Women in the Law

Senior counsel went from law firm switchboard operator to Cravath's first female partner


Corrected: Christine Beshar, a senior counsel at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, achieved several firsts in her lifetime.

She read the law as Abraham Lincoln did, passing the New York State bar exam without going to law school. She became the first female partner at a Wall Street law firm in 1970 when Cravath voted to promote her. And she successfully pushed Cravath to open a children’s center for employees who needed backup child care. In a Bloomberg video, Beshar recalls those achievements in an interview that includes her son, Marsh & McLennan general counsel Peter Beshar.

Christine Beshar came to the United States from Germany in the early 1950s on a scholarship. She met her future husband, a lawyer, on a blind date and decided she wanted to share his legal interest. She worked at law firms as a switchboard operator and an assistant librarian, and then worked as an assistant for her husband. It was during that time that she studied the law. After passing the bar she worked in trusts and estates and got hired by Cravath in the early 1960s.

Christine Beshar recalled the day that the babysitter did not show up to take care of her son, Peter. She tried taking him to the nursery school his older sisters attended, but the school refused to take him. Beshar recalled standing on Park Avenue with her son in tow and wondering what to do. In those days, no one took a child to the office. “I can feel it in my gut still,” she recalled. “What do you do when profession and family clashes?” From that experience came the idea for the children’s center.

Christine Beshar pressed for the center when the law firm moved to new offices that provided additional space. The presiding partner at the time, Samuel Butler, told Beshar she would have to defend the idea in a partners’ meeting. Beshar says she replied that, no, Butler would have to defend it. He did, and the idea was approved with only one objection.

The Beshars were featured in a 1988 New York Times article that considered how the children of “superachieving couples” are faring. The article said such children may have a more positive view of women, may have greater self-esteem and get more attention from their fathers. On the other hand, the article said, the children may experience stress and anxiety from high expectations and may feel the loss when busy parents are away. The article portrays the Beshars as an example of what can go right in such families. “The Beshar children don’t recall feeling deprived or unhappy,” the story reports.

Christine Beshar told Bloomberg her family always ate dinner together, and the children took turns fixing meals. “If you want to have partnership at the office, you have to have partnership at home,” she told Bloomberg. “The idea that you can have it all and do it all is just ridiculous. There is the family, there is the profession and then there is everything else. And you surely shortchange everything else.”

Corrected at 11:53 a.m. because many women earlier than Beshar passed the New York State bar exam without going to law school.

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