Roberta 'Bobbi' Liebenberg: "I feel that I have an obligation to ensure that other women lawyers can make it"

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27 Aug 2019

Roberta (‘Bobbi’) Liebenberg (JD, Catholic University Columbus School of Law, 1975) has become one of the most prominent voices in the push for gender equality in the profession. She’s held many leadership positions in various Bar associations and committees, including chair of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession (a post previously occupied by Hillary Clinton) and the Gender Equity Task Force.

For her efforts, Liebenberg has won awards for ‘Outstanding Achievement’ and ‘Outstanding Contributions to Gender Diversity & Equality’ at the Chambers USA ‘Women in Law Awards’. Liebenberg is a partner at boutique firm Fine, Kaplan & Black, based in Philadelphia, and is top-ranked by Chambers for her antitrust litigation work.

What opportunities hovered on the horizon when you were growing up in DC during the 50s and 60s?

MY dad was a dentist and my mom was a homemaker – my three brothers are all doctors, but I did not pursue that occupation! I think that the choices for women were narrower when I was growing up. We were steered into the traditional occupations for women, like teaching, nursing, social work…

Initially, you did take up one of those more traditional occupations, and became a teacher in both Detroit and Calvert County, Maryland. How did this experience motivate you to become a lawyer?

It opened my eyes to the need to improve equal opportunities at large. Many of the pupils in Calvert County were children of tenant farmers: they had no indoor plumbing and they hadn’t even been outside of the County. I took them on a field trip to Washington, DC, which was just 50 miles away from the school. It inspired me to try to effectuate social change on a broader scale, and I thought that going to law school would equip me with the skills that I would need to accomplish that goal.

You graduated from law school in 1975 – what was your experience of interviewing at a time when women were just beginning to enter the profession in larger numbers?

I applied for a spot as a litigation associate, and at that time it was still rare for women to be in the litigation department of a major law firm. My interviewers asked me questions which were quite shocking, and are actually illegal now! They asked me how many children I intended to have, and what my childcare plans were. One of my favorite questions was posed by an older male; he asked me whether I would cry if a judge yelled at me, and I asked ‘would that help the client?’– they loved that answer!

After gaining an associate position in Hunton & Williams’ Richmond, Virginia, office, you went on to form the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association. Can you tell us more about how the Association came to be, and how it benefited women lawyers in the area?

At the time there were only 20 licensed women lawyers in Richmond, and not all of them were practicing. We did band together and we formed the Association: it was our attempt to deal with the fact that we didn’t have many role models or mentors to look to, who could show us how to get ahead. That program helped us network and develop a close support system for women who were really unique. I was president of that association in 1976 and 1977, and it has grown quite a lot since then, which is something I’m very proud of.

“There are 400,000 baby boomer lawyers set to retire soon: this provides opportunities for women to take over, and they need to be considered.”

You went on to make partner at Philadelphia’s Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen, but eventually you decided to break away and co-found an all-women-owned law firm in 1992: Mager, Liebenberg & White. What factors prompted you to make this step?

I felt that after a few years as partner, it had imposed some limitation on my ability to chart my own career. Leaving the security of a partnership at a big firm did entail substantial risk, but I am a risk taker! I wanted more control over the types of cases I was working on. I wanted the chance to offer more competitive fee arrangements to my clients, and I also wanted greater flexibility in my own work/life balance decisions – by that time I had three children. I felt confident in my vision, and that I could create it. We were the first all-women-owned firm in Philadelphia to focus on complex commercial litigation, so we had an enormous amount of free publicity, which gave us an extra advantage!

Looking back over your career, are you able to point to a ‘big break’ or to something which especially helped you to succeed in the profession?

I have been very fortunate, in that I’ve had important sponsors – both male and female – in the firms where I’ve worked, and they made sure that I was given high-level assignments. They encouraged me to take on risks and to seek out more and more responsibilities. They introduced me to clients and advocated on my behalf, both inside and outside the firm. One of my great sponsors was Jerry Shestack (President of the American Bar Association between 1997 and 1998), and he appointed me as a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. He devoted an enormous amount of time and energy trying to advance women.

You have, among other things to help women, steered a range of committees and associations (including the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Gender Equity Task Force). What has kept you so motivated?

Having been ‘a first’ at the law firms where I’ve worked, I feel that I have an obligation to ensure that other women lawyers can make it and break through the barriers – and we’re still far from reaching that goal.

