When I was a child, I used to look at the pictures of local attorneys in the Waukesha County Bar Association on the wall of my father’s and grandfather’s law office. One attorney stood out to me among all the others: a woman named Lois Kuenzli Collins. She was the only woman in the bar photos from my grandfather’s era. I wondered who she was and what motivated her to become a lawyer.
Collins practiced with her husband, Vincent Collins, in Waukesha in the mid-1900s. She was one of the first women to practice law in Wisconsin. Recently I had the chance to speak with Collins’ daughter, Patricia Andringa, about her mother’s work and life as an early woman lawyer in Wisconsin.
Collins graduated from Waukesha High School in three years in 1923. She attended Marquette University and graduated in four years in 1927 with both an undergraduate and law degree. She met her husband while at Marquette, and they graduated together.
Collins’ grandfather encouraged her to attend law school. He told her that he felt she was bright enough to go to law school, and that if she went, he would reward her when she graduated. At Marquette, she was a member of an honor society and played tennis. She was twenty-one when she graduated. She was the sixty-sixth woman lawyer in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Bar Association’s “Pioneers in the Law: The First 150 Women” website. The Collinses graduated with Mabel Watson Raimey, the first African-American woman lawyer in Wisconsin.
At the time the Collinses graduated from Marquette, most students graduated with an LL.B. degree. In the late 1960s, the LL.B. degree was reclassified as a J.D. The Law School sent Lois Collins her J.D. paper, which the family still has. When the family learned that her degree had been reclassified as a J.D., they celebrated with a cake topped with Lois Collins’ Marquette graduation photo. The family also still keeps Lois Collins’ notary seal.
After graduating, Lois and Vincent Collins married on August 28, 1930. Lois Collins worked for a time in Waukesha as an assistant city treasurer.
Vincent Collins established his reputation in Waukesha as the city attorney from 1932 to 1938. He entered private practice with his wife as Collins and Collins in 1933. Lois Collins was the second named partner in the firm. The firm later became Collins, Collins, and Tichenor when Paul Tichenor, another Marquette graduate, joined the firm. Consistent with the time, the firm was a general practice law office.
Andringa said that her parents spent time each night discussing cases and other legal matters. Although Lois Collins did not practice law full time while she raised her family of seven children, she had an integral role in her husband’s practice as a sounding board and strategist. When the children were around, the Collinses were careful to go into another room to discuss legal matters. She also drafted documents such as deeds, some of which my father has come across in his own practice.
Lois Collins was raised a Methodist, but she converted to Catholicism when she married her husband, who was Catholic. She was active in Catholic social and philanthropic circles throughout her life. She was the president of the Christian Mothers of Joseph’s Church in Waukesha and the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Catholic Women. She was one of the prime motivators in establishing Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha and raising capital for the school. Andringa remembers the fundraisers her mother and other local women put together for the school, including making and selling rag dolls. Her mother spent much time on the phone soliciting funds for the school.
Andringa said that growing up in the Collins family, she and her siblings “never gave the idea of women’s rights any thought.” They were raised to think that they “could be anything and never given the impression that it would be otherwise.” Andringa said that her “mother could do anything and was always ready for a challenge.”
The Collins’ legacy lives on. Son James Collins and grandsons Tim Andringa and Mark Andringa followed in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps in attending Marquette University Law School.
*Thanks to Assistant Dean Jane Casper who located the wonderful photos of the Collinses and to Professor Gordon Hylton who explained the J.D. reclassification to me. I am also grateful to the Waukesha City Attorney’s Office staff, who verified Vincent Collins’ years of service.