Last Word – Spring 2023

Photo of Elizabeth Gracie in office setting.
Elizabeth Gracie

Elizabeth Gracie ’83 dreamed of attending law school, all the while growing up in Wisconsin. Fast forward to 2023: Gracie has a prominent practice representing real estate developers, corporations and not-for-profit organizations in complex property tax matters in Chicago.

Her time at University of Wisconsin Law School kindled her love for UW and encouraged her impulse to serve others. Gracie recently stepped into the role of chair of UW Law’s Board of Visitors. We sat down with Gracie to discuss her life and experiences.

Can you give us a little background about your life before Law School?

Before Law School, I attended the usual succession of other schools. Academically, I was a bit of a late bloomer. I, first, excelled in athletics. Indeed, I credit the confidence I gained in sports for my subsequent successes in the classroom. For that reason, I strongly support extra/co-curricular activities to augment classroom education.

Another benefit of athletics was that it gave me an opportunity to compete with boys and men. Tennis was my favorite sport as a teenager, and I regularly picked up games with boys at the local courts.

In the early years after the enactment of Title IX in 1972, some schools attempted to comply with the new law by simply allowing women to try out for their only (i.e., men’s) teams. So, in 1977, I was the only woman on the tennis team at UW-Marathon County. I played the No. 4 position on the six-member team, went undefeated in meets and won a letter.

Why did you decide to go to law school?

In my family’s home, we watched the news together and had lively discussions of current events. I was captivated by politics at an early age. In my teens, I imagined becoming a U.S. senator. At that time—unlike now, regrettably—it was widely believed that a law degree was essential to lawmaking.

During the summer before my senior year in high school, I borrowed the UW Law School course catalog from the guidance office and poured over the offerings. While I appreciated my undergraduate education as an English major, I always viewed it as a stepping-stone to law school.

More specifically, why did you choose UW Law?

I grew up in Wisconsin when UW-Madison was a hotbed of student activism and I wanted to be a part of that. So, UW was the only school I considered as an undergrad. When I applied to law schools, I cast a slightly wider net and was accepted by two of the three schools to which I applied. The other school was ranked evenly with Wisconsin in the top 20 and offered a scholarship that would have evened out the cost.

Two deciding factors were: 1–Relative collegiality. Despite, or perhaps because of, my competitive nature, I was attracted to the relative collegiality of UW Law; I liked the fact that once you were admitted you were no longer competing for a seat in the class. I appreciated being placed in a small group with whom to bond over the intense experience of the first year. 2–Diploma privilege. I liked the idea that education at UW Law was freed from the constraints of bar exams. Even when I sat for the bar in Illinois, I felt superior to those who had been taught to take the test.

What is your favorite Law School memory?

It is very difficult to select one memory as my favorite, but a defining moment of my Law School education came in the second week of my first year. On that day in Torts, my number came up in Professor Komesar’s mythical ‘random number generator.’ For most of the class period, he led me through a Socratic exchange that was exhilarating. I left class walking on air and believing, ‘I can do this!’

How did your Law School education or experience shape your career?

I was an English major who ended up practicing state and local tax law. In between, to my great surprise, I discovered that I was energized by Tax I and, to a lesser degree, Tax II. I also had the opportunity to write an article for publication by the Tax Section of the Wisconsin Bar Association.

Professor Chuck Irish taught both classes and advised me on the article. Professor Irish was regarded as one of the most demanding and one of the most popular professors in the Law School at the time. That combination is a true gift to students. I certainly benefitted from being pushed further than I thought I could go while enjoying the process.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career thus far?

While my law practice has been very rewarding in itself, my law degree has given me a platform for broader civic involvement. My interest in politics has been fed by participation in women’s political organizations where I have been occasionally called upon as a spokesperson for the organization or for candidates.

I have served on and chaired the boards of a variety of not-for-profit organizations. The organization most closely linked to the legal profession is the [R. Sargent] Shriver Center on Poverty Law. I have been involved with the Shriver Center in one capacity or another since 1997 and cannot say enough about their work addressing issues associated with poverty at a systemic level nationwide.

Similarly, what’s been the biggest challenge(s)?

I believe all of us face the challenge of establishing ourselves in a way that is authentic to our personalities and abilities. I have watched men jockey for position as alpha in a variety of ways, none of which would have worked for me. I came to rely on my ability and eagerness to communicate and explain. Thinking about it, I suspect that my being a woman invited questions that may not have been asked of an alpha male. Once the questions begin and dialog is opened, genuine trust is established and productive collaboration occurs.

What’s something about yourself that always surprises people?

Whether or not it is a surprise, something I shamelessly bring up about myself is that I ski the Birkebeiner. The 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner is the largest cross-country ski marathon in North America. It attracts elite skiers from around the world and thousands of “citizen racers” like me. I skied my first Birkie in 2001 and have competed 12 races since then, most recently in 2021.

I credit Don Becker ’82 as my ski mentor and, with his wife Heidi, my regular ski companion. Don was racing when we were in law school and has completed 35+ Birkies. Recently, when Scott Williams ’88 joined the Board of Visitors, I quickly learned that, like Don, he has been a Birkie skier since before law school. Like law school, itself, skiing the Birkebeiner is an intense experience that creates bonds.

What book do you always seem to revisit, and which is currently on your nightstand?

I have become a fan of Thomas E. Ricks. Shortly after the 2020 election, I read “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.” Now, I am reading “Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968.” Mr. Ricks is writing to give us tools to defend democracy.

The fiction I am currently recommending is “One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow” by Olivia Hawker. It’s promotional squib accurately describes it as “a powerful and poetic novel of survival and sacrifice on the American frontier.”

Finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a Badger?

It’s always fun when Wisconsin teams win in NCAA tournament competition and don’t get me started talking about the Badger Band. But, I am proudest of the Wisconsin Idea, the cutting-edge research and scholarship across all disciplines of the University and its accomplished alumni.

I read the Gargoyle, On Wisconsin and Letters & Science cover to cover because I love learning about the many contributions made by past and present Badgers and by the University itself. My friends and family will tell you that I am always noting that some societal benefit, e.g., the Law School’s State Democracy Research Initiative, is an example of the Wisconsin Idea or that some respected individual, e.g., Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield, is a Badger.

Interview by Jini Jasti ’04