Teaching students in an inner-city Detroit high school and later in a school in rural Maryland in the early 1970s opened Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg’s eyes to inequities in education funding and led her to change her career to law.
Liebenberg said she had been hired to teach anthropology, social studies and math but soon discovered the impossibility of her assignment. “Most of my students couldn’t read,” she said. “What motivated me was seeing these economic inequalities. To really move the needle, I wanted to do more.”
Liebenberg, now senior partner in Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, enrolled in Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law but faced challenges in getting her J.D. “I had my first child in law school,” Liebenberg said.
Accompanied by her baby, Liebenberg drove frequently to Richmond, Virginia, where her husband, Robert, was in a medical residency program. After graduating from law school in 1975, Liebenberg clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Not many women were practicing law at that time, Liebenberg said. She was asked some unusual questions when she interviewed with law firms.
“My favorite question was, would you cry if a judge yelled at you?” Liebenberg said. Her response: “Would it help the client? I could totally cry if that would help.”
Liebenberg said she was the first female attorney in Hunton & Williams’ antitrust department in Richmond. While there, Liebenberg banded with other women to form the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association for which she served as president in 1976 and 1977. Returning to Philadelphia in the late 1970s, Liebenberg became a partner in Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen. In 1992, Liebenberg co-founded Mager, Liebenberg & White, the first all women-owned law firm in Philadelphia to focus on complex commercial litigation. It was the Year of the Woman, and “a very exciting time,” she said. Her family responsibilities also were increasing; she had three children by that time.
Liebenberg said she received “too good an offer to pass up” in 2000, when she joined Fine Kaplan and Black. Over the years she has worked on a number of major cases, including serving as a trial counsel for the plaintiff class in In re Urethane (Polyether Polyols) Antitrust Litigation tried in federal court in Kansas City in 2013. The jury’s verdict against Dow Chemical was tripled for a $1.06 billion award, the largest judgment ever in a price-fixing case in the United States.
In addition to her skills as an attorney, Liebenberg has served as a leader in efforts to advance women in the legal profession, working with numerous national, state and local bar associations and other organizations. She was appointed as a leader-in-residence at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law and has twice chaired the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. “I’m the only one to have done that,” she said.
Liebenberg co-founded and has served for the past five years as chair of DirectWomen, which is dedicated to increasing the representation of women attorneys on public company boards. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also appointed her as co-chair of the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness.
In 2015, Liebenberg co-authored “First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table,” a first-of-its-kind empirical study of the participation of men and women as lead counsel and trial attorneys in civil and criminal litigation. Liebenberg also currently co-chairs the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long Term Careers in Law for Women.
Pat Gillette, a San Francisco-based lawyer, mediator, author and speaker on gender diversity and equality, has worked with Liebenberg on gender-related issues. Gillette said Liebenberg is “a mover and a shaker” who makes things happen. Liebenberg does not just note a problem and write about it. “She gathers together her possible solutions,” Gillette added.