After years of women’s initiatives and firms making promises to address gender equality, why are women still prevented from truly making it and breaking through the barriers?

There has definitely been progress, and you can see that we’re getting more women into the beginning part of the pipeline. What you don’t see is women actually making it to the top echelons of law firms. In fact, the higher up you look, the smaller the percentage of women you find. If you look at the latest NAWL [National Association of Women Lawyers] survey, you’ll see that women still only account for 17% of equity partners. Women represent 47% of associates; 38% of counsel positions; 29% of non-equity partners; and 64% of staff attorneys. It is troubling that increasing numbers of women are found in non-partnership track positions.

We need to have a critical mass of women in positions of real power and influence, and we need law firm leaders to make a commitment. They also need to do this to remain competitive: clients demand diversity, and the firms that figure it out will have the competitive advantage.

The lack of women in positions of real power is intricately tied to issues surrounding compensation – what have you discovered about the distribution of pay and how this affects women’s chances of getting to the top?

When I was appointed chair of the ABA Gender Equity Task Force, we oversaw research which found that the pay disparity between male and female lawyers increases with seniority – so the largest disparity is between male and female equity partners. This results in significant shortfalls for women, and on top of that there is a correlation between compensation and who is placed on the most important committees in firms: the highest compensated partners are usually the ones who will sit on the compensation and management committees. It’s essential that women are paid in line with what men earn, precisely because of this connection, and firms need to figure out how to address this long-standing gender pay gap. The Task Force prepared four publications which provide strategies and recommendations for law firms and law firm management to help ameliorate the gender pay gap. They also addressed what clients, Bar associations and individual women can do as well.

We also want to make sure that women are being considered in line for succession, as most firms are not implementing formal client succession policies. Our research has confirmed that retiring male partners often bequeath their clients to their male proteges rather than the women who have worked on the matter and helped to grow the client relationship. There are 400,000 baby boomer lawyers set to retire soon: this provides opportunities for women to take over, and they need to be considered.

You’ve pointed to what individual women can do. In the context of this pay disparity, what can women do to close that longstanding gap?

I would encourage women to download our Task Force publication which covers what you need to know about negotiating for compensation. It sets forth practical tips that women can take away, and it encourages women to ask for what they want, and to be as zealous an advocate for themselves as they are for their clients. When women are forceful negotiators they can get negative feedback, or they can be perceived as being overly-aggressive – it’s a delicate balance.

Sponsors have played an important part in your career: do you think that law firms will start to attribute as much importance to sponsor-relationships as they have done to existing mentoring programs?

There is an increasing emphasis on sponsors, because the research is clear: women are now over-mentored and under-sponsored. When I refer to sponsors I’m talking about individuals that will take you on and push you to the next level, whether that’s through assignments or cases. A sponsor is also someone who will advocate for you when you are not in the room, when partnership and compensation decisions are being made. They will use their own clout and stature to tout your skills and advocate for your advancement.

Given what we now know, I’d like to see more time and effort put into showing women how to obtain sponsor relationships as well mentors.

You’ve recently taken up the position of chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession for the second time. What research projects will you be overseeing this time?

We’re doing three exciting programs at the moment. One comes out of research from the University of Pennsylvania, which shows that traits like perseverance and resilience are better predictors of success – better than IQ, or where you attended law school or how high you graduated in your class. These traits can be taught, so the Commission is developing a curriculum, which will include discussion questions and training materials to help women achieve success in law school and beyond, through traits encapsulated in the term ‘GRIT’. We are extremely excited, and we’ll be making women grittier!

We’re also doing an interesting study – the first of its kind for the American Bar Foundation – which will look into whether women are serving as lead trial counsel in civil and criminal cases at the same rate as their male counterparts. We’ll be using data from the Northern District of Illinois, and once we have this research collected and examined, we’ll produce a template which can be used in judicial districts around the country, in order to calculate how other women are faring. Ultimately, we’ll be proposing best practices and recommendations to make sure that we see more women acting as first chairs and taking the lead.

In the last project, we’ll be working with the NAWL Foundation to raise awareness of sexual harassment and bullying of female law students and attorneys. We are seeing a higher incidence of this pernicious behaviour – everyone mistakenly believes that we had dealt with it, but anecdotal reports from Bar associations show that women are continuing to experience such problems.