After graduating from George Washington University’s law school in 1948, Ms. Thompson became one of the first female lawyers in Arlington. She made a short-lived bid for the General Assembly in 1957 as a virulently pro-segregationist candidate but in later decades reversed herself as “very open-minded” on equal rights. Her continuing ties to state political leaders brought considerable influence as her stature rose in legal circles.
Ms. Thompson, once dubbed the “queen of divorce court” by an admiring peer, was initially a trial lawyer who litigated civil and criminal cases. She developed a speciality in domestic relations law in the 1960s as demand grew amid the increasing social tolerance for divorce.
Divorce law proved immensely profitable to Ms. Thompson, who was not shy about flaunting her expensive tastes in designer clothes, wine, art and jewelry. As she became known as one of the most effective (and priciest) divorce lawyers in the area, she was outspokenly critical about ephemeral matrimony (“Marriages today are not for keeps — everything’s throwaway.”) and the desire among divorcing parties for revenge instead of legal resolution.
“There are times, in a settlement meeting, when a client wants the last $1,000 of a $2 million settlement,” she told the Ten Leaders Cooperative, an association for professionals. “And I’ll ask, ‘Does it really matter?’ ”
Ms. Thompson was described as meticulous and exceptionally well prepared at trial or (more often) settlement. She was also coolheaded and tough-skinned — necessary traits to practice divorce law in a region known for its unsettling mixture of power, ego and media glare.
She was the first woman to lead the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and the Arlington County Bar Association, and she helped open such networking groups to women.
She often had to tolerate an old guard that, according to friends, tried to test her tolerance for crass humor. She never flinched. “You have to never forget that you are feminine and a lady,” she told The Washington Post in 1981, “but at the same time when you’re in your role as a lawyer, it has nothing to do with sex.”
Joanne F. Alper, 62, a retired judge on the Arlington County Circuit Court, was early in her career a courtroom nemesis of Ms. Thomson’s. “What was remarkable about Betty was she could be your opponent in a case, but she could also be your mentor,” Alper said, adding that her friend would represent a client to her fullest and fiercest, then go out afterward and advise a younger lawyer on how to be more successful next time.
Ms. Thompson presided over the era in which family law practitioners had to become far more sophisticated about tax law, real estate law, corporate law, custody law and trust law. Estates — even among those who were not wealthy — became increasingly tangled.