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Toni Rembe remembers when…

Toni Rembe

In 1971, Toni Rembe became one of the first women to be named a partner at a major law firm in California. In recognition of Women’s History Month, Rembe talked with the Bar Journal’s Amy Yarbrough about her early days at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and shared some advice for women in the legal profession today.

You were one of just four women in your law school’s graduating class. What was it was like being in a class with just a few other women?

It was hard at first but by the time I graduated, after my third year of law school, I managed to feel more comfortable with the class in general. We broke into groups where we had seminar. Through that process of getting together with the guys I was cramming with, I made some friends. Even though the professors were frequently seeking out the women and making them feel rather isolated, I think we felt the support of the other students.

What did the professors do that made you and the other women feel uncomfortable?

Some would call on you to discuss cases that were slightly embarrassing. I really enjoyed the law. I enjoyed solving problems. I was fascinated with the cases and the arguments. So although I was pretty quiet and shy, I was extremely well prepared. I found later that some of the professors were very nervous to have a woman in their class. And they were reacting too, trying, as many are with a minority, to put me at ease, but afraid to call on me.

So, sort of overcompensating?

Yes. But I wasn’t aware of it. I ran into one professor later who said, “When I looked out on the class, you were the only woman. I’d never had one [in class] before.” [The professors] went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, which in a way made me feel uncomfortable.

How were things with the other students?

At the University of Washington, there were some pretty tough and very good professors that terrorized the class. I remember the torts professor was one. These old-fashioned professors knew everything, including how to put everybody down. That did, however, create bonds among the students.

An article about you in your law school alumni magazine talked about your dad, who was conservative around gender roles and thought that a woman’s place was in the home. Did he ever come around to the idea of you being a lawyer?

Oh, yes. He was very proud of me. He was proud that I had a job [at Chadbourne Parke] on Wall Street in New York. I also became director of a public company when I was in my late 30s, and he was very proud of that. The last five years of his life he was very much, “My daughter is a really good lawyer.” He would ask me about my cases, and he would ask me for business advice. So he finally got used to it. He was old-school, a superb doctor. He told me, “You want to go to law school, OK. Because if something happens to your husband, you’ll maybe have something to fall back on.”

The article also said you got some of the best advice early on in your legal career from the secretaries who worked at your firm. What did they tell you?

They would tell me about the various partners in the firm. They knew the partners they were working with probably better than the other associates. That was helpful, and many of the men were helpful, especially those that had daughters. They went out of their way to give me the tough problems and provide advice. I was just as terrified as anyone else at the time. That was, what? ’61, ’62 in New York. It was kind of an “Alice in Wonderland” experience.


Because I felt out of place. I remember seeing a Jules Feiffer cartoon about a baby that was inducted in the Army, and they kept giving him a gun and a metal hat and a big uniform and saying, “March!” and he kept saying, “I’m just a baby.” And they’d say “March!” When I got to Chadbourne I thought, “Jeez, I’m on Wall Street, it’s a good firm.” I had a little bit of the, “This is what it’s like on the inside of a big corporate firm.” And I wanted to say, “But I’m just a law student. But I’m just a woman. I’ve got to get used to it first. I’m not ready.” It was that kind of feeling the first year, I was looking around trying to understand how to interact with this group. And I needed all the help I could get.

The exceptional experience that I had was interviewing on Wall Street. I got two offers. One was from Chadbourne and one was from Paul Weiss. I got those offers mainly because one of my professors at NYU recommended me, a tax professor, and he had very seldom recommended anybody to the partners in these firms. Paul Weiss, when they called me back, said [the firm] wouldn’t discriminate against me because I was a gentile, and I thought they were joking. Apparently, I would have been the first gentile that they hired, and that was just as stressful as being the first woman. I’d been told that Paul Weiss started as an all-Jewish firm because there was discrimination by the white-shoe firms on Wall Street. There was a lot of discrimination in the early ’60s. And I thought, “Gee, if I don’t do well at Paul Weiss, it’s going to be doubly bad.”

