Ellen was in workplace hell.
A publisher at a magazine, where she’d worked for 17 years, she’d been hospitalized for seven weeks because of a difficult pregnancy. When she returned to the office, she found herself persona non grata, excluded from key meetings, scolded harshly for inconsequential minutiae, and snowed under by demeaning memos from her boss.
“I was a pariah. I was undercut at every turn,” Ellen says. “I came home crying every night.”
When she tried to hire a lawyer to represent her in a lawsuit against the company, she kept encountering three words: “Conflict of interest.”
“You realize very quickly Manhattan is filled with law firms who work on retainer for corporations,” Ellen says. “They will not work for an employee who may end up in litigation against an employer.”
Though they wouldn’t take her as a client, they did make referrals. And one firm name kept coming up: Vladeck, Waldman.
Which is how Ellen met Debra Raskin.
Raskin is a slight woman with once-shocking red hair, now gray, who could pass for a decade younger than her 59 years. She has piercing, observant eyes, a thoughtful energy, and frequently dips into a well of self-deprecating humor. “You’ve picked up already I’m a Commie,” she jokes 10 minutes into the conversation.
She grew up in a Jewish family in Miami in the 1950s and ’60s. “[Miami] was a third African-American, a third Cuban, and a third WASP,” Raskin says. “There weren’t a lot of Yids. And I think all the groups hated each other.”
Raskin’s father was a cop in Miami Beach. Her mother worked on computers for Eastern Airlines. It was her mother who helped channel her first stirrings of political consciousness.
“In second grade I woke up one morning and, of course, I hadn’t done my homework and realized I had to give an oral report on the Freedom Riders,” Raskin recalls. “And [my mother] said, ‘They’re very brave people riding buses throughout the South and trying to integrate and give people the right to travel.’ I said that was great, and I gave the report, and it was terrific.”
This offhand moment inspired her lifelong interest in social justice issues.
“I’ve got four commandments: Never cross a picket line, never vote Republican, never work for management, and never buy retail,” she says.
At Radcliffe, Raskin was a French major. (“Conjugating verbs is the meaning of life,” she says. “That and the federal rules of evidence.”) Then came Yale Law School. “I love international foreign languages. I wanted to do international law, but that’s international business, and you’ve picked up already that I’m a Commie, so that wasn’t going to work.”
Instead, after graduation in 1977, she moved to one of the country’s most ethnically divisive cities, Chicago, where she worked for civil legal services in the Pilsen neighborhood. Her clientele was mostly poor Mexican immigrants working low-paying factory jobs.
It was in Pilsen that she realized certain aspects of the law, like family law, were too raw for her—but she could still effect social change by helping people improve their work lives.
“Next to people’s kids and families, there’s nothing more important to them than their work,” she says. “This was something important to the clients but allowed a little more distance than divorce or child custody and things like that which I don’t have the emotional fortitude for.”
It was also in Chicago where she met her future husband, Michael Young, a New Yorker who started at legal services a year behind her, and who is now a legal arbitrator.
“I read the newspaper on the subway, she reads Supreme Court cases,” Young says. “She still has a social-justice edge in everything she does. Even if the client is from the financial services industry, she views her case as a socially useful practice at the same time.”
The two married in March 1980 and moved to New York, where she entered into a clerkship at the Southern District from 1982 to 1984. Then came a short stint at the New York State Attorney General’s Office in 1984, which convinced her a government job was not the way to go.
“I don’t do bureaucracy well,” she says. “You need three levels of approval before you go to the bathroom.”
Instead she joined Vladeck, Waldman, and has been there ever since.
“I think because she can look fragile, that she’s as strong as she is can at first be somewhat of a surprise,” Anne Vladeck, partner at Vladeck, Waldman, says. “But they don’t underestimate her after they’ve been with her for five minutes.”
Just ask Brian, who hired Raskin in the late 2000s to negotiate a separation agreement from the academic institution where he worked. Brian says Raskin worked out a deal that spared everyone from lengthy legal complications that could have easily become contentious.
“When the other side behaved unreasonably, she acted like a hammer,” he says. “At one point, she said, ‘If it’s a good settlement, both sides will be unhappy.’ But I consider her now not only to be my lawyer but my friend.”
Throughout the years, and despite the ups and downs of an ever-changing economic environment, Raskin has seen a fairly consistent array of cases in labor law. There’s one thing they all have in common—and it’s something clients never want to hear.
