Debra Katz: Ahead of Her TimeShe was the go-to lawyer for whistleblower and sexual discrimination claims long before #MeToo got its name.
The question was on everyone’s mind, and Debra Katz woke up early to answer it, over and over, on the morning shows. “Will your client, Christine Ford, be willing to testify in public to the Judiciary Committee?” asked the CNN anchor.
Katz knew that it was a precarious moment for her client, who had become—in less than 24 hours—America’s most famous survivor of sexual assault. Ford had planned to remain anonymous, but now she was thinking about testifying: In a matter of weeks, the man she had accused, Brett Kavanaugh, was on track to ascend to the Supreme Court.
“The answer is yes,” Katz told CNN. On CBS: “My client will do whatever is necessary.”
Katz sounded confident, but privately she was worried. Ford had never before been in the public spotlight, and she was under enormous pressure. It was September 17, 2018; since coming forward in The Washington Post the day before, she had become a household name—and the target of a deluge of harassment and death threats.
For weeks prior, Katz had been sure Ford would not testify. So sure, in fact, that Katz had scheduled something else for later that day: surgery. She had suffered from breast cancer years before and had an implant that required replacement. Now it was too late to cancel.
Hours later, Katz woke up in recovery—but skipped the pain medication. She would be negotiating the timing and format of Ford’s testimony with the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, in the morning, and she needed to stay sharp. She had worked for decades on sexual harassment cases—sometimes in the spotlight, mostly behind the scenes—but never with stakes this high.
Katz, one of America’s top #MeToo lawyers, would gain national recognition as the woman who sat beside Christine Blasey Ford. But while it is easy to mistake her as a leader who grew out of a movement, the opposite is true: She was a go-to lawyer for women in need of legal support long before #MeToo had a name. She has been at this fight a long time, and finally, the times have caught up.
Katz has cropped dark hair and moves and speaks with a self-assured quickness; she is professional and polished, but never over-serious. Now 61, she grew up in Woodmere, an affluent Long Island town where almost everyone was Jewish. For her parents’ generation, the generation that witnessed the Holocaust, the insularity felt safe; for Katz, the world felt too small. Her mother, a professor, and her father, who worked in the family plastics business, were Reform Jews, and in their home religion was less about ritual and more about a set of values—fighting for the underdog, welcoming the stranger—that Katz credits with driving her work. I ask if her parents ever talked about sexual harassment, and she says no; the civil rights and anti-war movements were the issues in her home.
She knew she wanted to do civil rights work, so she studied political science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and then law at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she noticed something odd: “You get to law school,” she says, “and this happens in everybody’s law school experience—where the men dominate the classes, and they always have the most fabulous things to say.” The professors, she observed, would validate their male students’ displays of egotism, giving short shrift to the women. In one class, Katz confronted her professor about this behavior. “He denied it,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Pay attention to it.’ And he apologized to the class after noticing this pattern.”
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won his first term, and for Katz and some of her peers, law school took on an air of urgency: Their work became about protecting rights that the Reagan administration threatened to roll back. She briefly joined the law review, but stepped down after a failed campaign to diversify—its staff was all white—and cofounded an inclusive alternative, the Women’s Law Journal. At nearby Waupun Prison, she started helping with post-conviction appeals. She graduated in 1984, and after a brief clerkship, she got a fellowship focused on women’s law and public policy in Washington, DC. That’s where she joined the team of lawyers, headed by the National Women’s Law Center, who were working on Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court case that would become the bedrock of her career.
If you trace the trajectory of U.S. sexual harassment law—from today’s #MeToo movement back to the very beginning—you’ll find Meritor. Mechelle Vinson, 19, had been hired as a bank teller in 1974. Over the next three years, her manager repeatedly assaulted her, threatening her job if she didn’t comply and her life if she told anyone about the trauma she faced every day at work.
Today, many of the issues at the heart of #MeToo—hierarchical relationships, the nature of consent—mirror Meritor. In Vinson’s first trial, which included extensive testimony about her “revealing” outfits, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against her. If Vinson and her supervisor had engaged in a sexual relationship, he wrote, “that relationship was a voluntary one.”
At 25, Katz was the most junior member of the litigation team. Her duties ranged from meaningful to mundane: working on amicus briefs, reading transcripts, setting up a fundraiser at a local bar. “She had a spark about her,” remembers Marcia Greenberger, cofounder of the National Women’s Law Center, who headed Katz’s fellowship program. “She loves people as much as she hates injustice.”
