Stephanie Scharf, '85: Founding Partner Advocates for Women in the Legal Profession

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2016

Stephanie Scharf, ’85, is a cofounder of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC. The firm, which was formed in 2012, is the largest women-owned firm in Chicago and is one of fewer than 30 women-owned law firms throughout the United States to have more than 10 employees.

Scharf, who has advocated for women in the legal profession throughout her career, says there were two primary motivations for forming Scharf Banks Marmor: “My partners and I believe that we can deliver high-caliber legal services cost effectively, provide clients with the kinds of professional relationships they seek from a firm, and do that in a satisfying collegial work environment. We also wanted to show that a women-owned firm can practice with the best of all the other firms that are out there.”

“Starting a new law firm is a scary thing,” she says. “A lot can go wrong financially, professionally, and personally. It’s not something I would have done if I hadn’t believed that we could offer distinctive value to clients and also create great working lives for everyone at our firm.”

Scharf came to the Law School after earning a PhD in behavioral sciences from the University of Chicago. “I had thought that I was going to be an academic, but I found that I didn’t have an academic temperament; I was drawn to more action.” Her six years with the University’s acclaimed National Opinion Research Center, while she was a graduate student and afterward, helped her succeed as a lawyer. “We were doing top-flight, scientifically sound quantitative research,” she says. “I learned how to get to the heart of things empirically, and I learned how to present data clearly and persuasively.”

She says there were two things about the Law School, and the University in general, that made a big difference in her life: “First, there was the commitment to interdisciplinary learning—no structures that prevented people from learning from each other. And there was no status system: it was ideas that mattered, and everyone was on an equal footing as long as they could hold their own in the realm of ideas. Those great qualities open up worlds of possibilities.”

She began her career at Kirkland & Ellis, where she would remain for ten years and become a partner. It was during her time there that she experienced an important realization: “All my women lawyer friends were disappearing. Practicing law wasn’t working out as well for them as they had expected.” She joined the National Association of Women Lawyers, rising to become its president and launching several high-impact initiatives that included the Annual Survey of Women in Law Firms. “My background in social science research helped me to create studies that no one could dismiss,” she says. “The facts were right there.” For the American Bar Foundation and the American Bar Association, she recently completed an innovative empirical survey about women as first chairs at trial.  She is a past commissioner of the ABA Commission on Women and a member of the board of DirectWomen. She has received awards from the National Law Journal, the Chicago Bar Association, and others recognizing her contributions to the advancement of women in the legal profession.

Scharf joined Jenner & Block, where she practiced for 12 years, as a partner in 1995 and was with a New York firm for several years before forming Scharf Banks Marmor. She and her husband, Jeffry Mandell (a criminal defense lawyer), have raised two children, a son who is an entrepreneur and a daughter who will graduate this year from Northwestern Law School.

Her law firm continues to grow. She says, “We are bringing on great talent, enjoying the luxury that a small firm has to hire experienced lawyers. Technology enables us to work more efficiently, minimize layers, and partner effectively with other firms to staff some larger projects. And we will only grow as fast as we can retain our core values.”

“The scary part of leading a new firm is mostly over now,” Scharf says. “The satisfactions confirm a personal belief that was very strongly reinforced by my time at the University: To be true to yourself, you have to be brave.”