Former New York State Bar Association President Bernice K. Leber recalls a time 12 years into her career when she was in the courtroom nine months pregnant with her son, Aaron.

A federal judge looked at her and in front of the jury said: "Miss Leber, before we start I want to say that I hope there's a Mr. Leber at home."

"How many other women lawyers have faced similar comments?" asked Leber. "What can I honestly tell young women attorneys seeking a career in the law?  Should I realistically warn them they will have a far more difficult path to becoming a partner than their male counterparts?"

Leber's remarks came in acceptance of the Ruth G. Schapiro Memorial Award given by the State Bar Association's Committee on Women in the Law during the Annual Meeting in New York City. It recognizes a State Bar member for outstanding contributions to addressing the concerns of women.

President Sharon Stern Gerstman presented the award to Leber during the House of Delegates meeting on January 26.

"She has led not just by example but by doing," said Gerstman. "She is a door opener, a supporter, a trailblazer for countless women lawyers and lawyers of color. She is a champion for equal opportunity and she walks the talk. 

"You see Bernice, like Ruth, is a mentor of younger women and a catalyst for promoting opportunity and access and for fighting for the rights of all women," continued Gerstman. "Bernice, our Association thanks you for not only following in Ruth's footsteps but for blazing new trails in your outstanding work."

Leber of New York City, a partner in the firm of Arent Fox, served as president of the Association in 2008-2009, at the time becoming its fifth woman president. Leber played a major role in convincing the Association to examine the depth of human trafficking, which resulted in the creation of the Special Committee on Human Trafficking. That committee, co-chaired by Leber, produced a report about human trafficking that was adopted by the House of Delegates in 2013. 

Over the years, Leber has co-chaired various NYSBA endeavors pertaining to women, including last year's Commercial and Federal Litigation Section's report regarding women in the courtroom, "If Not Now, When? Achieving Equality for Women Attorneys in the Courtroom and in ADR." She co-chaired the Committee on Women in the Law's Women on the Move program in 2005 and 2009.

Leber serves as a volunteer at the West Side Women's Center in NYC, which houses women and children who are victims of domestic violence. She also sits on the board of directors of the Women Trial Lawyers Caucus, a new group dedicated to enhancing the stature of women as active courtroom advocates and in opening doors and providing opportunities for women to take on such roles.

A fair future
Leber credited some of the male partners early in her career who offered guidance and recommended she handle an important case. 

"So I know that there are lawyers and clients in positions of power who recognize how important it is to give a woman attorney that experience," said Leber. "To do more than carry the bags into the courtroom and sit at the second chair of that trial table."

Leber, who noted that when she graduated law school in 1978 one-third of the class were women while today it is roughly 50 percent, said the cycle of discrimination must be broken or it is "a maliciously false promise to encourage young women to join law firms or go to law school." 

"Rather we must offer women and minorities the promise of a fair future to excel on a level playing ground," said Leber. "And for that to happen we have to speak up."