In 1989, Professor Larry Levine remembers teaching a remarkably bright class of first-year evening students. He fondly recalls that Elizabeth “Beth” O’Neill was one of the brightest among them.
The Class of 1993 at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law was taught by a group of young, untenured professors who became legendary faculty, including Professor Emerita Julie Davies and Professor Levine, who now serves as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“We had so much fun with this extraordinary class,” Levine recalls. “Everyone had a different background, and though they did not all share the same worldview, they got along incredibly well. Like Beth, many of her class members were larger than life. And everyone admired Beth. She was not a show-off; she was just so smart.”
O’Neill attended McGeorge School of Law from 1989 to 1991, and transferred after her second year of law school. While working weekends at the Nevada City Children’s Home, O’Neill excelled in law school. Her accolades are many. She earned the top grade in nearly all her classes, competed on the international moot court team, and was a research assistant for both Levine and Davies.
Former classmate, coworker, and longtime friend Anne Schmitz, ‘93, remembers the way O’Neill’s intellect shone in the classroom.
“Beth was always prepared for class, but she would not necessarily raise her hand — although, she probably could have answered every single question. When she did raise her hand, you just knew the right answer was going to come out,” Schmitz recalls. “Everyone respected her tremendously and wanted to hear what she was going to say as the answer to the question.”
Schmitz says that as the top student, O’Neill set the tone for the rest of the evening section.
“Even in a competitive environment like law school, Beth was always willing to help her classmates,” Schmitz said. “When you have someone like her as the highest ranked student in your class, everyone else feels embarrassed about not helping others.”
The bar exam pass rates for the Class of 1993 speak for themselves. For the first time in McGeorge’s history, the evening section outperformed the day section. In a section of 68 students, only two did not pass during their first time sitting for the bar exam.
“I think that Beth is actually part of why our class did so well,” Schmitz remarked. “She already set this spirit.”
O’Neill returned to McGeorge School of Law to teach legal research and writing in 1996.
“She was a tough, tough teacher on her students because she had very high expectations regarding the English language,” Levine said.
O’Neill also went on to become an accomplished healthcare lawyer. A gifted orator and writer, O’Neill was recognized by colleagues and clients alike for her ability to explain complex legal issues clearly and precisely. She enjoyed the intellectual rigor of analyzing complex legal issues.
Levine and Schmitz warmly remember how O’Neill maintained her authenticity in the workplace.
“When we were first practicing, there was a good chance that when you went to court, you would be the only woman in the whole courtroom,” Schmitz explains. “The partners always wanted you to wear a skirt suit. So, Beth used a vacant office as her dressing room and kept her suits in there. She would wear her jeans until the very last minute when she had to go to court.”
“Beth did not conform. They had to conform to her,” Levine chuckled. “And her work was so exceptional, that they did.”
In 2020, O’Neill’s loved ones and the Sacramento legal community suffered a terrible loss when she passed away after a short battle with cancer.
Yet, even after O’Neill’s passing, her legacy lives on through her contribution to the Jeffrey K. Poilé LGBTQ+ Civil Rights Memorial Scholarship, which benefits law students who are committed to using their legal education to extend and protect the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
The Poilé Scholarship is named in honor of Levine’s life partner, who passed away in 1992, while Levine was teaching O’Neill’s class. The law school has raised more than $1,100,000 for this endowment since its creation 20 years ago.
As an openly lesbian woman, the scholarship was close to O’Neill’s heart during her lifetime.
“Beth supported the scholarship, unwaveringly,” Levine remarked. “She attended events and gave financial support even before her passing.”
Posthumously, the scholarship fund continues to benefit from O’Neill’s generosity, as a beneficiary to her retirement account.
O’Neill’s contribution is of no surprise to Schmitz.
“Beth was an advocate in her heart for all the underdogs everywhere,” Schmitz said.
O’Neill was a model student and lawyer. Her continued support of the Poilé Scholarship will impact the lives of students for generations to come.
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