney for my client. If you have not noticed the difference, would you please raise your hand? Because I don’t want you on the jury."
"They just thought that was a leg slapper," she said. "That just seemed to dissolve the situation."
Wunnicke came to Cheyenne as a bride in 1940 after earning her undergraduate degree from Stanford University, where she had met her husband, James Wunnicke. When he went away to serve in World War II, he encouraged her to go to law school in his absence. She attended the University of Colorado School of Law and in 1945 graduated at the top of her class. The following year she was admitted to the Wyoming State Bar, the 17th woman in the bar, but the state’s first female trial attorney.
During her 23 years of private practice in Cheyenne, Wunnicke handled cases in general corporate law, real estate, and oil and gas law. She made oral arguments before the Wyoming Supreme Court many times in cases ranging from murder convictions to real estate matters. Two of her Supreme Court victories were particularly significant because of their impact on Wyoming’s economy. The first was Rodin v. State, 417 P.2d 180 (1966), in which the court upheld the constitutionality of the advance escrow-type refunding statute.
"Yes, that was its awkward name — which did not come ‘trippingly on the tongue’ in oral argument!" Wunnicke said. "Actually, it was a good form of arbitrage that allowed public entities to refinance existing public securities on favorable terms."
The court also found in Wunnicke’s favor in Uhls v. State, 429 P.2d 74 (1967), when it ruled the industrial development revenue bond statute was constitutional and did not constitute the lending of public credit for a private purpose.
In 1969, after her husband’s retirement, the couple moved to Denver, where she joined Hall & Evans. She took a break from the firm — from 1973 to 1985 — to serve as Chief Appellate Deputy in the Denver District Attorney’s office under D.A. Dale Tooley, then returned to Hall & Evans.
Because of her fondness and aptitude for appellate work, Wunnicke hoped to one day earn a place on the Bench of an appellate court. She came close in 1978. She was unanimously certified for appointment to the Colorado Supreme Court by the nominating commission, but the governor interviewed the other two candidates (both men) and failed to even contact her.
"That was a lifelong dream," she said. "After more than 250 appeals at that point in the state supreme courts and Tenth Circuit Court. ... What do you do next? That was when I wrote my first book."
She was 67 years old when she wrote Ethics Compliance for Business Lawyers, the first of six books she has written or co-written.
"Maybe you’ll be blessed to go through life without a hitch. But probably not. You can let it take you down or you can take it and go on," Wunnicke said. "That was my preference. Never let yourself be hit down. Pick yourself up and say, ‘What can I do?’ A lot of people will read more of my books than any opinion."
For nearly 20 years, Wunnicke also taught night classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Denver College of Law. Her classes included Constitutional Law, Oil and Gas Law, Real Property and Future Interests.
"They pressured me to teach Future Interests until they found someone else. After 12 years, I quit teaching it," she said. "If I had a bad cold or had to be out of town, I could call one of my friends to take over my classes. But I never found one lawyer friend who would take my Future Interests class."
From 1979 until 2004, Wunnicke also taught CLE classes on ethics and appellate practices and procedures.
Her honors include the 1999 Potter Lifetime Professional Service Award; the 1999 Colorado Bar Association Award of Merit; the Denver Bar Association 2004 Award of Merit and the DU 2003 Law Star for excellence in teaching, among many others.
But her awards are not her greatest source of pride.
"I believe I have served the legal profession faithfully and I know always with integrity," she said, "and I am very proud of all the young ones I had the opportunity to mentor."
Through her teaching, in her years of practice, and in her current role at Hall & Evans, Wunnicke has mentored many younger attorneys. She estimates her "children," as she refers to them, number about 65. They include Colorado’s newly elected Governor Bill Ritter, who worked as an intern in the Denver District Attorney’s office during Wunnicke’s tenure there.
Now as Of Counsel at Hall & Evans, she comes into the office four days a week to advise and mentor younger associates.
"These young ones always are so polite," she said. "They always say, ‘Do you have a minute?’ I always have time. One of my favorite introductions is, ‘You’ve probably never heard of anything like this …’ and I always say, ‘Try me.’ Since human beings came out of the cave with clubs and animal skins for clothing, they’ve not changed much."
Though Wunnicke has seen many changes in the legal profession in her years of practice, not all are as obvious as the rise of women as jurors, attorneys and judges. She bemoans the granting to attorneys the right to advertise as detrimental to the profession.
"That marked the beginning of focus on the bottom line," she said. "I never heard the phrase ‘bottom line’ in connection with the legal profession in 23 years I practiced in Wyoming."
She also believes professional ethics and courtroom decorum have deteriorated over the years. Wunnicke travels to national seminars across the country to give lectures on professional ethics.
"The rules have proliferated, but I always say you can’t legislate ethics any more than you can morality," she said. "They keep imposing more and more rules in greater detail, and it is incumbent on lawyers to know them always. I say there is no basic change in the requirement for a lawyer to be ethical and have integrity."
"I know I should retire sometime," Wunnicke said, but added that she doesn’t see any reason why she should. She still keeps a busy schedule. The day of her Wyoming Lawyer interview, she was meeting with a law clerk who had failed the bar exam by two points to help him prepare his appeal. The following evening, she was scheduled to address a Colorado University School of Law reception for recipients of the Brooke Wunnicke scholarship and other scholarships and awards.
She still has connections to her home bar. Occasionally, when her colleagues have a case pertaining to Wyoming, she reads the file and signs documents. In one such instance not long ago, a clerk in Wyoming called Hall & Evans to question the validity of the attorney by the name of Brooke Wunnicke.
"She said anyone in the Wyoming Bar with that membership number is either no longer practicing or dead," Wunnicke said with a grin. "But I feel very much alive."
1. Although the country’s first women jurors served in Laramie in 1870, Wyoming judges barred women from jury duty the following year. They were not permitted to serve on juries until the passage of the Women Jury Law in 1949.