In a landmark 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled for Vinson, finding that sexual harassment violates sex discrimination laws. The ruling, authored by Justice William Rehnquist, one of the most conservative members of the court at the time, also said it was irrelevant whether victims suffered financially (like losing out on a promotion). And crucially, it established that “consent is not the right standard,” Katz says. “That’s a criminal rape standard.” For instance, someone could consent to having sex with her boss, fearing repercussions, “but that doesn’t mean it’s welcome.” Katz says the case was a formative experience. “I saw how a group of really brilliant lawyers can plot a course and create very important case law that protects people in the workplace.”
After that, Katz worked briefly at a small civil rights firm, but quickly decided that she wanted to work for herself. So at age 28, Katz and another brash young lawyer, Lynn Bernabei, opened their own firm in a three-story DC rowhouse in 1987. Their early clients included whistleblowers from the space shuttle program and nuclear power plants. They represented a psychologist of John Hinckley Jr., the young man who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, who faced retaliation after recommending Hinckley be allowed home visits. And, of course, they took cases on gender discrimination and sexual harassment. “If you’re willing to work for free and do a lot of pro bono work, your practice thrives,” says Katz. “We didn’t have kids then, and we just had a lot of fire in our bellies and took on really high-profile, hard cases—and we won those cases.”
Then, in 1991, Anita Hill testified that she had been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Katz was not personally connected to Hill, but she was in Washington, so she joined a group of Hill’s supporters gathered at the Senate. On national television, women throughout the country watched the all-white, all-male Senate panel treat Hill with contempt. “It was just absolutely shocking how little progress had been made,” Katz says. Despite the senators’ behavior, the hearings struck a chord, and claims of workplace sexual harassment tripled nationwide.
Busier than ever, Katz and Bernabei developed a reputation as aggressive and unwilling to play nice. In 1999, The Washington Post called them “two of the most annoying lawyers in Washington.” Katz remembers this description and laughs; she was more “reflexively aggressive” back then, she says. “I think that that changes over time, when you become more seasoned and more experienced—and people stop treating you like you’re this young woman.”
I ask if she ever experienced discrimination or harassment; she says “Of course.” When she first started out in law, she was subjected to discriminatory pay, sexual harassment, second-rate assignments, she says. And when appearing in court, any woman needs to work hard to be seen as someone who’s tough, who can’t be pushed around. Still, she thinks she has been shielded from the worst of the legal profession’s sexism, since she has been her own boss for so many years. In 2006, after a 19-year run with Bernabei, she formed a new firm with two other legal powerhouses, Lisa Banks and David Marshall, where she has worked since.
The first time I visit Katz’s office, I am shown through a pair of glass doors to a small conference room. At the end of the long table, a credenza and flat-screen television are flanked by orchids and a potted ficus. From the windows, I can see down the hill into Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. Katz meets me here several minutes later, apologizing; she has been dealing with a client in crisis all day.
We talk for 20 minutes, but then she needs to check on the situation with her client. “Let me just see if this woman was fired,” she says. She hates to do this, she apologizes again, pulling out her phone, but we may need to meet again later, because this woman is going to be— “Okay, sorry, what is your time frame? Because I am going to need to get back. I’m sorry, this woman is being fired.”
It is here—in moments of crisis—that Katz thrives. She has a dynamic presence, an energy she says is balanced by the steadiness of her law partner, Banks. “Lisa is unflappable. I’m the emotional one,” she says. After the Kavanaugh hearings, when Katz played back the footage, she noticed, “Lisa just sat there completely impassive and no change of expression, for all those hours.” Katz had a harder time remaining expressionless. At one point, after Grassley thanked Ford for her testimony and suggested to the room, “Let’s just be nice to her,” Katz threw her hands in the air as if to say, Wow, what a concept!
But while frenetic momentum seems to be a foundational part of Katz’s style, it’s also a function of circumstance. When Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault in October 2017, propelling the #MeToo movement into popular consciousness, calls poured in nonstop to Katz’s office. Some came from women, wanting to bring the men who had harmed them to justice, and some came from journalists, wanting to understand the battle that was just then becoming a national movement.
Katz was not a newcomer to the Weinstein affair. She had represented whistleblower Irwin Reiter, an executive at the Weinstein Company who had witnessed his boss’s behavior and helped The New York Times break the story. I ask Katz if working on that case gave her any sense of what was to come, and she says no; she had no idea that #MeToo would swell into such a powerful force.
