Brenda S. Furlow is leading the legal fight for credit unions that want to serve employees at more than one company.
The Credit Union National Association's deputy general counsel is in many ways perfect for the job.
She has held an account at a credit union since she was in junior high school, when she joined Navy Federal Credit Union as the daughter of a military officer.
"I always remember my folks saying this is a great benefit and I should hold onto the account," Ms. Furlow says.
A litigator by training, Ms. Furlow spent most of her career resolving employment discrimination cases at the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal.
Looking for a better environment in which to raise her two children, she left the firm in 1993 and moved to Madison, Wis. She came across CUNA by chance, spotting a help-wanted advertisement in the local paper.
Although hired mainly to oversee contracts and handle employment disputes, she has spent most of the last year working on the AT&T Family Federal Credit Union case, which brings her to Washington about once a week. (She turned down a chance this spring to become general counsel because the trade group moved the job to Washington.)
CUNA suffered a big defeat in the AT&T Family case in July 1996 when the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that all members of a credit union must share a single common bond. CUNA and the government appealed to the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Oct. 6. A decision is expected in early winter.
The decision could determine the fate of thousands of large occupation- based credit unions. If the industry loses, credit unions with members from many different types of companies could be dismantled. Or credit unions might be forced to seek a political solution in Congress, which could jeopardize the industry's tax-exempt status. A victory, however, would clear the way for even more expansion.
CUNA officials praised Ms. Furlow's work. "She is doing a phenomenal job," said the group's president, Daniel Mica. "She has risen to the occasion. She is a tremendous asset to the organization."