Leadership Through Giving

Out of empathy, a hand for students with children

"I empathize with anyone who is going to law school and has young children. If I can give any help to someone in that situation, I really want to.” –Barbara Schifeling ’84

Sometimes things just fall into place. For Barbara Schifeling ’84, they pretty much had to, or else law school would have been impossible.

Schifeling had two young children when she decided on Buffalo Law, in pursuit of a lifelong dream of becoming a trial lawyer. The state-school tuition price helped; so did the fact that, at that time, the Law School allowed some students to attend part time. Schifeling graduated in four years, even holding a senior position on the Buffalo Law Review and doing research on land issues for a professor.

“Our children were 3 and 6 when I started, so that was the only way I could have done it and still been half the parent I wanted to be,” she says. “So I am forever grateful to the Law School.” She took that then-revolutionary idea of work-life balance to Damon & Morey, where she worked full time but served as a vigorous advocate for allowing women with young children to bill fewer hours and not pay a huge professional price for that.

“As a law firm we want the smartest and the best lawyers. My argument was, why are we taking a whole pool of talented people off the general partner track just because for a certain number of years they can’t work full time?” Damon & Morey then developed policies which allowed part-time attorneys to progress to partnership.

Now Schifeling, who retired this year from the firm now known as Barclay Damon, is extending that same care to the next generation of would-be lawyers. The Barbara L. Schifeling ’84 Scholarship Fund, endowed with her $100,000 gift, will fund a scholarship earmarked for students with financial need and children at home.

“I empathize with anyone who is going to law school and has young children,” Schifeling says. “If I can give any help to someone in that situation, I really want to.” The arc of her own career began back in high school, in Nebraska, when she visited the office of the county attorney as part of a school mock election. After earning a master’s degree in English at the University of Chicago, she taught high school English before she and her husband, Rev. Dan Schifeling, moved to Western New York.

That teaching experience, she says, carried over in two ways to her practice. First, there’s nothing like standing in front of a roomful of teenagers to sharpen your skills in oral argument. But also, she says, in law as in literature, it’s all about the stories.

“I discovered that telling the story to a jury was so similar to teaching high school kids,” she says. “It’s all about stories and people and motivations. I just love the psychology involved in that. And I didn’t realize how much I would love talking to a jury until I took trial technique. It was just like a light bulb. I thought, I really want to do that.” There were fewer women doing litigation back then, and even fewer who became law firm partners as litigators. But at Damon & Morey, Schifeling tried her first case within two years, and over the course of her career held first chair in a number of high-value cases locally and nationally, specializing in medical malpractice defense and cases involving environmental insurance coverage.

“One of the things that makes being a lawyer so fascinating is that every case is different,” she says. “And you have to keep learning, keep really working at understanding.”

She also has been active with the Women’s Bar Association and remains deeply involved with SUNY Buffalo Law, serving on the Dean’s Advisory Council and teaching depositions in the January-term bridge session. In January she will become president of the Western New York chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, which works to preserve the jury system and to help trial attorneys achieve excellence in their practice.

“Some people become lawyers and they find it’s not really the best fit for them,” Schifeling says. “To me it was a perfect fit, and for 30-some years I’ve done work that I just loved. So how could I not be grateful to the place that made that possible?”