NEW YORK — Bettina Plevan, a top litigator who made her name defending employers in sexual harassment and gender discrimination cases, and who helped pave the way for women to advance in the legal profession after shattering glass ceilings herself, died Oct. 29 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 75.
The cause was acute myeloma leukemia, her law firm, Proskauer Rose, said in an announcement.
In her nearly 50 years at Proskauer, where she was the first woman to be named partner in the litigation department, Ms. Plevan specialized in labor and employment law. Her clients included well-known companies in areas including banking, publishing and entertainment. Some of her cases grabbed headlines, like those on behalf of Penthouse magazine and the Metropolitan Opera, and some set legal precedents.
She was also president of the New York City Bar Association, the second woman to hold that position. Over the years, she made multiple lists of the best lawyers in America.
Ms. Plevan was hired by Proskauer in 1974 as an associate and named partner in 1980, a meteoric rise that she attributed to hard work and ambition.
“I decided I wanted to be a partner shortly after I got here; by nature I have a lot of drive, I’m competitive and I have a lot of energy,” she told The New York Times in a 2006 article about the dearth of female partners at the nation’s biggest firms.
A highly respected trial and appellate litigator, she successfully appealed a $4 million judgment against Penthouse and its publisher, Bob Guccione, in a sexual harassment case brought by a former Penthouse employee in 1981. A lower court had found that Guccione had required the woman to have sexual liaisons with two of his business associates as a condition of employment.
Ms. Plevan handled the appeal. She argued that the New York state Human Rights Law, under which the case had been brought, was intended only to remedy the wrong, not punish the wrongdoer. The Court of Appeals, ruling in 1992, agreed, saying the woman was allowed only compensatory damages of $60,000, not punitive damages of $4 million.
Ms. Plevan also represented the Metropolitan Opera when its former music director, James Levine, sued the company in 2018 for breach of contract and defamation after he was fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The Met then countersued. Most of Levine’s defamation claims were dismissed, but when the two sides settled the rest in 2019, he won a $3.5 million settlement. (Levine died in May.)
Ms. Plevan served on numerous professional boards and committees and, having shattered glass ceilings herself, used her clout to help make it easier for other women to advance.
“She in my opinion actually put down the pavement for women in the profession,” Keisha-Ann Gray, a partner at Proskauer, said in a 2017 video tribute to Ms. Plevan.
Ms. Plevan recognized early on how women who raised children were held back if they worked part time. And so her firm’s expanded parental leave policy, which she announced in 1989, stipulated that parents who decided to work part time would not jeopardize their chances for partnership.
Before Ms. Plevan became president of the New York City Bar Association in 2004, she headed its committee on women in the legal profession. In that role she commissioned an ambitious academic examination of issues affecting the advancement of women in the city’s largest firms.
The resulting landmark study, “Glass Ceilings and Open Doors: Women’s Advancement in the Legal Profession” (1995), found that while women had achieved parity with men in their numbers in law schools and in entry-level positions, they still faced major obstacles in becoming leaders at their firms and in establishing themselves as potential rainmakers. Ms. Plevan worked as a catalyst to change that.
Joseph Leccese, Proskauer’s former chair, said in the video tribute that Ms. Plevan was “clearly the most significant woman in the history of the firm.”
Bettina Barasch was born on Nov. 21, 1945, in Oceanside, New York, on Long Island, and grew up in nearby Freeport. Her parents, William and Bettina (May) Barasch, owned a children’s clothing store. Her father died when Bettina, known as Betsy, was 13, and her mother ran the store by herself.
Betsy loved sports. But, as she wrote in a 1996 article in the Fordham Law Review, she was “constantly subjected to overt sex discrimination,” mostly by not being allowed to play on Little League or other sports teams, even though she was better than some of the boys. She said that having endured outright exclusion early taught her and other women of her generation to be more tolerant later of more subtle forms of discrimination and harassment.
She majored in history at Wellesley and met her future husband, Kenneth Plevan, a student at Harvard, on a triple blind date. They married just after she graduated from college in 1967. Three years later, she graduated magna cum laude from Boston University Law School, about 10% of the people in her class were women, a number that was “pretty high at the time,” she said.
She and her husband moved to the Seattle area, where Kenneth Plevan, an Air Force lawyer, was posted, and she joined the law firm Bogle & Gates as its first female lawyer. While there, she started a trend by disregarding the firm’s dress code and wearing pantsuits.
She joined Proskauer in a move to New York in 1974, while Kenneth Plevan joined the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, also in New York.
In addition to her husband, she leaves her son, Rabbi William Plevan, and a grandson. Another son, Jeffrey Barasch Plevan, died in 2013.
Apart from handling cases, Ms. Plevan counseled law firms on employment matters and undertook investigations for a number of companies. She was deeply involved in professional organizations, among them the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Law.
She was president of the New York City Bar Association from 2004 to 2006. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, she reached out to bar associations in that region to share the lessons the New York bar had learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, about providing extensive pro bono services to victims. This included helping displaced families find housing, medical care and schooling.
Ms. Plevan was showered with public accolades. As recently as September, she was named one of the top 20 labor and employment litigators by Benchmark Litigation, a guide to the world’s leading litigation firms and lawyers.
As the subject of an oral history conducted by the American Bar Association in 2007 and 2008, she was asked how she saw her future. She said she hoped to find more balance between her work and private lives.
“I mean, I know it seems that I have it all together, and I guess usually I do,” she said. “But still, at this stage, I would be happier, I think, if I worked a little less hard. But I am not good for that promise to myself.”
Despite her 14-month battle with leukemia, her firm said, she practiced until the week she died.