In Bobbi They Trust
Why Roberta Liebenberg is a heroine to her clients
Published in 2009 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 21, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
In 1970, a young teacher—fresh from college, eager to make a difference—walked into a high school classroom in Maryland. Many of her students were children of poor tenant farmers who lacked proficiency in reading and writing skills. Running water and electricity were luxury items. She wanted to help them and people like them. So after a year she made a decision: to leave teaching. Not because she couldn’t do the job. But to do more.
Roberta Liebenberg grew up in Washington, D.C., daughter of a dentist and homemaker and sister to three brothers, who turned her into “kind of a jock.” In high school she met a handsome, smart boy at a party, went with him to senior prom and attended college with him at the University of Michigan.
They married after graduation. He went on to medical school at Georgetown University Medical Center while she started teaching in Calvert County, Md. She was hired to instruct math, social studies and anthropology—but it was she who got the education.
“I had all these plans and these kids couldn’t read or write,” she says. “It was a real eye-opener.”
So much so that she changed her plans. “I decided I wanted to work for social justice and equality,” she says. Law school became the path.
She applied and was accepted into the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. She thrived, becoming editor of the law review her second year. “I loved law school. Loved the challenge,” she says.
After law school she clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit before entering the private sector. People started taking notice almost immediately.
“I am a big admirer of her talents on many different levels,” says Burt Rublin, a senior partner at Ballard Spahr who has worked with and against her. “She is not just one of the best lawyers in Philly—she plays on a national stage. What I think sets her apart is the fact that she does work on both the plaintiff and defense side.”
Liebenberg is no “paper tiger,” he adds. “She is a very talented brief writer but she is not reluctant to go into court. She is obviously very smart, but you have intelligent lawyers who don’t have a lot of common sense—she does.”
She discovered antitrust law early in her career and really took to it. The fact that it involves both civil and criminal law—and revolves around protecting consumers—appealed to her.
She has had a leadership role in numerous antitrust class actions resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for victims of price-fixing.
One of her favorite recent cases involved representing Southwest Airlines as it fought to persuade Congress to enact legislation to repeal the Wright Amendment, which had imposed restrictions on Southwest and other carriers’ flights out of its home base, Love Field, in Dallas. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were 40 or 50 lawyers involved and very quickly Bobbi became the leader on the antitrust issues because of her tremendous knowledge and willingness to accept responsibility,” says Ron Ricks, executive vice president for corporate services for Southwest. “Here was an outsider from Philadelphia but she quickly became respected and trusted.”
Legislation allowed Southwest to continue using Love Field. Lawsuits resulted but the complaint against Southwest was dismissed “on the strength of the language Bobbi was responsible for,” Ricks says. “She was a real heroine to us.”
She has been a real heroine to a lot of people. Women lawyers especially. After making partner, she devoted considerable time and effort to mentoring them. Maria Feeley was one. “It’s critical to have female role models,” says Feeley, a partner at Pepper Hamilton. “People cannot reach their fullest potential without them. Everybody knows Bobbi and everybody loves Bobbi.”
She also went on to serve on many bar association committees, rising eventually to chair the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary from 2006 to 2007, and last year she was appointed chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. In October 2008 she received the Sandra Day O’Connor Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association, given annually to a female attorney who has demonstrated superior legal talent and has furthered the advancement of women.
“We’ve made strides, especially in entering and graduating from law school,” she says, “but it’s in the upper ranks of the partnerships where the problem lies. Despite a spike in the number of women lawyers, there has been no corresponding increase in the number of women partners. There are more women managing firms and heading law groups and working as heads of legal departments at companies, but there hasn’t been enough progress in other leadership roles.”
She aims to change that.
It’s been 39 years since she left that classroom. As Liebenberg sits in her lush office in Center City, she has a nice view of the art museum, Free Library of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. On a clear day she can see Fairmount Park. She thinks about her teaching days often but has no regrets about her decision. “Practicing law has been a powerful tool that can be utilized as a catalyst for change,” she says.
And in a way, she never really left teaching. “She cares,” says Feeley. “She mentored me because she has a good heart.”