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Member Spotlight: Roberta "Bobbi" Liebenberg

Roberta D Liebenberg

Member Spotlight: Roberta "Bobbi" Liebenberg

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Tell Us A Little Bit About Your Career

After a clerkship on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, I started practicing law in 1976 as the first woman associate in the Antitrust Practice Group at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, there were only about 20 practicing women lawyers in Richmond, and I served as one of the founders of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association, which enabled us to support and network with one another.

My family relocated to Philadelphia, where I joined Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen. Again, I was the first woman in its antitrust group. Ultimately, I became just the third woman partner since the firm’s founding in 1903.

In 1992, I left the security of my Big Law partnership to start the first women-owned firm in Philadelphia focused on class actions and complex commercial litigation. In 2000, I joined a highly regarded antitrust boutique firm, Fine, Kaplan and Black, as its first woman partner, and I still practice there.

I have been appointed by courts to serve as lead counsel for plaintiff classes in large antitrust and consumer class actions and have also defended Fortune 500 companies (such as Southwest Airlines and Waste Management) and Temple University in a number of significant class actions and complex commercial litigation. I have also defended individuals in criminal antitrust cases. My diverse practice has afforded me a unique perspective, which has enhanced my skills.

In addition, I have devoted a substantial amount of time to the ABA and other bar associations and organizations, and have researched, written, and spoken extensively about many issues and challenges affecting women lawyers.

What Have Been The Highlights Of Your Career?

I served as one of trial counsel for the plaintiff class in In re Urethane [Polyether Polyols] Antitrust Litigation, MDL No. 1616 (D. Kan.). After a four-week trial in 2013, a jury returned a verdict for the class against the Dow Chemical Company in excess of $400 million, prior to trebling. After accounting for pre-trial settlements with other defendants, the Court entered a $1.06 billion final judgment, which was the largest ever awarded in a price-fixing case. It was affirmed by the Tenth Circuit, and while Dow’s appeal was pending in the Supreme Court, it agreed to a $835 million settlement, the largest ever recovered in a price-fixing case from a single defendant.

In addition, I successfully defended a high-level shipping company executive in a criminal antitrust case brought by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Antitrust Division. The executive had fully cooperated under its Amnesty Program, but nevertheless, the DOJ revoked its grant of amnesty and charged him criminally. This was a high-profile case of first impression, and we succeeded in having the charges dismissed by the court after a three-week trial, as the court held that the government was contractually bound by its promise of amnesty. Significantly, our case resulted in the DOJ revamping its model Amnesty Agreement.

If You Could Go Back To The Beginning Of Your Legal Career, Would You Have Done Anything Differently?

In retrospect, I would like to have started in a U.S. Attorney or District Attorney office, as that would have enabled me to gain valuable in-court experience early in my career. Indeed, the research I conducted with Stephanie Scharf found that women lawyers who work as government prosecutors have the greatest likelihood to gain first chair trial experience. See “First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table” (June 2015). Working for the government at the beginning of my career, when I was raising three children, would have also afforded me a better work-life balance.

What Advice Would You Give To Someone Considering Law School Today?

Before law school, I taught at a junior high in Detroit and a rural high school on the southern shore of Maryland. The economic inequality and lack of resources I witnessed motivated me to go to law school because I believed that becoming a lawyer would help me to effectuate real social change. I have found the practice of law to be both personally and professionally rewarding, and would encourage others to pursue this career path.

What Were The Biggest Changes You Saw In The Legal Profession Over The Course Of Your Career?

After I graduated law school in 1975, the number of women law students continued to steadily increase, and women now comprise over half of all law students.

There is far greater gender diversity on the bench, among law firm partners, and among General Counsel and Chief Legal Officers than when I started my career, but nonetheless the pace of progress is unacceptably slow. Women lawyers still lag behind men in terms of compensation, promotions, and leadership positions, and continue to leave the profession in higher percentages than men.

There have also been great technological advances during my career, which have changed the profession in many ways. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a 24/7 work mentality, with no clear boundaries between one’s work and personal lives. Burnout is now far more common for lawyers because of the unrelenting demands of clients and legal employers and the constant bombardment of emails, even on weekends and vacation. On the other hand, technology enabled lawyers to transition seamlessly to remote work during the pandemic. Hybrid work is here to stay, and the pre-pandemic five days a week in the office work model is a thing of the past.

When And Why Did You Become Active In The American Bar Association (ABA)?

I became very actively involved with the ABA more than 30 years ago when the Litigation Section was seeking to recruit more women into leadership roles to reflect the growing gender diversity of the profession.

I ultimately became a leader in the Section, serving as chair of a number of different committees and task forces, and on its Council. I observed first-hand that the ABA provides very informative, practical, and useful programs, conferences, and publications. Recently, I have become active in the Senior Lawyers Division, where I Co-Chair its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Development Committee. This has allowed me to continue to collaborate with close friends and colleagues on expanding DEI in the profession, even as we become more senior and plan for retirement.

My work in the ABA has had a profound impact on both my personal life and professional career. It has led to lifelong friendships with lawyers and judges from around the country I otherwise would not have met. It has enabled me to establish networking relationships that have generated substantial referrals of business. It has enhanced my profile and reputation. And it has afforded me the opportunity to make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the causes of social justice and gender equality in the profession and society at large, which I care about deeply.

What Have Been The Highlights Of Your Work With The ABA?

I was extremely honored and privileged to twice serve as Chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession; Chair of the Gender Equity Task Force; and Co-Chair of the Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law. In those roles, I launched a number of first-of-its-kind programs, initiatives, and studies to address the many issues and challenges confronting women lawyers, particularly women of color.

Working with Stephanie Scharf, I have researched and co-authored several cutting-edge reports for the ABA, including ground-breaking research focusing on why experienced women lawyers, practicing more than 15 years, are voting with their feet and leaving their law firms:  

“Walking Out The Door: The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice” (Fall 2019).

In addition, last year we published the first national study of the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession:

“Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward – Results and Best Practices From a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession” (April 2021).

Stephanie and I are now working on an important new research report for the ABA that will examine the “motherhood penalty” imposed on women lawyers with children.

Other ABA highlights include serving on the Board of Governors; as Chair of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary; Co-Chair of the Practitioners Reading Group for the Standing Committee’s evaluations of Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court; Chair of the Fund for Justice and Education; Co-Chair of the Commission on Governance; and a member of the House of Delegates for 17 years.

If You Had Not Become A Lawyer, What Do You Think You Would Have Done?

I would have completed my studies towards a Masters and Ph.D. in American History and would have gone into academia. However, as a lawyer, I have had the opportunity to guest lecture at a number of law schools around the country.