Tell me about some of the experiences you had early on, and you may balk at this term because I know you’re modest, but as a trail-blazing female attorney? What kind of things happened to you then that wouldn’t happen today?

My life experiences are full of both positives and negatives. When I started on Wall Street I found out that many male clients were so uncomfortable with me when I would go meet someone to negotiate or to bring a contract. I was an associate, and I was delivering the contract and asking if it was all right. A lot of the attorneys would run into these really tough negotiations. I’d frequently meet people so nonplussed that I was a lawyer, they were completely, “Oh, it looks fine.” Or I’d draft something for a partner in my own firm, and to me it wasn’t good. It was full of problems. And at first, partly being polite, they would say, “Oh, that’s just wonderful.” That I didn’t like. It was slightly condescending.

You were the first woman to be named partner at Pillsbury. Tell me about that time in your life and some of the challenges you faced?

I came to Pillsbury in ’64. Frank Roberts, one of the partners, really wanted a good tax lawyer to work on a project in Pakistan. I’d had some experience doing international law as well as foreign tax matters at Chadbourne. The partner in charge of the tax department wouldn’t take a woman in, and [Roberts] said, “Well, she’s perfect,” and helped me. Many of them told me, including the hiring partner, that it was unlikely I’d ever make partner. “You’ll probably get married and settle down, and you won’t be here that long and it’s not me [about being a partner], it’s the clients.” All that talk.

Roberts, who had daughters, didn’t just lob the easy assignments to me. I did a lot of international tax planning and got to travel. There was a concern about how it would appear if you were a woman traveling alone. I’d have translators with me or sometimes, or I’d go with another associate and a partner. Foreign countries didn’t expect to see American women lawyers from big law firms. I got a lot of “Dear, Mr. Rembe,” [in correspondence] and you had to put [the word] Miss in parenthesis. It was just a very interesting era when you were pretty much alone in terms of the number of women.

I can imagine.

Late in 1970, Jack Sutro called and said, “Rembe, come up to my office.” That call usually came when someone had made the partnership. And a large part [of making partner] had to do with the kind of cases you were given as a senior associate. So I have to thank again the Pillsbury partners who gave me really tough assignments. It made me known to others in the firm beyond my immediate specialty in the firm. But I did put a damper on the partnership meetings. I hear the language cleaned up considerably after I became a partner. If someone would even say, “Damn,” someone would say, “There’s a lady present.” That was Jack Sutro, who had the worst mouth of all of them. But he made sure everyone watched their language when I was at these partnership lunches.

You were probably thinking, “That’s OK, I’ll be fine.”

In fact I thought I’d better watch my language. I remember the first partnership lunch. I didn’t know Sutro’s rule that the worst thing you could do at a partners lunch is drink. So this lunch is at a club and everyone had their dishes prepared and carefully served, and the waiters went around to everybody and asked them if they’d like a glass of wine, which I thought was the tradition. They came to me first because I was the woman. And I said, “Yes, I would, please, a glass of white wine.” And there was just dead silence. And everyone was looking at Sutro. And then one of the other partners about four seats down said, “I think I’ll have one too.” He was an older partner trying to make me comfortable.

The National Association for Law Placement recently released statistics, and the Recorder wrote about them, that basically said that the number of female associates had increased last year after years of decline and pointed to San Francisco as having the highest rates of women associates and partners. Do you have any thoughts about why San Francisco is ahead of other areas?

I remember when I made partner, I heard from a lot of my New York women friends, who said the cry back here is “Go west, young woman” because they’d never made partner. They’d started earlier. I had role models [in San Francisco] as well, people I wanted to be like.

The West, particularly San Francisco and the old gold country, was just more open to innovation and change. I do think when there’s a lot of immigration from out of state it kind of shatters up the old society and leaves room for newcomers.

I know times have changed since you started out. But is there anything you would say to women graduating law school right now, any advice you would give them?

Here’s my big quote (laughs). There’s so much advice I’d give them. I would just say, one, be yourself and have the courage to say what you think. Work hard. I guess one other thing would be to speak clearly. Guys have a big advantage because their voices carry much better generally. Be heard, you know, speak up.