Professor Roberta Karmel, Who Broke Barriers on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., Dies at 86


Roberta Karmel

Professor Roberta Karmel, a longtime educator and leading authority in domestic and international securities regulations who served as the first female commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) among other distinguished accomplishments in public service, academia, and legal practice, died on Saturday, March 23. She was 86.

The esteemed former Centennial Professor of Law retired from Brooklyn Law School at the end of the spring semester 2021 after 36 years of teaching tort law, securities regulation, corporations, administrative law, and European Union law, becoming known for her engaging teaching style and as a faculty mentor, especially for female professors. Honored as a Professor of Law Emerita with the title 1901 Distinguished Research Professor of Law after her retirement, Karmel’s influence and legacy extended beyond the classroom to the intellectual life of the Law School, where she played a critical role in building the Law School’s national reputation for scholarly excellence, drawing talented young scholars to the faculty, and serving as a key mentor. She co-founded and co-directed the Dennis J. Block Center for the Study of International Business Law, the Law School’s first academic center; developed the Center for the Study of Business Law and Regulation; and helped create and expand the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial & Commercial Law.

David D. Meyer, President and Joseph Crea Dean of Brooklyn Law School, said it is impossible to overstate the significance of Roberta’s leadership and contributions to the Law School and far beyond. “She was a trailblazer in a career of spectacular impact spanning private practice, public service, and academia, including being the first woman to become a partner at Rogers & Wells or to serve as a commissioner on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A member of our faculty for more than three decades, she was revered as a pathbreaking scholar of corporate and securities law, a gifted teacher, and an institutional leader whose ambitious vision and standard of excellence will continue to shape BLS for generations to come,” Meyer said.

Miriam Baer, Vice Dean and Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, said that she considered herself fortunate to have been one of Roberta’s many mentees and will miss her greatly. “Above all things, Roberta was as much a mensch as she was a trailblazer. She opened doors, improved the quality of the many organizations she touched, and then she just as enthusiastically and selflessly supported her more junior colleagues as they followed and thrived in her footsteps,” Baer said.

“Roberta was enormously talented. She was as comfortable addressing practitioners and judges as she was interacting with scholars, young and old. She somehow managed to teach a full load of courses, publish impactful scholarship, incisively comment on the major policy and legal debates of the day, and lend an enormous amount of her time to the law school through her service and advice to others,” she said. “Roberta also loved her students. Through her many years of teaching and mentorship, she trained thousands of students to become competent, successful, and ethical practitioners. She reveled in her students’ successes and often kept in touch with them as they commenced their careers.”

Throughout her professional career, Karmel made a significant impact in areas where few female attorneys had previously ventured and took pride in laying the groundwork for the generations of women who followed. In 1972, she joined the top Wall Street law firm Rogers & Wells (now Clifford Chance) and became one of its first female partners. This achievement came despite the sexism in that era, with one law firm higher-up telling her, “While we are ready for female associates, we’re not ready for a female partner,” a memory shared in a profile of Karmel in the 2022 Brooklyn Law Notes.

Whether or not the legal industry was ready for a woman in certain roles proved immaterial to Karmel, who had joined the SEC right out of law school as one of the few women on staff. She was later the first woman nominated to the role of SEC commissioner by President Jimmy Carter and, after being confirmed, made history when she joined the leadership at the agency from 1977 through 1980.

In an interview, her SEC chief counsel John Paul Ketels described Karmel as “an activist change agent, not to be denied or deterred.” She was concerned that the agency’s Enforcement Division was taking extreme positions not in accordance with the law, and then settling cases with consent decrees containing relief that no court would or could have ordered. She believed that SEC prosecution should be based on existing law, rather than being used to make new law, and she expressed this position in her votes on enforcement actions.

“What [Karmel] did as SEC commissioner made the SEC think about the way it wields its power,” said Ketels.

To the great fortune of Brooklyn Law School, one of Karmel’s cherished roles was teaching at the school. After serving as an adjunct professor during the 1970s and 1980s, she telephoned former Dean David Trager to inquire about a further foray into academia.

“It was one of the few law schools hiring women in tenure-track faculty jobs,” Karmel recalled in Law Notes. “And I said, ‘David, you’ve always wanted me to go onto the full-time faculty; I have always wanted to be a full-time academic. This is your chance.’”

Generations of Karmel’s students and colleagues benefited from Trager’s decision to make her a full-time faculty member in 1985.

Dana Brakman Reiser, Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, said she will always treasure the more than 20 years she worked with Roberta on the BLS faculty. “I am so grateful and honored that I have been able to count Roberta Karmel as a colleague, mentor, and friend. Her brilliance and impact are well-known, but she is also someone who never missed an opportunity to help others along their own paths toward rewarding legal careers. She was one of a kind and will be sorely missed.”

Meanwhile, other key national roles followed her tenure at the SEC: She was a public director of the New York Stock Exchange from 1983 to 1989, where her duties included addressing the market crash of 1987. She was the chair emerita of the board of trustees of the Practicing Law Institute, a member of the American Law Institute, and a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

“I hope I always did a good job so that more women would be appointed to the positions [I had held],” said Karmel in an interview on the Business Scholarship podcast. “I always advise younger women to lead a full life…. Don’t wait to become a partner, don’t wait to get tenure as a professor to round out your personal life.”

As she developed her expertise in securities and regulations, Karmel published more than 50 scholarly articles in books and journals, as well as the book, Regulation by Prosecution: The Securities and Exchange Commission Versus Corporate America (Simon & Schuster, 1982). She also wrote a regular column on securities regulation for the New York Law Journal and was a frequent lecturer on financial regulation.

Karmel, who grew up in Chicago, and studied and taught ballet as a girl, attended Radcliffe College, graduating with a B.A. in history and literature in 1959. A post-graduate position at a brokerage firm in Boston set off her interest in law, and she then earned her LL.B. from New York University School of Law in 1962. She graduated cum laude from both institutions.

After earning her law degree, Karmel was accepted into the honors program at the New York regional office of the SEC in 1962 and lost no time working her way up the ranks. Within three years, she became a branch chief and, a year later, assistant regional administrator. Litigating against experienced lawyers at top firms, including future U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York Alvin Hellerstein, she gained invaluable lessons in practicing law. In 1969, she went into private practice, starting out as an associate at Wilkie Farr & Gallagher before landing that partner position at Rogers & Wells, one of many firsts for Karmel.

She is predeceased by her first husband, Paul Karmel, and her second husband, David Harrison. Karmel is survived by her children Philip Karmel (Barbara), Jonathan Karmel, Solomon Karmel (Martine) and Miriam Emery (Dan), and stepchildren Andy (Ellen) Harrison and Rachel (Eric) Harrison, and grandchildren Jacob, Anna, Juliette, Paul, Jillian, Elijah, Neoma, Aviv, Owen, and Ben.

Funeral services will be held at Temple Beth Shalom, 740 N. Broadway, in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, on Tuesday, March 26, at 11 a.m. If you would like to make a gift to Brooklyn Law School in memory of Karmel, you can give to the Professor Roberta S. Karmel Scholarship here