MARCI EISENSTEIN – Schiff Hardin's first female managing partner

5 minutes with... Marci Eisenstein

Marci EisensteinWhy did you decide to become a lawyer, and what were you hoping for and dreading most? 

The simple truth is that I was an achiever who loved to argue and loved to write, and that I was the daughter of a doctor and wanted to be a professional – but I could not stand the sight of blood. I was hoping that I would have a gratifying professional life, and was worried about how I could balance that with being a wife and mother, which were also very important to me.  


How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?  

I always say you have to be smart to be lucky, and lucky to be smart. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to be a litigator. My career was largely set on its course by the fact that when I started at Schiff Hardin, I was assigned the office right between the head of litigation and his first lieutenant. (No one else was too eager to have that office.) The fact that they both walked in my door and asked me to do class action work for a longstanding insurer client – and that I enthusiastically said yes – shaped much of my professional life.

What has been the most defining moment of your career so far? 

When the Illinois Supreme Court reversed a billion-dollar judgment that had been reached against my client and entered judgment in my client’s favor dismissing the case. This was an extraordinary moment, because the case had begun years earlier with the ex parte certification of a nationwide class against the same client – before the client had even been served with process.

"I grappled with the problem that leadership or assertiveness in a woman was all too often perceived as shrillness."

What have you sacrificed to get to where you are now, and would you do it all over again?

I have sacrificed time with my children and time with my husband, and also downtime with other family and friends. I can’t say that there have not been regrets and self-doubts along the way. But I have been blessed with a very supportive family who believed in me and what I was trying to do, and to be at a firm that was committed to excellence, collegiality and inclusiveness, and which opened the doors of opportunity to me. And I have loved spending my entire professional life (36 years!) at a firm where every lawyer mattered, and where we work together to solve our clients’ problems.

What would you say is the most important thing a law firm or a lawyer must provide to their client?  

We need to partner with our clients, make their concerns our own, understand their businesses, and proactively get out in front of their problems without getting out in front of them.

When did you find out you'd been made managing partner of Schiff Hardin and how did you celebrate? 

At our firm, the managing partner is elected at the first meeting of our annually elected Executive Committee. I found out that I would be the managing partner when I was elected by the firm’s Executive Committee. As it turns out, I was able to celebrate with the entire law firm – because we had planned to bring all of the lawyers at our firm together for our Annual Meeting just a week after my election, and the meeting was capped off by a terrific dinner dance.

What challenges did you face as a woman rising to the top in a male-dominated environment?

Probably the hardest thing I faced was being the only woman in the room, with few to no role models, for much of my professional life. Unlike many of the men I worked with, and although my husband (also a busy litigator) shared significant responsibility for child rearing, I always felt the weight of primary responsibility for the family and our daughters. Also, I grappled with the problem that leadership or assertiveness in a woman was all too often perceived as shrillness.

How have attitudes to diversity changed over the past 35 years and what still needs to happen to make the legal industry more inclusive? 

Our clients and their customers are increasingly diverse, and it is their view that their lawyers can provide the best and most innovative solutions by pulling together diverse teams with differing perspectives. What is critical now is that we ensure that diverse lawyers are given the opportunity to lead those teams, and take leadership responsibility for the business.   

When deciding on the strategy for a case, what are the most important aspects to consider? 

For me, it starts with really understanding what the client’s objective is and what the client values; you may achieve a technical 'win', but if it was accomplished without honoring the clients’ priorities or culture, the client will not see it as a victory.

What law would you change, abolish or create? 

There are members of my family who have suffered from chronic illnesses since childhood, and I am a firm believer that health insurance should be a fundamental right for all Americans.  

Who is your female legal hero? 

Justice Sonia Sotomayer, who was raised by a single working mother, and who (like my own daughter) has been a Type 1 diabetic since childhood. She is truly remarkable.  

What career would you have in your second life? 

I would probably have been a psychologist or therapist; understanding human psychology is key to just about everything we do.

What slogan would you like to be remembered by? 

I do not have a slogan in mind, but I would like to be remembered as authentic, as a service leader, and as someone who opened the doors of opportunity for others.

What extracurriculars did you undertake at college and law school and what activities – whether law-related or not – would you encourage students interested in going into litigation to try? 

As a law student, I was heavily involved in law school clinical work, and I also sought out pro bono work as a young lawyer – with much support from my firm. That work gave me great opportunities to both get early hands-on experience, and to give back to the larger community.

What career advice would you give to young female lawyers, who might be discouraged by the gender imbalance within the partnerships of many big firms? 

First, have optimism and be proactive. There is an increasing number of female role models and mentors who are succeeding at law firms. And, as or more importantly, a growing number of our clients’ decisions are being made by female and diverse leaders who want to provide opportunities to diverse lawyers who are committed, engaged and substantively skilled. Make sure you are developing your professional excellence, and that you seize the opportunities that will increasingly be out there for you.