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Dear Sarah, Your father tells me you started a job at Cravath, Swaine & Moore earlier this fall. Perhaps you are aware that I spent some of my formative years at that firm. I’m sure you will learn a lot at present-day Cravath. I, certainly, learned a lot when I went to work at the firm in the fall of 1952, just after graduating from law school. The firm was then located at 15 Broad St., directly opposite the New York Stock Exchange, the facade of which, outside my window, was not yet covered by a gigantic American flag. Actually, the window was the province of E. Gabriel Perle, a more senior associate who got the desk nearest the window in the office we shared. “Gabby” took me out to lunch and dinner and introduced me to the many stanzas of “The Partners’ John,” a song telling the story of the rise of a young associate to the long-anticipated moment when he receives a key to the partners’ john. ONLY MEN I use the pronoun “he” because there were only men at the Cravath of 1952. No women lawyers, no women secretaries or stenographers, no women in any capacity at all were allowed in the hallways of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. “We are a place of business,” it was explained to me. Ladies would be a “distraction.” Even the messengers, who carried documents from one office to another and sharpened our stacks of pencils every morning, were elderly men in gray office jackets, reputedly recruited from among the ranks of retired runners at the exchange. If I needed to dictate, a buzz quickly brought a male “steno” who was older than I was. There was a special midnight shift of stenos who would have any late-night work freshly typed and ready on a partner’s desk first thing in the morning. “Women wouldn’t be safe in downtown New York during these night hours,” it was explained. It could be difficult to tell a male secretary or steno from an associate, but clothes made the difference. Lawyers wore suits from Brooks Brothers. Stenos did not. Moreover, lawyers wore hats, something I completely failed to understand, despite frequent admonitions to “take your hat and come to lunch.” I never acquired a hat, nor, as you can imagine, did I ever see the inside of the partners’ john. In 1952, Harvard Law School did not accept women as students. Only a tiny percentage of the students at Yale Law School were women. When, as a third-year student at Yale, I was interviewed by a series of New York firms, I never met a woman lawyer. You must wonder why this was so. I can only speculate. Obviously, male bigotry played a major role. But I think something else was involved — an attempt to protect certain values that mattered greatly to the practitioners of that time. They wanted a workplace free of the messiness of male-female relations. They liked to say, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and be done with it. Women might bring distractions: flirtations, gossip, dating. No more male bonding. In 1952, Cravath employed a permanent senior associate who kept track of each new young associate’s birthday. On this occasion, the associate would be invited upstairs to the private dining room at the top of 15 Broad St. for a lunch with partners. At lunch, the associate was served three martinis in quick succession. He was expected to down them and continue sounding respectful and intelligent. The message was “welcome aboard — you belong.” In the spring there was an all-male firm outing at the Piping Rock Club, where young associates could team up with older partners for golf. In the winter there was a dinner dance at the Colony Club, the only occasion where “the ladies” were present. STARK AUSTERITY The offices themselves reflected an ethic of stark austerity. There was no art on the walls, no fancy furnishings, even in the offices of the most senior partners. I remember being taken down a bare hallway to be introduced to Hoyt Moore, the last surviving name partner, only to find an elderly gentleman seated in an office as totally unadorned as all the rest. The firm took seriously its responsibility to educate its new associates. There was always a senior associate available to answer questions about legal research or the preparation of documents. The firm employed a librarian who was especially patient, kind, and helpful. In the Cravath of 1952, I felt no pressure whatever concerning billable hours. All I knew was to keep a record of hours for specific clients and hours for “office general.” I never even saw any annual totals. The only pressure was to complete an assignment on time. And despite the song about the partners’ john, making partner was not such a big issue after all. We were all told that while few associates could expect to remain permanently at the firm itself, we could all count on well-paid future employment at one of the many corporate legal offices or regional law firms that had ongoing relationships with Cravath. The message was: Excellent work is expected, but the pressure is off. Associates were safely and comfortably on the inside for life. Inclusion was more important than competition. The senior partner of my division was Donald Swatland, known as “General Swatland.” I would be notified in advance when he wanted to see me; every minute of his time was precious. Minutes before the interview I would be summoned to his outer office with the words, “Stand by for General Swatland.” When I was ushered into his corner office, directly overlooking the fabled intersection of Wall and Broad streets, he was often having his shoes shined by a kneeling figure, talking on the telephone, and glaring at documents brought in by his two male secretaries, who kept rushing in and out. Then he would look over his glasses at me. Still, I felt a bond. After I had reported, he waved me out of his office with the back of his hand. Did I catch sight of an ever-so-fleeting grin? LACKING IN PERSONALITY I carefully observed and thought about the ethic of the Cravath partners. They preferred to be as anonymous as possible, as lacking in personality as possible. They never called attention to themselves in any way. Their work was all that mattered. They did not do politics, they did not do public relations, they did not even go to court very often. Emerson famously called his friend Thoreau a “bachelor of nature.” The Cravath partners were bachelors of the law. By contrast, there was John Davis, senior partner of Davis Polk & Wardwell, another large law firm located in the same building as Cravath, just a few floors below. The white-haired Mr. Davis was a famous figure in the legal world. He had run for president of the United States in the 1920s. He was lead counsel for the Southern states in Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued in the Supreme Court during my time at Cravath. The Cravath partners saw themselves as just a bit more serious than Mr. Davis. What I remember best was proofreading. Stock and bond certificates had to be perfect. Much of their text was printed in tiny type. Often the printing was on a tight schedule and had to be completed at Ad Press late at night. The proofreader’s job was a serious responsibility. No one was too high up for this task. Mr. Swatland seemed to relish doing this himself before any document left the office, no matter how many other lawyers had already given their approval. For the associates, proofreading was a two-person job, with one reading aloud every syllable, capital letter, and punctuation mark, so that the reading sounded like a special language: “This Debenture, two initial caps, com,” and so forth. After an evening session at Ad Press, the two of us could then go to the best restaurant still open in the financial district, order the most expensive items on the menu, charge it all to the firm or client, and walk back to the office, well satisfied, along the narrow, empty, silent streets. At the time I had no idea how fragile the experience of good work would turn out to be. At another firm where I worked later on, partners would invite me to lunch and then tell me about their marital problems or their ungrateful children or their existential woes at the endless demands that law practice brought with it. I would rather have talked only about work: I was singularly unprepared for the messiness of human interactions. Still later, in the academic world, I found that work was often less important than talk — talk that was often too elegant, too subtle, too amusing, too time-consuming. Today I look back fondly on my youthful days as a legal Spartan. Perhaps you will also find, as a woman in what was formerly an all-male world, that just plain work can be satisfying relief from the uncertainties and ambiguities of human relationships. For me, it was a great experience to be a man of few words and no personality, not amusing, no philosophy of life or law, no nonsense, no time to spare, and All Business — two initial caps.
Charles Reich, a lawyer, writer, and professor, wrote The Greening of America (1970). Sarah Rosenwald Varet, an associate at Cravath, is the daughter of one of Reich’s friends and former students. This commentary first appeared in The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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