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Alumni Almanac

Taking Stock of the Law

Rachel Robbins: Law Women’s Alumna of the Year

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Rachel Robbins '76If it hadn’t been for a kink in NYU School of Law’s financial-aid policies, Rachel Robbins ’76, general counsel to the New York Stock Exchange, might never have become a lawyer. In the early 1970s, the Wellesley grad with a degree in French literature was working as a paralegal; her husband, Richard, was getting his law degree at NYU. When the school told him that he was at risk of losing his scholarship and loans because his spouse worked, the newlyweds were faced with a choice: separate or have Rachel go to school, too. Rachel went to law school. “That’s how I became a lawyer,” Robbins says with a laugh, sitting in her sixth-floor office at the New York Stock Exchange. “I guess I’ve never been successful at planning my life or my career. I always have responded to opportunities.”

Her more than 30-year career as a lawyer in the financial industry revolved around that philosophy. She’s always been open to any new challenge that comes her way. And, as the recipient of the NYU Law Women’s second annual Alumna of the Year Award, that is the advice she most wants to impart to the students at her alma mater. “I want to encourage people that change is good,” she says. “They need to stay open to opportunities, develop broad skill sets and look into different kinds of things.”

There’s no question that Robbins has followed her own career advice. In 2001, after 25 years at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy and JPMorgan, where she had served as general counsel, she decided to retire when JPMorgan merged with Chase. But Robbins never intended to play golf and bridge. Instead, she helped found an international consulting firm, Blaqwell; joined Citigroup International as general counsel, and served as a strategic adviser for Axiom Legal Solutions, a legal-services firm with a unique twist that allows lawyers to work for corporate clients on a flexible schedule. “I’ve learned that you never say never,” she says. “Here I am, back at the epicenter of Wall Street.”

She arrived in the hallowed halls of the New York Stock Exchange last November (shares of NYSE rose 5.5 percent the day her hiring was announced). It’s a critical time for the exchange as it enters into a new era of global consolidation, takes on the challenges of being a private company and adjusts to ever-changing technology. One of her first accomplishments in the job: ensuring that the $10 billion merger of the NYSE and Euronext, the largest European stock exchange, went smoothly last spring. With her wealth of international management experience in the financial industry, Robbins, who heads a staff of 160, is perfectly suited to handle the task. “Rachel is one of the best managers I’ve ever worked with,” says Debra Stone, a freelance consultant who worked for Robbins at JPMorgan. Citing Robbins’s legal talent, her understanding of doing business in different cultures and her dedication to the professional growth of her employees, Stone says Robbins “set standards for focusing on the quality, efficiency and dedication of people to their work and not just putting in face time.”

A case in point: Back before it was acceptable in the financial industry, Robbins allowed Stone, after the birth of her first child, to go on a flexible work schedule without going off the career track. “She always was an excellent role model for those of us in the profession who are trying to balance career and family,” says Stone.

It’s not surprising that Robbins approved of such a move. One of her concerns is the growing number of women in their 30s who are leaving law because they can’t manage both a career and a satisfying family life. “This is deeply troubling to me,” says Robbins, who blames the billable-hoursbased legal mindset. “If you can solve a client’s problem in 15 minutes, you’re just not profitable for the firm. That’s a disadvantage for women.” She urges women to consider the path she followed and serve as in-house counsel. “One of the benefits to being inhouse is that you’re encouraged to come up with an effective solution quickly,” she says. “You have to make legal judgments that have a real impact on the business world. It’s a more pragmatic approach.”

Robbins’s choices have allowed her to raise two sons—now in their 20s—and maintain a full life. She sits on the board of the NYU School of Law, goes to the theater and travels overseas with her husband. Her secret? “You have to choose what to focus on and learn to be good at delegating,” she says. That, and embracing opportunities that come along, just as she did 30-someodd years ago, when she took the plunge and applied to NYU.

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