Most Americans probably best remember the miniskirts she wore, but Jill Volner impressed Washington observers as the only woman trial attorney on the Special Watergate prosecutor’s staff and a courtroom examiner of considerable skill. Among others, Rose Mary Woods and Jeb Magruder squirmed in the witness chair under Volner’s incisive questioning.
She is still ebullient when she talks about the government’s Watergate victories. “It was a fantastic experience. I worked with marvelous lawyers on both sides and learned a lot.”
At 32, she had learned enough to become a valuable commodity. Not long after the trial ended, ABC television offered her a tempting job as an on-camera reporter. “They offered me everything I wanted,” says Volner, whose Justice Department salary was $30,000 a year. “Covering the Supreme Court, Justice Department, trials of national significance, investigative reporting on any subject I chose.”
She took a screen test (“At first I looked like a 16-year-old kid doing an imitation of a TV commentator”) and pondered. Her decision was complicated by an offer from Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Kampelman, the law firm which lists Sargent Shriver as a partner. In the end, Volner decided to stick with law. “It really was a tough decision,” she says, “but I would rather be making policy than making commentary about it. I decided I would rather be Carla Hills than Barbara Walters.”
In August Jill Volner will begin her new job as an associate in the Shriver firm, handling mostly civil cases at an estimated salary of $50,000 or more. The firm’s headquarters is in the Watergate complex—”the ultimate irony,” she says.
Volner grew up in Chicago (her maiden name is Wine) and went to the University of Illinois. She was studying to teach the mentally retarded until one day she heard a speech by TV journalist Nancy Dickerson. “I thought, here’s a very successful career woman,” says Volner. “If she can do it, so can I.” Volner switched to journalism but, after graduating, ran into obstacles. “Newspaper editors didn’t want women as political reporters,” she says. “So I thought, what can I do to enhance my chances? I decided to go to law school.”
She ended up on the Dean’s list at Columbia Law School. She also got married to another law student, Ian Volner from New York, who says of her: “She doesn’t have a temper, but she is strong-willed.” The Volners moved to Washington in 1969 and Jill began her law career as the first woman prosecutor in the Justice Department’s organized crime section. She was so impressive as the government’s lawyer during a trial in Alaska that two admirers in the courtroom presented her with moose steak and caribou sausage to take back to Washington.
Jill and Ian, a lawyer who specializes in litigation involving radio, TV and newspapers, live in a traditionally furnished row house in northwest Washington. One unhappy result of her fame during the Watergate trial is that they were burgled twice. As for Watergate itself: “I think it did prove that the system works, but it also showed the dangers in the system and how vigilant we must be. As a private citizen, I’m surprised Nixon didn’t burn the tapes because he probably could have gotten away with it if he’d done it right away.”
Volner will commute to New York one day a week to teach trial practice at Columbia. Her ambition for the moment is “to be a damned good lawyer and do a good job for my clients.” She would consider returning someday to government service “in basic policy making.” Does she ever think about being a Supreme Court justice? She laughs. “Given the choice, I might pick attorney general first.”