“The court deliberated over her case three days, a woman applicant for admission being something new to them.”
— Tiffin Tribune
Sept. 19, 1878
“Both being lawyers of good standing in the bar, we can rest assured that the consolidation of interests is legal in all its forms.”
— Tiffin Tribune
Aug. 27, 1874
Annette Staub was born in 1843 in the tiny Seneca County town of Republic. Her parents divorced when she was still a child and her mother moved her and her sister to live with their maternal grandparents in Tiffin.
It was there that ‘Nettie’ acquired two things — her grandfather’s last name ‘Cronise’ and his love for the law. Grandpa was a judge, you see, and after Nettie attended Heidelberg College, she returned home to apprentice in the law.
In 1873 she felt she was ready and so appeared before the judges of Seneca, County asking that they admit her to practice law. These were the days before lawyers attended formal law schools and long before there was a formal exam to be licensed state wide.
If a lawyer wanted to practice, he had to go before the judges and get their permission to pass the wooden rail that separated the spectators from the attorneys — to literally “pass the bar.”
According to documents held at the Rutherford Hayes Presidential Library, several of the senior members of the Seneca County Bar offered to go with Nettie, or at least to write her letters of recommendation. She declined their offers and instead went alone to the courthouse to make her case. It would be another half century before women in Ohio would have the right to vote, but on that spring day, Nettie struck a blow for equality in the legal profession.
On April 10, 1873, the Tiffin Tribune reported, “Nettie Cronise, who has been studying law in this city for some time, was admitted to the bar last Friday by the District Court. We shall watch, with a considerable amount of interest to see her go up the stairs where there is said always to be room for young lawyers.” The Toledo Blade said that she was, “the pioneer female lawyer in Ohio, if we are not mistaken”.
She wouldn’t be the only female lawyer in the state for long. Just six months later her sister Florence was admitted as well and the two joined together in a law firm. They remained in practice together even after Nettie fell in love with a fellow Tiffin attorney, Nelson Lutes. Nettie and Nelson were married in August of 1874 and again, the Tiffin Tribune had a snappy update for their readers. On August 27th of that year, the Tribune wrote:
“Monday night N.B. Lutes, of the firm of Noble & Lutes, and Miss Nettie Cronise, of the firm of N. & F. Cronise, took each the one for better or worse, and were joined in the holy bonds of matrimony. Both being lawyers of good standing at the bar we can rest assured that the consolidation of interests is legal in all its forms and we hope their life may prove a happy one.
We might further wish that Mr. Lutes have plenty of good, fat clients and that Mrs. Lutes be blessed with a fair proportion of little fat clients, but perhaps it would be improper, and so we won’t.”
Nettie maintained her private practice with her sister until 1880 when Nelson’s hearing began to fail and she joined his firm in order to assist him. Contemporary news reports say that they were a formidable duo and that once he became nearly completely deaf, she would sit next to him and repeat everything said in court through an early form of sign language- making her one of the first interpreters in Ohio court history as well.
They continued a highly successful law practice until Nelson’s death in 1900. Five years after Nelson’s death, their daughter Evlyn joined her mother- the first mother/daughter law practice in the United States.
Nettie passed away in 1923 at the age of 80, but she is remembered today with a historical marker in Tiffin and by the Nettie Cronise Lutes Award, given annually by the Ohio State Bar Association to a female lawyer who has “improved the legal profession through her own high level of professionalism and who has opened doors for other women and girls.”
The award will be given at the All-Ohio Legal Forum to be held next month.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.