Roberta S. Karmel’s career trajectory is nothing less than remarkable. From being told by law firms and judges that women need not apply to becoming the first female commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1977. In fact, her path is punctuated by many firsts. The first woman partner at her law firm, Rogers & Wells; the first woman to serve as chairman of her law firm’s financial services department and the executive committee. Along the way, she built a multimillion dollar Wall Street practice, specializing in international and domestic securities regulation. In 1986 she become a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. She graduated from New York University Law School cum laude in 1962. She is the author of over 50 articles in books and legal journals and writes a regular column on securities regulation for the New York Law Journal.
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I read that as a child, your dream was to be a dancer, live on a kibbutz, and have 12 children. How did that become your dream?
I would say that the 12 children was based on a very popular movie at the time called Cheaper by the Dozen, which was about a family with 12 children. I saw that movie and thought, oh, that would be great to have 12 children like that movie. In terms of being a dancer, when I was in high school, I was in a dance company that was run by my school. The high school had the option of dance instead of a sport or other kind of physical activity. We got together every day after school, and also on Saturday mornings, and we put on shows. That was really what I did all through high school. The way some kids are into sports, I was into dance. As for the kibbutz, I would say this was something that the boys and girls my age thought about when Israel became a state.
You went on to Radcliffe College. What did you study and what career were you thinking about pursuing?
I majored in history and literature – American History and Literature. I don’t think I had any plan for a career at that time. If I thought about anything at all, it was probably to become a writer or something connected with the arts.
Who your favorite writer?
I wrote my senior thesis on William Dean Howells. Whether he was my favorite author or not, I don’t know, but my thesis advisor said that I had probably read more Howells novels than anybody alive. He wrote about 100 books. I thought of going to graduate school and becoming a professor, but I looked around and didn’t see very many women at Harvard on the faculty. And instead, I went to law school. I can’t say I had a plan.
You won a scholarship and went to New York University School of Law. I read NYU was one of the few law schools that accepted women students in the early twentieth century. Did that influence your decision to go there?
Radcliffe was part of Harvard, and there just didn’t seem to be many women around in any kind of graduate work. I went to NYU primarily because they gave me a scholarship. But I also thought since they had been accepting women since early in the twentieth century, perhaps there would be more women there than at other law schools. Actually, that wasn’t true.
In terms of women students, or professors, or both?
Both. In terms of the percentage of women students, there weren’t more at NYU than at Harvard – about 4 percent. If you had graduated from Radcliffe and you had done well, on either your grades or your LSAT, you could be admitted to Harvard Law School. At that time, Harvard had a quota of 10 percent women, but they never even received enough applications to fill their quota.
You graduated 1962 cum laud. You then entered the legal professional and found many law firms would not hire women. Was this blatantly stated?
Sometimes. I went to one interview and was told we don’t hire women. I said, “Why did you ask me to come in? Did you think I was Robert instead of Roberta?” I went to an interview to clerk for a judge and I was also told he didn’t hire women. This was before the Civil Rights Act so people could be quite up front about that, if they wanted to.
Did this make you more determined to be a lawyer?
I wasn’t too surprised by any of it, because my father was a lawyer, and when I said I was going to law school, he said, “Why do you want to do that? You’re a woman, you won’t get a job.” So, it didn’t surprise me that much, but it was disheartening.
Your first legal job was with the New York Regional Office of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. At the time was the government one of the few places hiring women lawyers?
Again, this was before the Civil Rights Act, and the government was not required to hire women lawyers. The New York office had someone who was in a high position, whose mother was a lawyer, so he decided the office should hire women lawyers. They hired a few. There were other parts of the SEC that were not as interested in hiring women lawyers. Of course, all that changed after 1964.
At the SEC, you were quickly promoted to branch chief and then assistant regional administrator. What were some of the things you set out to accomplish?
I was on the enforcement branch. Our job was to investigate and bring cases. I set out to make us the best branch. We would bring the most number of cases and they would be good cases; we would win them. I can’t think I had a more focused ambition than that.
Did you set out to hire women lawyers?
No, I can’t say I did. I did have one female lawyer in my branch. There were fewer than half a dozen female lawyers in the office.
You eventually went into private practice. How did working for the government help or influence your legal career?
It gave me a lot of self-confidence as a lawyer. And it gave me the skills and knowledge to become a securities lawyer. I was with the government a long enough time so that when I left, I had an expertise that was very useful at that time, in demand at private practice. For better or worse, I’ve been a securities lawyer the rest of my career. I went on to have four children. I think my parents wondered why I became a lawyer if I was going to have so many children.
How did you manage work and family? People are still struggling with this.
It’s a very difficult balance. I was pretty tired all the time. I was very fortunate that I had easy pregnancies and healthy children. I had a husband who was a professor, so he had a little more flexible work schedule than I did. He certainly supported the idea of my being a lawyer and helped out a lot with the children. And we had full-time help.
