Location: New York City, NY
Meryl Lieberman was admitted to practice law at the age of twenty three. If you do the math, you realize that she must have started college early and been in an accelerated JD program, both of which are true. She was seventeen years old when she entered the Urban Legal Studies program, the first of its kind in New York and one of only a few in the country, at City College of New York and New York Law School. It offered a combined 6-year BA/JD degree program that allowed Meryl to take law school courses in her first year of college and focus on areas of law that interested her at the time, such as labor and employment law and constitutional law. She graduated magna cum laude in 1981 in the top of her class and having served as an editor on New York Law School’s law review.
Her plan was to pursue public interest law and poverty law, but she could not get a job. She then applied to more mainstream law firm jobs, but still nothing. “I applied to hundreds of law firms,’ Meryl says. “But no one would hire me.” She did short term assignments for about eight months until someone from the placement office at New York Law School reached out to her about a job lead at a law firm that specialized in insurance defense work. “I knew nothing about that kind of law,” Meryl says, but it was a full-time, permanent job. She was willing to learn, and they hired her. “I kind of fell into it,” Meryl says, “And I have now been practicing insurance coverage litigation for the last thirty-nine years.”
Meryl has also applied the problem-solving skills that her law school professors instilled in her to other things. In 1995, Meryl and three other attorneys left to start their own firm, Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP. They started with four attorneys and now have over 100 in seven locations throughout the country. “Women were not looked at as assuming positions of power,” Meryl says. “And we wanted to change that.” She and her partners wanted to “create a collegial and collaborative environment” and, says Meryl, ’I wanted to create something where we could be more in control of where our careers were going.” The fact that she has done so, and been able to offer a career path to so many, is deeply gratifying to her. But Meryl has never lost sight of the role New York Law School played in both training her and finding her the job that launched her legal career, and she has directed much of her philanthropy to returning the favor and paving the way for others.
“I have always felt a really strong affinity for the school,” Meryl says. Located in the heart of New York City, the Tribeca school has one of the most diverse student populations in the country. Meryl is very proud of the fact that her alma mater is almost 60 percent female and is not only ethnically and racially diverse but also has a great number of older students. Another distinguishing feature of New York Law School’s student body is that many of its students are first generation, who are not only the first in their families to pursue a professional education, but many are also the first to have graduated from college. Dean Anthony Crowell offers tremendous support for the First Generation Professionals (FGP) and asked Meryl, who has served on the Board of Trustees for over two years, to get involved. “He saw how much I love working directly with the students,” Meryl says, “and he knew FGP would be a good fit.”
“I have tremendous respect for these students,” Meryl says. Many of them face substantial challenges, such as supporting children or aging parents at home, working full-time in addition to attending classes at night, and not speaking English as their primary language. And as the first in their families to pursue the legal profession, there are many things outside of the classroom to learn as well. Meryl donates both her time and makes financial contributions to the program, all in an effort to, as she puts it, “build the kind of support system that will facilitate their success in law school.” She provides access to other mentors and experts who can help them navigate the many things that aren’t taught but are an integral part to pursuing a successful legal career. She sponsors programs like Success in Style, when a panel of general counsel from major fashion houses explain how to dress for interviews and business trips and help the FGP students find places where they can purchase work clothes on limited budgets. She also supports business etiquette dinners that teach the attendees how to conduct themselves at a business social event.
“I always felt that students in a professional school who have no other obligations have no excuse not to do well,” Meryl says. “They have an unfair advantage with not having to work, not having to raise children or take care of parents on top of having to study.” What she is doing in her work with the FGP students at New York Law School is to help offset and overcome some of those disadvantages. “There is an unfairness in the challenges that they face,” Meryl says. “I am just trying to level the playing field.”
As a member of New York Law School’s Board of Trustees, Meryl attends the graduation ceremonies each year. Last year at graduation, a single mom with three children who worked full time and went to school at night spoke on behalf of her class. “She did brilliantly,” Meryl says. “And If there is anything I can do to help FGP students succeed, then I feel good.”