Shortly before she graduated from Yale Law School in 1951, Patricia Wald secured a job interview with a white-shoe Manhattan firm. The hiring partner was impressed with her credentials — she was one of two women on the law review — but lamented her timing.

“It’s really a shame,” she recalled the man saying. “If only you could have been here last week.” A woman had been hired then, she was told, and it would be a long time before the firm considered bringing another on board.

Gradually, working nights and weekends while raising five children, she built a career in Washington as an authority on bail reform and family law. Working for a pro bono legal services group and an early public-interest law firm, she won cases that broadened protections for society’s most vulnerable, including indigent women and children with special needs.

She became an assistant attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, who in 1979 appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — often described as the country’s most important bench after the U.S. Supreme Court. Later, she was a member of the United Nations tribunal on war crimes and genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

Wald, whom Barack Obama called “one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation” when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, died Jan. 12 at her home in Washington. She was 90.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said a son, Douglas Wald.