Voice of Experience: Marci Eisenstein, Managing Partner; Schiff Hardin

Marci EisensteinHave optimism and be proactive, Marci Eisenstein advises young women.

“Work on developing your professional excellence and seize the opportunities that are presented,” she says, adding that she wishes she herself had known earlier the value of never being afraid to speak in your own voice. “People will appreciate your authenticity, and you’ll be more effective the quicker you learn that you should be who you are.”

But that includes balancing confidence with humility, since, as she points out, no one wants to work with lawyers who are know-it-alls. “Often women err the other way and project insecurity, so it’s also important not to be self-deprecating or downplay your work, but ask for the opportunities to grow,” advice she has put into practice throughout her career.

Setting Records With Nearly 40 Years at the Firm

With a father who was a doctor, Eisenstein always knew she wanted to be a professional, and law appeared to be an excellent fit, given her love of writing and speaking – and distaste for blood. She went directly from college to law school, joining Schiff Hardin immediately after graduation, and has spent an illustrious near-four decades there.

Although she knew she wanted to be a litigator, she has decided that the placement of her office helped dictate her future career path, sandwiched as it was right between the head of litigation and the first lieutenant. They stopped in her office and asked her if she would participate in some class action work for a long-standing client, to which she enthusiastically responded yes, knowing now that those first days helped guide her career.

Eisenstein became a class action litigator, handling numerous cases in the insurance space. Along the way she became the longest tenured female lawyer at the firm, a rank she will hold until she leaves, as the women who were more senior when she arrived have moved on. Three years ago she became the firm’s first female managing partner in its 150-year history.

“It’s gratifying to have had a seat on the firm’s executive committee to have influence in helping maintain our independence and unique culture,” she says. For Schiff Hardin that includes maintaining values focused on collegiality — mentoring and supporting a diverse group – as well as a commitment to pro bono work and loyalty to one another. “This is a place where we enjoy working together and develop deep, strong client relationships,” she says. “As a group we have an unwavering commitment to professional excellence, and having a role in maintaining that special culture has been a source of great personal and professional pride.”

In addition, Eisenstein is proud of the body of work she has built up, most notably helping secure a reversal of a case that had resulted in a billion dollar judgment. “Going through the process and achieving that reversal taught me an enormous amount about how to lead a team through tough times with tenacity,” she says.

Developing Opportunities for Women

Currently Eisenstein is proud of the firm’s leadership in the #MeToo movement in the Chicago area; having recently participated in a regional effort organized by the Chicago Foundation for Women that encouraged all participating businesses to host facilitated discussions for employees around a set of questions about how the issue manifests itself in their professional and personal lives.

All six offices of the firm took a lunch break and brought in the entire workforce, from staff to the most senior people, to talk about these issues. She participated in a session that included nearly 80 people — men and women, from new staff members to practice group leaders. “The dialogue was so open and authentic, and I was proud to be in a place that fosters this type of discussion,” she says, adding that she believes they were the only law firm that participated.

“We addressed a lot of issues and while we don’t have all the answers, the idea that there can be such frank and open discussion was very gratifying and goes back to the values of our firm we are able to maintain,” she says.

She herself sees that one of the main barriers for women relates to the gender imbalance in equity partnership throughout the industry, since it’s easier for young women to see a path to success when there are ample role models. While there are strides to be made, she is proud that Schiff Hardin is ahead of its peer firms in terms of equity partnership with 25% being women, compared to the industry average of 19%. “I like to believe this is a place that attracts women based on our model,” she says, adding that the perspectives offered by diverse teams has helped their own decision making. “We look for every opportunity to make sure we put forward the best team from experience and expertise, and that includes the diversity perspective,” Eisenstein says.

For initiatives to be successful, they have to emanate from the top down, she notes, and as the founder and original chair of the Diversity Committee, she has seen high levels of support to help it grow into a powerhouse committee where partners participate actively and associates participate in the firm’s multiple affinity groups.

Another barrier many women may face is the continued focus on hours over performance. “Too frequently workplaces value the time clock more than the effectiveness and efficiency of the work, and that approach can negatively affect women and how we manage all our responsibilities,” she says.

When she first started at the firm, there weren’t the same type of women-oriented mentoring or advocacy programs that there are today, so she did what she could, initially finding another colleague who was pregnant at the same time and working together to develop a proposal for how their maternity leave should be handled. Now of course, the firm offers numerous programs for gender-neutral parental leave, mindful return and other online courses that help parents navigate this tricky time.

A Passion for A Cause

Eisenstein’s oldest daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of three, when Eisenstein had just became a new partner. That insight into raising a child with a chronic condition has confirmed her family’s dedication to raising funds for finding a cure. She has served as chair for the Chicago gala, raising more than $5 million for JDRF research, and remains active in the Illinois chapter of JDRF. “When you are moving an organization through change and also taking care of a child with a condition they face day in and day out, you have to have resilience and optimism in life and work,” she says.

Eisenstein also enjoys spending time with her husband of 42 years, and her four granddaughters who all live locally.