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WJA 2020: Cecilia Abbott, City of Kansas City (retired)

In her 30 years working for Kansas City, recently retired City Attorney Cecilia Abbott has compiled an impressive list of career highlights, not the least of which has been a persistent push to help other women succeed in the city’s law department.

When Abbott was hired in 1990 as an assistant city attorney out of UMKC Law School, she said almost everyone she worked with was male. Now, more than half of the attorneys in the city’s law department are women, leading one nominator who called Abbott a “champion for women in the law” to write, “That represents sea change.”

Cecilia Abbott


Of course, getting to that point wasn’t easy, especially early in her career, when few workplaces were open to helping parents balance their work and home schedules.

“When my kids were young, it was tough finding the right balance between work and home,” Abbott said. “It felt like I needed to be the perfect mother and be at every school function, but it also felt like I had to work a ton of hours and be the best attorney I could, and I finally realized my husband was fully capable of handling the kids when I was not able to be there.

“Letting go, and being able to take a break once in a while made a huge difference for me.”

Abbott was promoted five times, eventually becoming City Attorney in 2017 before retiring at the end of April. Along the way, she paired strong performances in the courtroom with a strong drive to make her workplace more diverse.

In the courtroom, Abbott has been involved in several high-profile cases.

Among them: She successfully defended the city in arbitration about retroactive pension credit, saving the city more than $30 million. She was also part of a team that spent five years negotiating the $2.4 billion sewer outflow consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, and in 2014, she represented the city as a sympathetic defendant in a lawsuit filed to compel the state to recognize out-of-state gay marriages.

Out of the courtroom, Abbott’s accomplishments also shine. She became the first public-sector lawyer to chair The Missouri Bar Young Lawyers Section and to chair the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Centurions Steering Committee.

Abbott also played a key role in a 2014 city initiative to help the city become a more inclusive, diverse place to work and drove Kansas City to become one of the first cities in the country to offer paid family leave to employees. As city attorney, Abbott also formed the law department’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

“When I became city attorney, I had to hire a deputy city attorney, and the city prosecutor retired shortly afterward,” she said. “In each instance, I hired the best qualified attorney, and in each instance, it was a woman.”

After notching numerous victories in and out of the courtroom, Abbott said she’s looking forward to simply relaxing and not having any commitments for a while, though eventually she’ll probably look into volunteering.

“Being appointed city attorney is an awesome way to end my legal career,” Abbott said. “I have loved working for the city. I’ve had the kind of job where I’m eager to get out of bed and come to work, and not a lot of people can say that.”

2020 Women's Justice Awards