Lydia Sartain has notched a few “firsts” in her career.
She was the first member from her extended family in the Blairsville area to become a lawyer.
“At the time, I only wanted a law degree, so I could work in government as a congressional aide or something like that,” she said from the newly founded Law Office of Lydia J. Sartain in Gainesville. “I never intended to be a litigator — and of course I ended up being a litigator.”
In her sophomore year at Young Harris College, she worked for Georgia Legislature Speaker of the House Tom Murphy. She wanted to be a doorkeeper but learned women weren’t allowed for that job. Instead, she was offered a job in the stenographers pool. Only, she didn’t know how to type. Finally, she got to work on the page desk.
“They said they generally didn’t allow young women, but they would make an exception,” she recalled.
Sartain, ’84, continued to be an exception. At Mercer Law School, she served on the honor court, and when election for president of the Student Bar Association approached in 1983, she threw her name in.
Her main opponent had worked for Rosalyn Carter in the White House; she didn’t think she stood a chance against him. Yet she won.
“Then I found out there hadn’t been any women in the position before,” she said.
That was a surprise.
More of those “firsts” were to come. Two years out of law school, she was encouraged, as an associate with Mercer alumnus Nathan Deal, ’66, and his partner Tom Gerard, to campaign for solicitor for the State Court of Hall County.
“I said, ‘I think I’ll call the other women prosecuting counsels and see how their campaigns went,’” she recalled.
That’s when she learned there had never been a full-time elected female solicitor in Gainesville.
Like her belated discovery that she was the first female SBA president at Mercer, “Again, that was most surprising to me,” she said. “It never occurred to me that there had never been another woman in the job. This was 1986! And Nathan said, ‘Maybe we better not say anything about that.’”
She was 26. The man opposing her was 30 years older. Explaining her victory, she said, “I ran on experience. I had twice as much as he had.”
Elected twice to be solicitor, Sartain was then tapped by Gov. Zell Miller to be director of Georgia’s Children and Youth Coordinating Council, monitoring statewide facilities that held juveniles. The welfare of children has always been important to Sartain, and in her new, namesake practice, her main focus is family law and mediation.
In 1993, Miller appointed her district attorney of the Georgia Northeastern Judicial Circuit, where she served for nine years. After that she was a longtime partner at Stewart, Melvin & Frost. In 2018, Sartain and her husband Phillip, also an attorney who retired in 2016, established an endowment at Brenau University to create programs addressing social justice issues and practice.
Among Sartain’s memorable cases were Gwinnett County’s “runaway bride,” then another memorable non-newlywed, the so-called “jilted bride.” The latter, Gainesville resident RoseMary Shell, sued her fiancé for breach of contract when he canceled the wedding. Sartain scored a $150,000 award for her client from a Hall County jury and was invited with Shell and her own three daughters to appear on the “Today” show to discuss the case.
Though the girls thought it was cool that their mom was on TV, they seemed more interested in the live Miley Cyrus concert attached to that day’s broadcast.
Sartain’s youngest, Susanna, will graduate this year with an arts management degree from the College of Charleston. The eldest, Callie, attended Mercer University undergrad, earned a master’s at Wake Forest and plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Chicago, focusing on communications and health care. And middle-daughter Carey, a double-Bear, is a member of Mercer Law School’s class of 2021.
Looking back at her own days as a law student, Sartain said, “It was of course very rigorous, but the students could talk to the professors.”
“I made lots of really good friends at the Law School, and even now, 35 years later, the Mercerians will reach out to each other. It’s such a delight.”