Bettina B. Plevan, Esquire
2015 Professionalism Award for the Second Circuit
By Jennifer J. Salopek
Betsy Plevan has had a distinguished career as a labor and employment lawyer. A partner at Proskauer, she is a former member of the firm’s executive committee, chaired the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, has served as president of the New York City Bar, and was a member of the ABA Board of Governors. Her accomplishments would be notable for anyone regardless of gender, but she acknowledges the fact that she is still thought of not as a lawyer but as a “woman lawyer.” To the benefit of the young female lawyers who work with her, she shares generously of her experiences as a woman lawyer while at the same time decrying the fact that the distinction still attaches.
“It’s too bad that we still have to focus on how to do better with gender equity in law. Women in society still have greater responsibilities at home, and it’s a challenge to manage career and family.
“On the other hand, we’ve come a long way. A lot of progress has been made, and more options are available to women,” she says.
Plevan does think of herself as a trailblazer. Several strong women in her life provided inspiration. After Plevan’s father died, when she was 13, her mother went to work full-time, fostering Plevan’s entrepreneurial streak. She chose Wellesley because her aunt had gone there; she found a supportive, single-sex environment that encouraged women to speak out. On the way to a bachelor’s degree in history, Plevan took courses in political science, history of law, and constitutional law; her process of law professor encouraged her to apply to law school.
“I had a career orientation but didn’t want to teach,” she says.
With a new husband at Harvard Law School, she chose Boston University for her own law education largely because of geography, but found the institution welcoming to women; they made up 10 percent of Plevan’s law school class. Corporate governance professor Tamar Frankel was a role model.
After law school, Plevan followed her husband to his Air Force assignment in Washington State and got a job in a Seattle law firm and the trailblazing began.
“None of the three major firms in Seattle had ever hired a woman,” she says. “I was anxious to lead the way, and it was a very good experience.”
Plevan stayed at the firm for nearly four years, doing mostly commercial litigation. Returning to New York after her husband fulfilled his Air Force commitment, Plevan joined Proskauer as a general litigator. She credits the firm’s culture for providing her with a professional launching pad. In the post-Title VII era, labor and employment law was beginning to emerge as a specialty, and it appealed to Plevan:
“It’s about people. I find it interesting because [the field] combines challenging legal issues and facts with a counseling aspect,” she says. “I have developed ongoing relationships with clients over many years.”
Proskauer partner Michael Cardozo, whom Plevan describes as “very public-minded,” encouraged her to become involved in bar association activities. She became involved in the Federal Bar Council, served as president from 1996 to 1998, and helped to found the American Inn of Court associated with it.
“There weren’t many Inns in New York, and I kept hearing about them from friends in other parts of the country,” she says. “A bar association of litigators was a perfect fit for our mission in New York, as we were looking to do more CLE and training of younger lawyers.”
During her tenure at Proskauer, Plevan has successfully represented many employers in sexual harassment matters. She was retained by Meritor Savings Bank to handle the remand of the landmark Supreme Court case in this area; and handle the case in which the New York Court of Appeals reversed a $4 million punitive damages award against Penthouse.
As to the principles of professionalism and civility espoused by the American Inns of Court, Plevan says they were never overtly addressed during her formal education in law; rather, students learned them by example and modeling. “From highly skilled, dedicated, successful lawyers, I learned the importance of giving back and contributing to the profession, as well as how to represent our clients with dedication,” she says.
“I also learned from their example how important it is to give guidance to junior lawyers, to make them better lawyers and, I hope, better people.”
Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia.
© 2016 American Inns of Court. This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.