But when the momentum came, Katz was at its center. In the months after the Weinstein allegations, she worked on a series of cases against high-profile men. There was Congressman Pat Meehan, who expressed romantic interest in an aide decades his junior and retaliated when she did not reciprocate. Then there was New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, accused in a New Yorker story of physically abusing four women. Both men resigned in disgrace.
In spring 2018, Katz helped Chloe Caras file a lawsuit against her employer, celebrity chef Mike Isabella, and several of his business partners. For years, according to the complaint, Caras had endured her superiors’ lewd insults, their sexist remarks, their objectifying comments about her body. When she took the case to Katz, Caras tells me, she started to see the severity of the harassment more clearly. Isabella settled for an undisclosed amount, but his reputation was shattered, and slowly, one by one, his restaurants started to close. By the end of the year, he filed for bankruptcy, and then closed the rest.
In these kinds of cases, attorneys like Katz play many roles: filing lawsuits, negotiating settlements, navigating internal investigations, speaking to the press. “We spend a good deal of time talking to our clients and helping them understand the options that they have,” she says. “What is driving you to come to a lawyer’s office? You’re sitting here with me—why?”
Katz is a validating force in her clients’ lives—the person who assuages their doubt, guilt, powerlessness.
Their answers are quite personal, and range widely. Some want apologies. Some want accountability. Some want large sums of money. Some want just enough money to get out. Some want to ensure that no more women will go through an ordeal like theirs. Some have a compelling legal case, but pursuing it would only intensify their trauma, so the best Katz can do is to find them a good therapist.
When I speak with Katz’s clients, there is one theme they return to: Katz is a validating force in their lives—the person who assuages their doubt, guilt, powerlessness, assuring them that what happened was wrong, and that they are not at fault. When Caras first met with Katz, “a lot of clarity was shone on the fact that what I was going through actually was wrong—and was illegal,” she tells me.
Katz is known for the high-profile lawsuits, which on one hand places her alongside peers such as Gloria Allred, the lawyer representing dozens of Bill Cosby’s accusers, who is famous for the way she mixes her legal and PR expertise. But most of Katz’s clients settle privately, which she believes is usually the right call. When women file lawsuits, their cases, no matter how airtight, will harm them on the job market. And more than that, most of her clients simply want to move on, without a paper trail of trauma forever attached to their names. Even with the changes heralded by #MeToo, Katz thinks most women will continue settling privately. What has changed is how companies respond. In the past, a client might collect her settlement money and leave the company—but her harasser would stay. Now, “there is a sea change,” Katz says. “We’ve seen very powerful people in the public domain whom we previously thought were untouchable fall.”
But Katz and her peers know that changing the culture won’t change the law. As the Trump presidency progressed, they watched the administration ally itself with far-right Republicans and dismantle long-fought-for civil rights legislation. “It’s just jaw-dropping how effective Trump has been in packing the courts,” she says. And under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, college students who have been sexually assaulted have also lost recourse, she adds.
So when a Supreme Court seat opened up in 2018 and Trump put together a shortlist of nominees, Katz and lawyers like her were paying close attention.
By the time Katz met Christine Blasey Ford in person, she knew the basics of Ford’s allegations: That at a high school party in 1982, Kavanaugh had pinned her against a bed, covered her mouth, making it difficult for her to breathe, and tried to rape her, as his friend Mark Judge watched. Ford managed to get away, but she had dealt with the trauma ever since, all the while watching Kavanaugh’s profile rise.
When he made Trump’s shortlist in early July of 2018, Ford contacted The Washington Post through a confidential tip line, as well as her congresswoman, California Democrat Anna Eshoo. Eshoo sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who introduced Ford to Katz and Banks.
Right away, Katz was struck by Ford’s honesty—how carefully she disclosed what she knew and what she didn’t know, never leaving out inconvenient details. Someone making up a story like this, Katz points out, would never add another witness. After speaking with Ford for a while, Katz and Banks stepped out to confer. They both believed that Ford was telling the truth.
Back inside, they asked Ford if she would sit for a polygraph and agreed to represent her pro bono, not yet knowing what that would entail. But Katz did know that Ford had an extraordinary decision ahead of her. “As we do with all of our clients,” Katz explains, “we just said, ‘This is ultimately your decision. You need to tell us what you want to do, and we’ll do the very best we can to fight for you.’”
But then, the decision was made for her. When Ford went public, it was because parts of her story had started to leak, so she decided to tell it on her own terms. And when her story appeared in The Washington Post, even Katz didn’t expect the harassment that followed, which drove Ford permanently from her home.
