Mary Jo White (David Handschuh/NYLJ)
Whether taking on terrorists, the mob or white-collar criminals as U.S. Attorney, addressing the major issues raised by the financial crisis as Chair of the SEC or guiding clients through “bet the company” legal crises as a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, Mary Jo White has blazed a remarkable trail of achievement and she is still outpacing everyone, working 24/7 and leading Debevoise’s strategic crisis response and solutions group.
I met Mary Jo in 1978, when we both served as Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Southern District of New York. Mary Jo quickly earned her trademark reputation as a fiercely competitive and driven lawyer. These traits were immediately apparent in the courtroom as she prosecuted her first terrorism case, and on the basketball court as she played point guard for our winning women’s basketball team. Even then, it was clear that her brilliance, strong work ethic and fearlessness foreshadowed an extraordinary career. We also began a friendship that has lasted over 40 years.
By now, Mary Jo has been on every “Top 10/50/100 List” there is, won nearly every award that is given and been at the forefront of many high profile cases. And her biography reads as if it were ripped from the headlines or a movie: Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary College, Officer of the Columbia Law Review, U.S. Attorney in both the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, Chair of the SEC, Chair of Litigation and now Senior Chair of Debevoise & Plimpton. Despite all of these achievements, she remains “down-to-earth,” and always takes time to encourage and mentor young lawyers. She is also beyond passionate about the New York Yankees.
Mary Jo’s career has been built on a bedrock of integrity and courage. To give just a flavor, beginning in 1993, as U.S. Attorney, she brought to trial those responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the terrorist plots to blow up New York City tunnels and landmarks and explode a dozen American jumbo jets over the Pacific Ocean, and the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1998, she indicted Osama bin Laden before others knew who he was or recognized the grave, global threat he posed, and later led the initial stages of the 9/11 investigation.
For decades, Mary Jo’s private practice has focused on leading sensitive internal investigations, defending companies and executives in white-collar enforcement matters and litigating high-stakes matters. But Mary Jo has also done significant pro bono work throughout her career, including serving in a landmark case, as a special master to oversee the development of a new, bias-free exam for the New York City Fire Department. Throughout, she has garnered the respect of clients, judges and counsel on both sides, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to doing what is right.
Mary Jo’s integrity, effectiveness and ability to solve complex problems made her a perfect fit to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Becoming one of the Commission’s longest-serving chairs, Mary Jo strengthened protections for investors and the markets through transformative rulemakings, stronger enforcement and greater accountability. As President Obama said in nominating her: “You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo.”
In both private practice and public service, Mary Jo has never been impeded by a glass ceiling. In 1993, she became—and remains—the only woman to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 200-plus year storied history of that office. She was the first woman litigation partner at Debevoise and, when she was named the chair of the litigation department in 2002, she was the first woman to hold such a position at a major New York law firm.
With all of her many achievements, one might wonder when Mary Jo has time to sleep. As those of us who know her well can attest—she doesn’t. Her friends and colleagues know emails from Mary Jo commonly arrive in the wee hours. Fully charged on just a few hours of sleep, she has the market cornered on energy.
Mary Jo’s many professional accomplishments are well known. Less well known are her deep commitment to her family and her unwavering support of her friends. Yes, Mary Jo White is an outstanding lawyer, but more importantly, she is an extraordinary person. I am proud to call Mary Jo White my friend, colleague and a highly deserving recipient of the 2017 New York Law Journal Lifetime Achievement Award.