“What a nonlevel playing field it is. [The employers] have the documents. They have the witnesses. And how many current employees are actually going to go against their current paycheck to protect an employee who has the nerve to sue them? Even former employees are reluctant,” she says. “One of the hardest parts of what we do is to tell people who have been treated in truly terrible ways that there’s not a legal claim for them.”
It doesn’t help that Raskin works in one of the most employer-friendly states in the nation.
“New York employees have no common-law rights. It’s the state that’s one of the most, if not the most, dedicated to the at-will doctrine, which means that an employee can be fired for any reason, as long as it’s not a discriminatory reason,” she says.
Raskin’s frankness about the challenging legal landscape is something clients like Robert, an Asia-based executive who became embroiled in a nasty legal feud with his New York-based company in 2009, have come to appreciate.
“There are two types of lawyers. The polite ones, the ones who tell you what you want to hear and are pleasant and smooth, and then there are the ones who get what you want,” Robert says. “Debra is the latter.
“I’d use the word ‘direct,’” he adds. “She’s to-the-point. No B.S. She told me the truth, and she gave me a reality check.”
Then there was Nancy, a top executive at a pharmaceutical company who hired Raskin because she was in an unusual legal situation: She actually wanted to leave her job, but the company wouldn’t let her.
“To be honest, she thought I was nuts,” Nancy says. “She said, ‘Most people come to me because they’ve been fired. We represent the little guy.’ I found her very tough, very logical, very assertive, and almost scary.”
But when she explained her situation, and her belief that the company was keeping her on only because she was a woman and a senior executive in the company, Raskin took the case.
After three years, in which the company blanketed Raskin with motions and other delaying tactics—almost all of which ultimately failed (“I swear to God, she must have written 25 to 30 briefs, and there was only one we didn’t win,” Nancy says.)—Raskin sealed their victory in arbitration with a signed agreement from Nancy’s former superior, assuring her she could leave the company on favorable terms.
“[Debra] is a big believer in the system,” Nancy says. “She said, ‘Right will ultimately triumph, and everything will always work out.’”
Still, the field has only become more unfriendly toward employees in the recent economic downturn.
“It doesn’t change the kinds of cases, but it changes the difficulty of it,” Raskin says. “When a whole department is closed down, it’s harder to prove there’s discrimination against a particular person in the department. Where you do have claims of illegal conduct, like discrimination or failure to pay wages, it’s harder to get employers to part with the money. So they’ll fight harder and the battle will go on longer.
“Some aspects of workplace discrimination have gotten more subtle and hence harder to prove, but there are still certain things that astonish me,” she says. “Age and sexual orientation become areas where it’s still acceptable to make biased comments. I mean, ‘young’ is still considered a positive word, and ‘old’ is still considered a negative word.”
James Esseks, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and director of the group’s division for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and those with HIV or AIDS, worked with Raskin in the mid-’90s on a class-action age-discrimination lawsuit against the New York City parks department. The case turned on testimony from a statistician.
“She had a mastery not only of the law but the statistics and the science that went into that presentation,” Esseks says of Raskin. “It made me understand how important expert witnesses can be in a case, and how important it is for lawyers to understand that stuff so they can translate it for a judge and jury. I’ve used that as a model ever since. She’s one of the people who taught me how to be a lawyer.”
Raskin is the first to confess that out-and-out wins are few and far between. She has averaged about one suit that goes to trial a year, less now that arbitrations have become more popular.
“You have to have religion on your side. You have to believe in it,” she says.
“There still is a reason why she’s on the employees’ side as opposed to the management side,” her husband says. “It’s not financial, obviously. There’s still some idealist streak and commitment on her part.”
Which brings us back to Ellen.
Bowled over by Raskin’s “searing intelligence,” she came to appreciate her calm, logical demeanor in the midst of a fracas that had left Ellen furious and hurt. Raskin convinced her that it made no sense to seek a salt-the-earth strategy that brooked no compromise, and won her a favorable settlement.
“She is the proverbial cooler head who prevails, and yet is passionate about protecting those who come to see her,” Ellen says. “People in general don’t see lawyers as warm-hearted, and it’s not always their job to be warm-hearted, but I think the combination of a steely demeanor and great intellect with a great big heart is hard to come by.”
“Sometimes it does feel like you’re just pushing boulders uphill,” Raskin says. “But I feel really good about the things we do. I think most of the time we’re on the right side of things, and that’s a great thing to be able to say about your work.”
Editor’s note: All of the preceding clients’ names were changed at their request.