When she was a top litigator at Howard Rice in San Francisco, Therese Stewart was taking home around $500,000. Now she’s taken a big pay drop and leads one of the most talented City litigation departments in America. And she’s also leading the battle for same-sex marriages.

Therese Stewart didn’t set out to be a partner at a law firm. Academics or public interest, that seemed more her style when she graduated from University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1981. But she liked working at the intellectually oriented Howard Rice and “fell in love with trial practice,” she says. Partner Kenneth Hausman, who worked closely with Stewart, says she is “unique in how smart she is,” and says he hopes someday to see her on the Supreme Court — state or federal. Stewart downplays her talents. “I’m not really bright by nature,” insists Stewart. “The way I have done well is digging and pushing and working hard.”

To build her own practice, Stewart put herself out there in every conceivable way. In 1999 she was elected president of the Bar Association of San Francisco (the first openly gay person in the post), which raised her profile and helped her attract some clients. At Howard Rice she was bringing in around $1.5 million a year of business.

But to have any power, she knew she’d have to move up to the $5 million to 10 million rainmaker level. “I’m not good at not having any power or voice,” she says. She didn’t doubt she could generate more business, but it would require hard trade-offs. “[The big rainmakers] didn’t get to use their lawyering skills,” she says. “They were keeping people happy, managing, supervising, constantly worrying.”

When the newly elected Herrera asked her to head his office’s litigation unit, she took a pay cut from roughly $500,000 to $176,000, higher, though, than Herrera’s salary. Four associates followed her from Howard Rice to city hall.

The San Francisco city attorney’s office, previously headed for 15 years by Louise Renne, is one of the most aggressive and talented city law departments in the nation.

San Francisco was the first government entity to sue the tobacco industry, and the defendants ended up paying $12 billion to California cities and the state. More recently the city took aim at the gun industry, but that suit fizzled into a meager financial settlement, although gun dealers agreed to some restrictions. Herrera has continued the tradition of raiding big firms for talent. The office has at least 20 lawyers from such firms as Keker & Van Nest and Morrison & Foerster.

Leading a battle for same-sex marriage wasn’t on Stewart’s agenda when she came to city hall. Over the years Stewart had pushed for the acceptance of gays and lesbians and their relationships, but marriage seemed out of reach.

“There was a point in time 10 years ago, even five years ago, when I didn’t think we’d see same-sex marriage in my lifetime,” says Stewart, sitting in her city hall office by a photograph of her commanding a dogsled in Alaska. “When Bowers came out — ugh,” she says, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. “That the Supreme Court could issue such an angry, hateful opinion.” There, a 5-to-4 Court upheld a Georgia law criminalizing consensual sodomy. Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a concurrence, cited authority from 1803 that labeled sodomy “a heinous act ‘the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature. ”

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