Patricia Herzog, a self-taught lawyer who helped change California divorce law in 1985 by arguing that a wife who put her husband through medical school deserved to share in his future earnings after they divorced, has died. She was 88.

Herzog died Oct. 1 at her home in Corona del Mar after a lengthy illness, her family said.

When she presented the landmark case before the state Supreme Court in 1982, the issue was whether an education, like a house, could be counted as community property.

The very notion "blew everybody's mind," Herzog told The Times in 1994, the year she retired.

She came up with the concept while handling the divorce of Janet Sullivan, an accountant, from her husband, Mark, a Laguna Hills physician who had just completed medical school. Herzog saw his medical degree as a "joint investment of time and effort" by the couple, she said in a 1982 Times article.

While the state high court deliberated the highly publicized case for more than two years, the state Legislature passed the so-called Sullivan Law, which became effective in early 1985.

The court ordered the case resolved under the new law, which allowed for a spouse to be reimbursed for money spent on education that enhanced the other spouse's earning power. If Mark Sullivan's education had been considered community property, the case probably would have settled for far more than it did.

Still, Herzog was not completely disappointed by her partial victory.

"I felt that half a loaf was better than none," she told The Times in 1986.

Since hanging out her shingle in the late 1950s as the Orange County Legal Aid Society's first lawyer, Herzog had prided herself on often representing the underdog.

It was a philosophy befitting a woman who studied law through a correspondence course that she found advertised on a matchbook cover.

When she realized that the mail-order classes through Chicago's La Salle Extension University would not adequately prepare her, she crammed for the state bar exam with lawyer friends and attended law review classes at USC.

She was born July 27, 1922, in Yokohama, Japan, to banker Leo Chamberlain and his schoolteacher wife, Eleanor, and spent her first decade in Japan and China.

After living with her grandparents in Michigan, Herzog attended Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a degree in economics from the University of Texas.

During World War II, she helped build planes for the military in Long Beach and later worked as a reporter for the Orange County Register and other publications.

In the 1950s, she moved to Santa Ana with her first husband, Charles Herzog, a Marine who was stationed at El Toro.

Soon after she opened her own practice in 1960, they divorced and she took her two sons on a three-month bicycle trip through Europe.

Back home, she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for state Senate in 1964. During the campaign she met Haskell Shapiro, a widower with two children.

In 1964, Herzog married Shapiro, an electrical engineer, and they had a son the next year. The couple bought a large home in Corona del Mar within walking distance of her work, to accommodate what she called their "yours, mine and ours" family. Professionally, she continued to use the name Herzog.

The majority of her legal cases were domestic and many of her clients were women.

When a reporter asked in 1989 if she was a feminist, Herzog answered with an incredulous, "What else can you be?"

She was an articulate storyteller and pianist who played well enough by ear to think nothing of performing impromptu in public, said Nancy Bunn, a close friend and law colleague.

"Pat liked a lot of things in life, but she really loved the law," Bunn said. "She thought justice ought to be done and she got very upset when it was not."

Herzog's husband of 44 years died in 2009.

She is survived by three children, Charlie Herzog, Chris Herzog and Reid Shapiro; two stepchildren, Lynn Shapiro and Paul Shapiro; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A celebration of her life is being planned.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com