A Call to Action

Editor’s Note: On Friday, February 3, 2017, the Law Practice Division’s ABA Women Rainmakers proudly presented the 2017 Marty Fay Africa Golden Hammer Award to Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg of Fine, Kaplan and Black. As Traci Ray, the chair of the ABA Women Rainmakers, noted from the podium, “The Golden Hammer Award is named after a champion of our Division, Marty Fay Africa. On January 22, 2015, Marty passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. A founding member of the global legal services firm Major Lindsey & Africa, she was the founder of ABA Women Rainmakers. Marty was known for her great passion and many contributions to the legal profession, including her focus on the advancement of women and minorities. The award recognizes leaders in the promotion of women and diverse attorneys in the practice of law.”

Ms. Liebenberg served as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession for two terms, and has been instrumental in launching, developing and supporting several programs, including Direct Women, which she co-founded in 2007 as a project of the ABA. Direct Women remains the only organization whose mission is to identify and support qualified women attorneys to serve on corporate boards. Among many other honors, Ms. Liebenberg was named a recipient of the prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, which is the highest award bestowed on a woman attorney by the ABA. We are pleased to present Ms. Liebenberg’s remarks on accepting the Marty Fay Africa Golden Hammer Award.

It is a great honor and privilege to receive the Martha Fay Africa Golden Hammer Award from the Law Practice Division. Being recognized with an award in Marty’s name is personally very meaningful to me in light of the enduring legacy she created through the Women Rainmakers Committee, and her tireless promotion and encouragement of networking and business development opportunities for women lawyers.

I would not be standing here tonight but for the generous support of my good friends and sisters-in-the-law, Susan Letterman White, Caren Ulrich Stacy, Pat Gillette, and Catharine Arrowood. Each of these distinguished women has stood by my side in our collective fight for gender equality. I greatly appreciate Susan’s efforts in spearheading my nomination and I am proud to follow in Pat and Caren’s footsteps in receiving this prestigious award.

As you know, women lawyers continue to face many hurdles in their careers, even though law firms and corporations have developed numerous diversity programs and initiatives over the years. Unfortunately, the pace of change has remained far too slow, as women still comprise just 18% of equity partners, a percentage that has barely budged in over a decade. Indeed, it has been estimated by the American Lawyer that, at this glacial rate of progress, women will not achieve parity with men in equity partnerships until the year 2181.

Moreover, women still lag behind men in leadership positions and compensation and are often treated unfairly in credit origination and client succession decisions. In fact, there is an inverse pyramid for women in law firms, as the higher up you look at every level, the fewer women you will find.

The statistics concerning women attorneys of color are even more sobering. They comprise only 12% of associates, less than 3% of partners, and 85% of women attorneys of color leave their law firms before their seventh year. Distressingly, these percentages have also remained static.

Clearly, disruption of this paradigm is long overdue. A significant gap needs to be closed, and we should not minimize the importance or magnitude of that challenge.

However, I don’t want to paint too pessimistic a picture, as I believe a number of steps can and should be taken to create a more level playing field for women lawyers.

First, we must refute the false narrative that not enough qualified women are in the pipeline and that we somehow need to transform ourselves in order to succeed. Women lawyers do not need to demonstrate more confidence, lean in further, or receive any special or extra training.

In reality, what is holding women lawyers back is not a lack of drive or ambition, but the myriad implicit biases they face and the entrenched and outdated business model of law firms. Consequently, in order to really move the needle, we don’t need women to change, but instead we need their law firms to make substantial structural and cultural reforms. In particular, management must set concrete goals and measure success, make transparency a priority, and hold attorneys accountable if they fail to meet targeted benchmarks. Merely paying lip service to diversity is not good enough.

In addition, we need individual lawyers, both women and men, to become bias interrupters. What do I mean by that? If you are in a meeting and a woman comes up with an idea, only to have a man then say the very same thing and try to take credit for it, speak up and recognize the woman’s contribution.

If you are involved in the performance review process and you hear buzz words like abrasive, strident or emotional used to criticize a woman lawyer, call out this implicit bias and explain that a double standard is often applied to women.

If you see that nominees for key firm committees do not include a sufficient number of women, you need to address this disparity. Having a critical mass of women in leadership positions sends a powerful message that the firm is truly committed to diversity, and research shows that it will lead to better decision making.

Finally, we need both senior men and women to step up and serve as mentors and sponsors for younger women to help them get seats at the table and become the future leaders of the profession

In conclusion, there is no doubt that women lawyers have made great strides. But there is also no doubt that we need to do much, much more. The glass ceiling may be cracking, but it still looms over us. Continuation of the status quo is simply not acceptable, and we cannot wait until 2181 to achieve equality. Therefore, as the Reverend Martin Luther King so eloquently stated, we must act with the fierce urgency of now. It is a daunting challenge but I hope each of you will follow Marty Africa’s example by becoming a catalyst for change.

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