You became the first female partner at your law firm. Then the first female chairman of the financial services department at your firm. Did you feel a responsibility to help women lawyers?
I tried to encourage some of the women associates there, especially those who worked for me, to persevere and be ambitious. And some of them did, and some of them didn’t. I was a little disappointed by the ones who dropped by the wayside, usually because of family responsibilities.
I think it’s much more difficult today than it was then because there are more onerous expectations of how much time someone is going to put into the job. When I first started out, we didn’t have cell phones, so I didn’t have to be available 24/7 to clients. Sometimes I worked late; sometimes I worked weekends, but not very often.
What advice would you give to a law firm that’s interested in attracting and retaining women lawyers?
They have to realize that a woman’s life cycle is different than a man’s. Many women in their thirties and forties are quite preoccupied with family matters, if they’re going to have children. But then, later on, when some men are burned out and the children are in high school or college, women can actually devote more time and energy to their careers. So, I think it’s really necessary to appreciate and make accommodations for a difference in the life cycle of men and women, at least for those who have children.
How did you go about building your practice? What were some of the most effective ways to attract new clients?
I was very lucky because I made a lot of friends when I was in the New York office of the SEC. A lot of the attorneys respected my abilities, and many of those attorneys left the office and became legal and compliance officials at brokerage firms. Very few of us went into law firm practice, particularly into the big law firms. So my practice was very much based, at least in the beginning, of people I had known in the New York office.
Securities lawyers who work at the SEC, particularly when they are young, are a very good network. It doesn’t mean it will always be possible to develop a practice the way I did, but it certainly was a very favorable network for me. Then you often get clients because the clients you have are happy with you. Either those clients give you more work or they recommend you to others.
Then I became an SEC commissioner. When I went back to practice, that had a certain cache and helped bring in business.
Did you seek out the position?
It didn’t just drop in my lap, but in a way it did. The White House at the time was looking to appoint a woman. There had never been a woman commissioner at the SEC. And I believe the White House was also looking for a New York lawyer. I was really in the right place at the right time. I would also say that some of my friends in the American Bar Association were very helpful.
At the time, I felt it was the best job a securities lawyer could get. Today, with the politics in Washington, I’m not so sure. The whole time I was there was a highlight. There were a lot of very exciting matters that came before the commission. I had a chance to travel around the country and even to Europe and Asia and give speeches.
During the 1980s, you became the third women to serve on the Board of Directors at the New York Stock Exchange and you served on the Committee for Review.
At that time, the New York Stock Exchange was a really important organization in New York, even in the country. Now, it seems to be just a big computer in the sky somewhere. I had the opportunity to meet other directors who were people I probably would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. It was a very interesting post from which to observe the markets and the economy. I was there when the market crashed in 1987, which was a very tense and difficult time. There were more meetings and somewhat more work. It was a signal of drastic changes in the market because of the importance of derivatives.
In 1986, you accepted a position on the faculty of Brooklyn Law School. What made you want to begin teaching?
I had always really wanted to be a professor, but when I was first starting out, law school teaching was more closed to women than business or law firm practice. I was very happy to become a professor at this point in my life. I did continue in practice for about another decade, though. I was also on some corporate boards at that time. So I was involved in a variety of different activities.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
The students. I think being with young people keeps you young. It’s challenging to be with them. I really enjoy the interaction with the students; it’s always been my favorite part of the job.
In 2014, your book was published Life at the Center: Reflections on Fifty Years of Securities Regulation. If you were to highlight one of the most profound changes that you witnessed over the years, what would that be?
I would say the growth of derivatives. It made a profound difference to the equity market and then, of course, it was a cause in 1987 of the stock market crash. It was also a cause of the financial meltdown in 2008. It injected unprecedented leverage into the capital markets.
What’s the value of your involvement with the ABA?
I am a continuing advisor to the Business Law Section. I was made an advisor and that was around the time that I, briefly, co-chaired the International Coordinating Committee, but that service ended. My involvement with the ABA certainly helped me to become a SEC commissioner way back in 1977. I have made a very large number of business friends. I have continued to benefit and learn from the many good (CLE) programs that are put on, particularly by the Federal Regulation of Securities Committee, and the comment letters that the committee sends to the SEC. It really helps to keep me up to date in my field.
What do you do for fun or relaxation?
I’ve always enjoyed traveling. I also enjoy spending time with my grandchildren. I have 10 of them. I have taken grandchildren to England, Italy, France and Iceland, and this summer, I’m taking one of my granddaughters to Paris.
You almost ended up with 12 children.
I actually have 12 children because I have four children and they’re all married. And then, when their father died, I remarried a man with two children. And one of them is married and the other has a permanent partner. So, that’s 12.
Well, I have to ask, are you dancing?
I do take a class once a week. I enjoy it, even though I am the oldest one in the class.
Thank you so much for your time!