Studying the Talmud isn’t so different from studying law, according to lawyer Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Liebenberg.
“Studying the Talmud is, obviously, arguing about different viewpoints, which is exactly how you analyze cases,” she said.
It makes sense, then, that a childhood interest in studying rabbinical commentary of Jewish guidelines and theology would give rise to a long career in law.
On Feb. 22, the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey honored Congregation Adath Jeshurun member Liebenberg with the Judge Learned Hand Award, which “recognizes the contributions of outstanding members of the Philadelphia legal community who have distinguished themselves through their professional achievements and community leadership,” according to a press release.
Liebenberg, 73, is a partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black and has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in antitrust law cases, working with both those accused of and harmed by anticompetitive conduct, such as price fixing or monopolization.
In one of her biggest cases, the Huntingdon Valley resident was a trial counsel for the plaintiff in In re Urethane [Polyether Polyols] Antitrust Litigation, a class-action lawsuit where plaintiffs claimed an “unlawful price fixing conspiracy.” The class won, and the court entered a final judgment of $1.06 billion, the largest ever awarded in a price-fixing case.
But when she’s not arguing in the courtroom, Liebenberg is advocating for her fellow women lawyers, who make up only 12% of first chair or lead trial lawyers, according to a 2019 study Liebenberg helped conduct with colleague Stephanie Sharf through the American Bar Association. That figure is smaller for antitrust lawyers, as the high stakes and corporate partnerships create more barriers for women to become involved.
Liebenberg is the chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, a position she’s held twice and which was first held by Hillary Clinton. Throughout her multi-decade law career, her fight to increase the number of women in the profession — as well as address systemic inequities — has been at the forefront of her work.
Growing up in the Washington, D.C, area, Liebenberg attended a yeshiva through the ninth grade, where, in the seventh grade, girls were required to take a Shulchan Aruch class on how to run a Jewish home, while boys learned Talmud.
“I sort of channeled my inner ‘Yentl’ and ‘Norma Rae’ and organized the other girls,” Liebenberg said. “My parents helped me petition the principal to open up the [Talmud] class to girls.”
The experience engendered an interest in law, but Liebenberg’s passion in the field came later, after she graduated from the University of Michigan with an undergraduate degree and began teaching at a “de facto segregated” high school in southern Maryland. Students there struggled with reading and writing, with scores below their grade level.
“Just seeing the lack of resources and inequalities that my students face on a daily basis really prompted me to realize that law can be a very powerful vehicle for social change,” Liebenberg said.
Liebenberg received her law degree from Catholic University Columbus School of Law and began her career in earnest as a clerk for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. She later co-founded and served as president of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association.
As she climbed the ranks, Liebenberg experienced her fair share of antisemitism and misogyny in the workplace. Liebenberg began her career with a young daughter with whom she traveled, which she saw as an experience that built “grit and tenacity.” Her employers saw it differently, with partners at the firms for which she interviewed asking Liebenberg how many children she intended to have and what her childcare arrangements were.
Firms were an old boys’ club, sometimes hosting events in country clubs where Black and Jewish people were not allowed.
“Many of the firms had their meetings at private clubs where women and Black associates couldn’t enter through the front door, and so they had to walk through the kitchen,” Liebenberg said.
Liebenberg has witnessed progress in the profession since her career’s beginnings. There’s greater pay equity, and men in law offices are recognizing disparities and differences in treatment. There’s been a cultural shift, allowing more minority and women lawyers to speak up if they experience or witness discrimination. But the work isn’t anywhere near done, Liebenberg insisted.
“I always say that change is like heaven, right?” she said. “Everybody wants to go there, but nobody wants to die.”