The Way We Were
A veteran of Cravath in the 1950s recalls
the era of legal spartans to a young
woman just starting out at the firm.
By Charles Reich
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 Street, 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.
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.