Katz worked to protect her client, and supporters set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for Ford’s security detail. But behind the scenes, Katz had also become a target: With the office phones ringing off the hook and no communications team in place, she enlisted her son Ari, then 17, and his friend, who were in the office that day, to help. In retrospect, “it was a really bad decision on my part,” Katz says. “They were just taking down death threats, and it totally terrified them.” The threats targeted Katz, not Banks, and almost all of them were anti-Semitic in nature. You belong in the camps. You should burn. All Jews should burn. People were calling with the whirr of buzz saws in the background, saying, We know where you live.
Yet all calls had to be answered, all messages read. What if they missed a new witness, or someone calling with new information? So they sorted through the deluge, sending some messages to the FBI. Katz was relieved when the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund offered to provide security for the firm. “It turned out to be increasingly scary as the hearing got going, and the death threats got much more concrete,” she says. “These people are really unrelenting and awful. And then they start talking about what they’re going to do to your kid.”
On September 27, the morning of the hearing, Katz stayed by her client’s side. Ford sat at the long table at the room’s center; Katz, carrying a stack of three-ring binders, took the seat to her right. Michael Bromwich, an expert in congressional hearings and recent addition to the legal team, sat to Ford’s left. Katz passed one of the thin binders to Ford and spread a thick binder open on the table. Behind them, Banks settled into the audience.
Visually, Ford’s hearing looked different from Anita Hill’s, which had resembled an interrogation. In an imposing, stately hearing room, Hill had sat at a table for one, all alone, facing the long line of men before her. This time, Katz and Bromwich were in the spotlight with their client: Throughout the hearing, they were able to lean over and whisper their counsel in her ear.
“I think that people believed Christine.”
Ford’s demeanor was meticulous, polite, emotional. She was asked about her most vivid memory of the incident, and she delivered perhaps the most memorable answer of the day: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense.” Her voice broke, and Katz put a supportive arm on her shoulder.
Katz started to wonder, for the first time, if this could really stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “Being in the hearing room,” she remembers, “you could see the Republicans sitting there not knowing what they could do, not knowing what to do.”
Later that day, watching Kavanaugh’s testimony, Katz’s confidence grew. “I thought there is no way in the world, even if you believe his denials, that this man will wind up on the Supreme Court,” she says. “He just lacks judicial temperament. He was so unhinged and he was so belligerent and entitled.” Wiser heads, she was sure, would prevail.
Ford’s testimony touched a nerve, and Republican Senator Jeff Flake agreed to open an FBI investigation. But in the following days, when the FBI didn’t return Katz’s calls, or tell her when the agency would interview her client, “we knew that that was pretty much just the fig leaf, that the investigation was just to provide cover,” she says.
The worst part, she says, was listening to Susan Collins’s speech. The Maine senator had been a key swing vote, but a week after the hearings, she announced that while she found Ford “sincere, painful and compelling,” there was not enough evidence to withhold Kavanaugh’s confirmation. At that moment, Katz knew the vote would pass. “That was devastating, because I think that people believed Christine,” she says. “I think that they sat there and they watched her testify, and they knew that they were listening to an honest person. The pain of that is they didn’t care.”
Like Anita Hill’s, Ford’s testimony struck a chord, and Katz is heartened that her account of what happened inspired other women to come forward. “You hear that a lot, how one person’s bravery leads to other people’s willingness,” she says. “Courage begets courage.” While Katz worked with Ford that fall, she was also in contact with Sheila Katz (they are not related), then the vice president of Hillel International. In 2015, Sheila Katz had met with billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who repeatedly asked her to have sex with him. She reported his comments the same day.
Three years later, in light of the #MeToo movement, Hillel conducted an investigation, concluding that Steinhardt had harassed Sheila Katz and one other employee. Hillel did not accept a planned $50,000 donation from Steinhardt and removed his name from its board of governors. Debra Katz represented Sheila Katz throughout the investigation’s course. When the findings were published in The New York Jewish Week on September 12, 2018, omitting the women’s names, Sheila Katz was hopeful. “I was like, ‘Here it is, it says he did it!’” she remembers. “And then I watched as the article largely went unshared, and the very community I’d hoped would stand up for me—even without knowing my name—was silent. A massive story broke, and everyone looked the other way.”
