By Robert Loerzel
When Stephanie A. Scharf went to college in the early 1970s, she didn't even think about going to law school.
"I literally never knew a woman lawyer when I was growing up," said Scharf, who spent her childhood in New Jersey and California. "I never thought that women could be lawyers. It just never entered my mind."
One of her role models was an aunt who worked as a college professor, so Scharf aimed for a career in the academic world, earning a doctorate in behavioral sciences and psychology at the University of Chicago in 1978. But then she decided she wasn't cut out for the ivory tower.
"It's a very cloistered existence," she said. "And I am more in the world than that. So I just decided: I'm gonna be a lawyer. I thought it would be more fun. It's a combination of interesting intellectual matters with very practical solutions that affect real people."
And so Scharf — who had seen the importance of the law during the civil rights era of the 1960s — finally ended up getting a J.D. at the University of Chicago Law School in 1985.
Now, she's one of the country's leading experts on the status of women in the legal profession. For the past five years, Scharf has conducted a survey for the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), documenting the number of women at the country's 200 largest law firms and how they're paid compared with men.
"She has spent a career thinking about these issues, and not just thinking about them but actually trying to come up with strategies and solutions so we can actually see some progress," said Scharf's friend, Roberta D. Liebenberg, a Philadelphia lawyer who leads the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession.
It's not just a matter of research for Scharf. She also put her ideas about how law firms should operate into practice in 2007 when she founded the Chicago office of the nation's largest women-owned law firm, Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf. The firm's New York office is known as Schoeman, Updike & Kaufman LLP.
"They're a real success story," Liebenberg said. "They're a model — a real alternative to making the sort of structural, institutional changes that you'd have to have at big law firms to see real progress for women."
By the numbers
Women have been a growing presence in law schools since Scharf earned her degree in 1985. About 35 percent of law school graduates were female at the time, a "marked" increase over the previous five years, according to Scharf's reports for NAWL.
By 2000, women reached the 48 percent mark in law school classes. Ever since, the graduating classes at law schools have hovered close to 50 percent men, 50 percent women.
So as far as who's studying the law today, women seem to have reached equality with men. But the numbers inside America's large law firms present a different picture.
"We report the results of the 2010 survey with some consternation," Scharf and her co-author, retired lawyer Barbara M. Flom, wrote in their most recent report, which was released late last year. "Progress for women lawyers in large firms is not occurring quickly."
When Scharf graduated from law school, law firms at least had what seemed like a reasonable excuse for the lack of women in their upper ranks: There weren't that many women with law degrees.
But that explanation no longer makes sense.
Why has the percentage of women who are equity partners in large firms stayed around 15 percent for the past five years?
"It's been remarkably unchanging," Scharf said. "It's shocking, actually."
Scharf said there isn't any one easy answer.
"I do not believe there's outright prejudice," she said.
One explanation is the typical attitude women lawyers have about developing new clients and business for their firms.
"I do believe — and this is generalizing — women have not appreciated how important it is to generate business," Scharf said. "Women tend to have the view: 'Well, as long as I do a good job and I do good work on that brief, I can get ahead and I'll be recognized.' But it doesn't work that way.
"A large firm wants you to bill, bill, bill," she said. "In the long term, that's not the best for your career, because you have to spend time developing the relationships that eventually get you the business. You have to spend time establishing your reputation, perhaps by writing an article or speaking. The real challenge is balancing your short-term work commitments with your long-term career goals."
Scharf said she was fortunate that she worked at large firms with mentors who emphasized the importance of doing more than simply racking up a lot of billable hours.
After law school, she worked as an associate in litigation at Kirkland & Ellis, eventually becoming a partner.
"I had some wonderful experiences, although I lost most of my women friends along the way," Scharf said. "They left the firm. It was a very hard place for women to practice at that time."
She then moved over to Jenner & Block as a partner.
"Jenner at the time was a very inclusive, open, facilitating environment," she said. Her mentor there was Tony Valukas, a former U.S. attorney who is Jenner & Block's chairman.
Valukas said Scharf's educational background gives her the ability to understand scientific issues — and to help other people understand them. Those skills came in handy when Scharf and Valukas worked together on two major lawsuits involving questions about whether certain chemicals can cause illnesses.
"Thank God I was on [the lawsuits] with Stephanie, because she understood them," Valukas said. "She has a brilliant technical background. She is a very, very astute listener. She picks up on things very quickly. And she had an extraordinary ability to translate some very complex science into understandable terms. She's a remarkable talent."
Scharf said she did not bump up against a glass ceiling at Jenner & Block. She was a practice group leader and served on the firm's management committee.
"I have no complaints about Jenner," she said. "I was very successful there. I have the highest regard for Jenner & Block."
And yet, she does criticize the way big firms operate.
"When I was in large firms, I frequently worked 2,200 and 2,300 (hours a year). It's too much. You cannot do anything else but work and cross your fingers and hope that your family doesn't fall apart," said Scharf, who has been married for 32 years to criminal defense attorney Jeffry Mandell. They have two children, who are now 25 and 30.
Making a change
In 2007, Scharf decided to strike out on her own. "I always had an entrepreneurial bent," she said.
"I just always thought it would be fun to open a small firm, where my partners were my friends and my friends were my partners."
