Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
By Gideon Grunfeld
My aunt, Deborah Lancaster, was a pioneering lawyer from whom we could learn a lot about managing our careers and lives. After her notable work for the Attorney General of the State of Israel, she in the early 1960s moved with her young son to the United States, where she earned her American law degree from Columbia University. She did this as a widowed single mother and went on to become one of the first women lawyers hired by Skadden.
She passed last Thanksgiving, a few months short of her 90th birthday. A year later, I’d like to remember her life and note three lessons we could all learn from it.
- Will power and desire matter. Deborah Lancaster was, to say the least, assertive. She needed to be to overcome the daunting obstacles she faced. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to be as headstrong as she was, but her successes show that sheer desire and the willingness to work for something count for a lot in life.
- Cultivating relationships with style will take you far. Deborah entertained with style, and her apartment near Columbia University’s campus was for decades a gathering place for elevated conversation and smart and artistic people. Last year, many gathered at her apartment in her memory one last time. It was there that I met Ezra Levin, Chairman Emeritus of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, a law firm that now has more than three hundred attorneys. After meeting in Chicago, he and Deborah kept in touch for more than fifty years, and he was able to help Deborah get her breaks as a beginning lawyer in New York. You don’t create an amazing career by yourself. It takes time and long-lasting allies.
- You have to adapt to the times. Deborah left law firm life to work as a corporate in-house lawyer. But she didn’t just define herself as a lawyer. Well into her career, she got into the computer business. She sought out and followed opportunities, and she didn’t stay rooted in just one place or identity. She used her intellect, connections, and business savvy throughout her life.
Deborah Lancaster’s life on this planet ended, but her memory will endure. Even in these turbulent times, there is much to be thankful for and much we can learn from those who preceded us. Please join me in remembering this impressive woman and force of nature.