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Sheila K. Sachs, pioneering Baltimore attorney and influential city school board member, dies

Sheila K. Sachs, an attorney who handled the divorces of prominent local figures and sat on the Baltimore City School Board, died of cancer Sunday at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Village of Cross Keys resident was 78.

“Sheila was a trailblazer for the gender equality in the legal profession that we take for granted today,” said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Rego Park in Queens, she was the daughter of Fay and Alexander Kleinman. She was a graduate of Forest Hills High School and attended Vassar College. After marrying Stephen H. Sachs, who later became U.S. attorney for Maryland as well as the state’s attorney general, she moved to Baltimore and completed her undergraduate studies at Goucher College.

“As a newlywed, Sachs asked so many questions about her husband’s work as a law clerk that he finally suggested she go to law school. She earned her law degree in 1964 [at the University of Maryland] and, one year later, passed the board — 10 days before she had the first of the couple’s two children,” a 2016 Goucher College article said.

In the 1970s she joined a law firm, Royston, Mueller & McClean. She was president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association and was an advocate for Falstaff Middle School. She also sat on a Baltimore City School Desegregation Task Force.

In 1974, Mayor William Donald Schaefer named her to the Baltimore City School Board. She pushed to make Baltimore Polytechnic Institute coed. She was also an opponent of then-superintendent Roland N. Patterson. A Sun story written that year noted her success on the school board and described her as its “most powerful member.”

“Time and time again, the deceptively soft-spoken mother of two has shown her knack at behind the scenes maneuvering and formulating resolutions that get the majority of votes on the board,” a 1974 Sun story said.

When her husband was elected Maryland attorney general in 1978, she stepped down from the school board because she thought it might pose a conflict of interest.

She went on to be among the first women to make partner at a large law firm in downtown Baltimore. She joined Gordon Feinblatt & Rothman in 1977 and later became a partner. She worked in family law, and among her clients was the family of novelist Tom Clancy.

“In fact, Sheila never rested on her laurels, she was always continuing to learn, and continuing to serve. She was quite simply the best divorce lawyer in town, and everyone knew it,” said Barry F. Rosen, chair of Gordon Feinblatt LLC. “Her opponents respected her, and her clients loved her. Sheila was a pioneer in the field of family law, and a pioneer for women lawyers.”

In a 2013 Sun story, Ms. Sachs spoke about how women were being named to important Maryland judicial posts and discussed her role a past chair of the state appellate nominating commission.

"That's the progress that's been made: Enough women have had the opportunity to prove themselves, " she said. "I graduated law school when no woman had been hired by a major law firm in Baltimore, Decades afterward, [women] began to come out of law school in greater numbers, they proved themselves, and now you're seeing the result of that. ... It's all a recent phenomenon. Thank God, it's happening."

Those who once worked alongside Ms. Sachs recalled her role as a mentor.

“She broke barriers for women without apology,” said Alicia Wilson, an attorney with Port Covington Development. “She helped me to understand what it is to be a lawyer and a civic leader as well. There wasn’t a day when she wouldn’t come into my office and build me up. She told me, ‘Even if you were a lone voice in a room, it matters.’ She guided me with a loving and firm hand.”

She had served on the boards of Goucher and Haverford colleges.

In 2012 her law firm announced that she was named by the Best Lawyers in America as the Baltimore Family Law Mediation Lawyer of the Year. In 2015 the Women’s Bar Association gave her its Rita C. Davidson Award. She is a past president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City.

At a Women’s History Month talk at her law firm, she answered a question about a time when she almost gave up law.

“About four years after I came to Gordon Feinblatt … I felt that the practice, and particularly the stress and demands of trying cases, was overwhelming,” Ms. Sachs said. “I still had two teenagers at home at that time, and a husband in public life. I considered getting out of the practice of law. I stuck it out, and learned how to put all the energy I needed into the cases, but not make them the exclusive controlling factor in my life. Family came first.”

Survivors include her husband of 58 years; a daughter, Elisabeth Sachs of Baltimore; a son, Leon Sachs II of Lexington, Ky.; a brother, Theodore Kleinman of Washington, D.C.; and three grandchildren.

Funeral services are private.

Friends may call at 5 Roland Mews on Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. A memorial life celebration will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 22 at Westminster Hall, 519 W. Fayette St. in downtown Baltimore.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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