Scharf opened a Chicago office for the New York firm Schoeman, Updike & Kaufman LLP, where her longtime friend Beth L. Kaufman is a partner. Founded in 1969, the firm had more women in its upper ranks than the typical firm.
"It evolved into becoming woman-owned in about 2005," Scharf said. "It just happened. There was no plan. They woke up one day and it turned out that the majority of the equity was owned by women."
When the Chicago office opened, it was just Scharf and her former secretary from Jenner & Block.
"Every year we've been here, we've grown," Scharf said.
The office now has 11 lawyers, compared to 20 at the firm's New York office. "We've basically doubled our revenue every year. That's pretty good. I'm happy with that."
One thing Scharf does differently at her new firm is give lawyers time to focus on things beyond their billable hours.
"We don't have a minimum number of billable hours," she said. "If you're billing and then doing other things that bring you up to 2,200 hours a year, that's too much time to be a person. And here, we like our lawyers to be people. We all have a lot of outside activities. We think they inform our ability to develop as lawyers, because it gets you in a mix of people with different perspectives."
Partner Sarah R. Marmor said the firm's lawyers have enough time in their lives to keep up on the sorts of things most people do.
"If you don't have the opportunity to read books and see movies and take part in the popular culture, I think you lose connection to the lives of the people you're trying to influence when you go into court," she said.
Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf represents Fortune 500 companies — including chemical, pharmaceutical, manufacturing, food and consumer goods firms — on a variety of matters, with a focus on scientific issues. "We have a deep bench in lawyers who know a lot about scientific issues in the law," Scharf said. "It's unusual in a firm of any size."
Scharf said she enjoys trying cases in front of a jury and making scientific testimony understandable. She occasionally teams up with her husband on criminal trials, handling expert witnesses.
"The first time my husband and I tried a case together, our kids begged us: 'Please don't do that!'" Scharf said. "I don't know what they thought would happen, but I had a wonderful, wonderful time."
The structure at Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf also sets it apart from larger firms. As Scharf explained it, big firms make much of their profit by assigning lower-paid associates, staff attorneys and contract hours to do the bulk of the work.
In contrast, she said, "We have mostly senior people and very few junior people. When you hire us, you get experienced people with good business judgment."
And that means clients get good work at a reasonable rate, she said.
Ted Banks came to work as a partner with Scharf after serving 32 years as an in-house lawyer at Kraft Foods Inc.
"It made sense to me — the environment of working with experienced lawyers as opposed to a big law firm with a hierarchy and a pyramid and all that," he said. "I liked the idea of working with people I respected."
What's holding them back
Scharf said the structure of big firms is another reason why women aren't advancing.
Big firms are like pyramids, with a small number of equity partners at the peak and a lot of associates, staff attorneys and contract lawyers down at the bottom. Most women lawyers reside in the bottom part of the pyramid and there isn't that much space for them at the top, she said.
According to the most recent survey Scharf conducted for NAWL, women fill 46 percent of associate positions and 36 percent of counsel positions.
Higher up the pyramid, women are 27 percent of nonequity partners. Even higher up, they are 16 percent of equity partners. Meanwhile, women are 60 percent of staff attorneys — who aren't on a track to become partners.
"By definition it is a category with little possibility of career advancement," Scharf and Flom wrote in the report. They worry that firms might end up creating a "pink ghetto" as they shift more work to the female-dominated ranks of staff attorneys and contract lawyers.
The survey also found that 75 percent of the lawyers working part-time at large firms are women.
Working part-time helps them to balance their career and family obligations, but it also might hurt their chances for getting ahead, Scharf and Flom observed.
And it put women lawyers at more risk during the economic downturn. Half of all firms fired part-time workers in 2010 and, at 83 percent of those firms, most of the fired part-timers were women.
"If women are disproportionately being eliminated from part-time positions, then you're losing another source of experienced women lawyers," Scharf said.
Scharf, who is president of the NAWL Foundation, launched the annual survey in 2005 because she saw a lack of data.
"It really reflects my frustration at seeing what happened to women in firms over many years, combined with my background as a social scientist," she said. "There was no objective survey of firms as a whole before the NAWL survey." By guaranteeing anonymity, Scharf has persuaded the nation's large law firms to report data on employees and salaries.
"It's game-changing because it's straightforward, easy-to-read and factual," said Laurel Bellows, a principal in the Bellows Law Group P.C., who is president-elect of the American Bar Association. "NAWL has laid down the gauntlet to say, 'Here are some solutions.'"
Scharf's solutions include moving away from the two-tier partner system many firms have adopted in recent years, which makes it more difficult for women to move up.
She said the equity partners at those firms should be asking: "What can I do to maintain a diverse pool of people at the senior level? What can I do to make sure that they are not just older white guys?"
Liebenberg, a Philadelphia lawyer, said Scharf is the ideal person to conduct the annual NAWL survey — and not just because she's passionate about making sure women have equal opportunities.
With Scharf's background in the social sciences, she knows how to compile data and present it in a way that makes the argument, Liebenberg said.
"You can manipulate statistics, but she is not like that at all," Liebenberg said. "People want the data. They don't believe it unless you have the numbers to back it up."
Scharf jokingly said social science is her "hobby" now, rather than the profession she once thought it would be.
"I do like doing social science projects and projects for advancing women in the law," she said.
And she said she's found a similar sense of fulfillment by opening Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf.
"This was a project of the heart for me, something I always wanted to do."