Farewell to Roberta Karmel


We lost one of the all-time greats recently – the first female SEC Commissioner Roberta Karmel. A decade ago, I asked Roberta to recap her career for an article to be shared at the first “Women’s 100 Conference” – and Roberta wrote this for a special supplement for the March – April 2014 issue of “The Corporate Counsel“:

A Fine Career: Becoming a Lawyer

By Roberta Karmel, Centennial Professor, Brooklyn Law School and the first female SEC Commissioner

I was married after my sophomore year of college, and after I graduated I thought I would like to work for a few years before having a family. I discovered that I was not prepared for a good job in the working world, so I considered whether to go on to graduate school and become a professor, to go to business school or to go to law school. Although my senior thesis adviser suggested graduate school, getting a PhD seemed too open ended in terms of the number of years this degree might take.

My father was a lawyer and so I thought this might be a good career for me also, and I could count on only a three year commitment to more schooling. So I decided that I would take the LSATs and if I did well I would apply to law school and if I was able to get a scholarship I would go to law school. This was a fairly arbitrary set of decisions, and most married women at that time (1959) became housewives and mothers, but my husband encouraged me to go to law school and I did.

My decision to become a lawyer was fortunate because I loved law school and I have had a wonderful career. I went to New York University School of Law and only about 4% of my law school class was female. It was very difficult to get a job after law school even though I graduated near the top of the class and I was on law review and moot court and one of two students who started the Annual Survey of American Law.

Nevertheless, I was admitted to the honors program at the Securities & Exchange Commission and began working as an attorney in the New York Regional Office. I stayed there for seven years and was promoted up the line to Attorney Branch Chief and then Assistant Regional Administrator. One of the old time supervisors in the office once told me that I was hired over his objection (this being before the Civil Rights Act) but I had worked out okay. I was considered by my colleagues as “one of the boys.” How this could be – or what that really meant – I cannot explain since I had three children while I was working in that office and was almost continuously pregnant.

In 1969, I left the SEC to become an associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher. I worked on some very exciting transactions, including the acquisition of Hayden Stone & Co., an old line brokerage firm by CBWL, an upstart firm, which included among its partners Arthur Levitt, who later became Chairman of the SEC, and Sandy Weill, who later became CEO of Citibank. I had my fourth child while I was an associate there – finally a girl after three boys.

But Willkie Farr was not then ready for a female partner, especially one who had been pregnant in the office. So I moved to Rogers & Wells as a partner. This happened through the good offices of a lawyer who was general counsel of a client of Rogers & Wells and who had formerly worked for me at the SEC. Also, Rogers & Wells and a number of other Wall Street law firms were being sued by the New York Civil Rights Commission for discrimination against women and when I became a partner, I was helpful to that litigation.

When I was young I was quite shy and bookish. I don’t think I really understood the world around me or I probably would not have gone to law school. I always considered myself a misfit. Suddenly, in my late thirties I was admirable – a partner in a Wall Street Law firm and a wife and mother. I had not really changed but the world had changed.

In 1977, I became the first female Commissioner of the Securities & Exchange Commission. President Carter was looking for a woman for that position, and there was some political pressure for a New Yorker to be appointed. I was standing in the right place at the right time. This was an exciting and wonderful job for me and it opened many doors afterwards. I returned to private practice in New York, at Rogers & Wells and then Kelley, Drye & Warren. I went on to the board of the New York Stock Exchange and also two other corporate boards and I became a Trustee of the Practicing Law Institute. These were interesting experiences which further broadened my horizons.

I had actually always aspired to become an academic and in 1986, I had the opportunity to join the faculty of Brooklyn Law School, where I have remained since. I have always taught Securities Regulation, but I also have taught a variety of other courses. I have written many law review articles and I have enjoyed the experiences of teaching and writing. As a securities lawyer, I believe I have had a window on to the business world in the United States and abroad. Law is the last generalist profession, although unfortunately it is becoming more and more specialized. I do not know that younger women or men will have all of the opportunities that were afforded to me.