October 06, 2020

Women and the Law panel
From L to R: Stephanie Scharf, Paulette Brown, and Roberta Liebenberg

Catholic Law Reunion Weekend 2020 kicked off on Friday afternoon with a Women and the Law panel featuring alumna Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg ’75, a former Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession. Liebenberg was joined by Paulette Brown, former President of the ABA, and Stephanie Scharf, immediate past Chair of ABA Commission on Women in the Profession; for a discussion about how women lawyers keep their careers on track in these unprecedented times.

Given that everyone, and women lawyers, in particular, are juggling more than ever before, as work and home are fused together, the panel focused on the experience of women lawyers before the pandemic, how the practice of law has changed over the course of the pandemic, and finally to address what you (or your firm or company) can do to advance women lawyers in present and future work environments.

The panel used three new pieces of research from 2019 and 2020 to provide context for the discussion and explore the everyday status and work experience of women and women of color in the law. The first was research by Liebenberg and Scharf “Walking Out the Door - The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” co-sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA) and ALIM Intelligence, is a first-of-its-kind study that examines the disproportionately high rate of attrition of experienced women lawyers from law firms. Brown also shared the further research she conducted, “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color,” which delineates the difference in the experience of women of color. Brown noted that Liebenberg and Scharf’s work led the way, but there needed to be a distinct report for women of color in the law as “the experiences of women of color are somewhat different than those of women overall.” The final piece of research, “A National Survey on The New Normal of Working Remotely,” identifies the ramifications of working remotely and respondents' reactions to the shift. The survey was conducted by The Red Bee Group, a consulting firm in which Scharf and Liebenberg are Principals.

Each of the panelists discussed what they had learned through conducting the research. While they had plenty of anecdotal stories that could point to the disparate experience of women and women of color in the law, they noted these studies provide data, and as Scharf stated, “data is more persuasive than anecdotes.”

As the program drew to a close, the panelist focused on practical and realistic ways that companies can focus on diversity and “self-help” measures that women can take to support and invest in themselves. Liebenberg highlighted the importance of women as committee members within their firm as well as the need for clear, written expectations particularly as the pandemic continues to blur boundaries. What was made abundantly clear is that “diversity is no longer discretionary,” but an imperative that leads to more talent and better business results.

In closing, Liebenberg added a few words of thanks to Catholic Law citing, “it really provided me with such a wonderful foundation for my entire legal career. It instilled in me a love of the law and as you can tell I still love the law as I’m still practicing.”