Behind the scenes, Debra Katz worked to assist The New York Times and ProPublica in a joint investigation into Steinhardt’s broader pattern of behavior toward women. When the article was published in March 2019, only four of six women went on the record with their names. This time, Sheila Katz was one of them—in part because, like Ford, her identity had already started to leak. Now, she is glad she went public, she says, because her story helped bring #MeToo to Jewish organizations, some of which, like Hillel, have ultimately developed better sexual harassment policies.
Despite the investigation’s findings, Steinhardt’s reputation remained largely intact. New York University’s Steinhardt School did not change its name, and in the Jewish world, the response ranged from muted to deferential, with many defending the billionaire in light of his support for Birthright Israel, which he cofounded. “I’m very dissatisfied with the outcome,” says Debra Katz. “To have all those people around him say this is just Michael’s shtick, this is how he behaves—it’s abhorrent.”
Sheila Katz says it was painful to watch people dismiss Steinhardt’s actions as “not bad enough.” “One of the biggest challenges of Harvey Weinstein being the face of the perpetrator for the #MeToo movement is that it creates a false narrative that rape and specifically multiple counts of rape should be the line,” says Katz, who was appointed CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women last year. “No one should be unsafe at work. And it shouldn’t take multiple people having the same experience to be believed.”
While #MeToo has ended the careers of some famous men, others have emerged from allegations unscathed, and some, such as Louis CK, have made comebacks. Still, Debra Katz believes #MeToo has fundamentally changed what people are willing to tolerate. “Look at what happened with Domingo,” she says, referring to Placido Domingo, one of the most famous opera stars of all time. In the summer of 2019, dozens of women told the Associated Press that Domingo had harassed them. Katz represented three of them, including the two who used their names, Patricia Wulf and Angela Turner Wilson.
Domingo made the classic half-excuses—that years have passed, and norms have changed—but Katz says that the “same old denials” don’t work anymore. “I think people hear them and say, ‘That excuse will not fly.’” Eight weeks later, as operas across the country cut ties, Domingo’s U.S. opera career crumbled.
In January 2020, 16 months after the Kavanaugh hearings, Harvey Weinstein’s trial began in New York, and Katz found herself in another courtroom listening to another client testify against another powerful man.
More than 100 women have made allegations against Weinstein. Six testified at his trial, but the charges revolved around two main witnesses, Jessica Mann and Miriam Haley. Katz’s client, former actor Dawn Dunning, was a “prior bad acts” witness, testifying in order to establish that Weinstein’s harassment was a pattern. Dunning’s testimony was similar to that of many of Weinstein’s other accusers: She said that the producer assaulted her in a hotel room, where he had invited her for a business meeting in 2004; several weeks later, he asked her to join in a threesome in exchange for a role in a movie.
When the jury returned from deliberations on March 11, “you could hear a pin drop in that courtroom,” Katz says. Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison—a verdict Katz says would not have happened before #MeToo. Prosecutors would have assumed a jury would never convict, since the evidence wasn’t always neat; for example, the main witnesses had maintained friendly relationships with Weinstein after the assaults, Katz explains. But “sexual assault survivors behave in all different ways,” and the jury understood that. When the verdict came back, “there was just such a feeling of extraordinary vindication for these women, and tremendous relief that the jury went the right way,” Katz says. “It was an extraordinary victory to see him handcuffed and taken out of court.”
Back in Katz’s office, at another long conference table, we discuss the future of #MeToo. She worries that low-income women and women of color will be the last to benefit—even though sexual harassment impacts them more harshly. “They have to be at the table,” she says, “if we’re going to make meaningful change.” And as more women come forward, she is concerned about the backlash. #MeToo has many critics, people who believe that the movement has gone too far, or label it yet another example of left-wing identity politics, branding lawyers like Katz as political activists.
And now, no one knows what the global pandemic will mean for #MeToo. Katz thinks the pre-pandemic progress will last, “no question about that,” she says. “But I think the work is a bit on pause at the moment.” During this interlude, she has another high-profile client: Rick Bright, the federal government whistleblower challenging the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. Bright says the administration ignored his early warnings about the virus, and that when he pushed back against the administration’s efforts to promote untested drugs, he was ousted from his high-ranking position at the Department of Health and Human Services. He filed a whistleblower complaint in early May. Once again, Katz went on all the morning shows; when Bright testified before Congress, she and her client sat side by side. Protecting people like Bright, Katz tells me, is the work for right now.
I ask Katz about the elation she felt after the Weinstein conviction. Has it stayed with her? Her answer is an unequivocal yes. “It’s still a remarkable victory,” she says. “I really do think that in moments like that, the world shifts.”