“I have real glasses somewhere,” Lois Schiffer laughs as she puts on a pair of red framed eyeglasses missing the right arm. The newly installed General Counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to read a memo from her staff to prepare for an upcoming phone call. “Okay, I’m up to speed,” she says after a few moments, returning her attention to her visitor.
As General Counsel, Schiffer is the top legal officer for all agency activities, including fisheries management, the National Weather Service and more; overseeing a staff of 100 attorneys. It’s a familiar role for her. As an Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice under President Clinton, Schiffer oversaw a staff of 400 lawyers and litigation related to natural resources on behalf of all federal agencies.
On this blustery Friday afternoon in a spacious but spare office at the Commerce Department, not fully unpacked after four weeks on the job, she is booked for the afternoon with meetings and phone calls until around 6 p.m. Men in gray suits and crisp white shirts periodically tap tentatively on her door throughout the afternoon to see if she has a spare moment to discuss urgent issues. An assistant reminds her that she has a pile of papers to sign.
“It’s so excellent,” she says when her 3 p.m. meeting is canceled, giving her a little more time. After listening to the staff in the outer office marvel at her energy level, her demanding schedule, and her additional responsibilities as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, you believe her. Who wouldn’t appreciate an extra hour of time? But otherwise, you’d never know it. As she talks joyfully about her new hobby of walking marathons, Lois Schiffer makes juggling the long hours, substantial responsibility, and steady stream of demands look easy.
Much of this comes from years of experience. Schiffer jokes that her first day at her new job was the day she got her Medicare card. While a reminder of her impressive energy, it also hints at the challenges she has faced in reaching her current position. Women now comprise almost 50 percent of law students in the country, but when Schiffer entered Harvard Law School in 1966, few women did. The dean at the time let her and the other 34 women in her class of 500 know that women don’t belong in law school, men do. In her property law class, the professor had the few female students sit conspicuously in the front of the room when the class studied dowries, to draw attention to their second-class status.
Despite this, Schiffer was proud to be there. “There was a sense that we were pioneers,” she says of herself and her female classmates. “I thought we were gonna make it.” She enjoyed the intellectual rigor and was committed to pursuing a career that could make a difference in people’s lives. “You can’t dismiss the importance of the civil rights movement at that time,” she notes. “This was a time when people believed that government could solve problems.”
Her Harvard roommate Dr. Josephine Briggs agrees. Now the Director of Alternative and Complementary Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Briggs says “it was preconciousness-raising at that point. Women’s issues, while there, weren’t the dominant issues in our lives. We saw ourselves as wanting to have careers doing the public good, and thought it would all work out.”
Schiffer’s first job out of law school was providing legal services to the poor in Boston. She liked the work, but didn’t like Boston and returned to Washington D.C. where she grew up, the oldest of four siblings of immigrant parents. Her mother worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare on women’s health and labor issues. After stints as a law clerk and at a private firm, Schiffer worked on women’s issues herself at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Her big break came in 1978, when James Moorman, a political appointee under President Carter, offered her a management position at the Land and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “I’m not qualified,” she replied. But Moorman thought otherwise. He was looking for a woman to help him revamp a sleepy low-profile division into a top legal team. The opportunity came with hazards though: her position typically had gone to men who had moved up through the ranks in the agency. Once there, many let her know that they thought she got the job only because she was a woman. Regardless, Schiffer was hooked. Soon after starting at Justice, a friend convinced her to fill a vacant spot rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. She has worked for environmental protection ever since.
Later, as Assistant Attorney General in 1996, Schiffer went West again to attend a ceremony in Nevada, and was reminded of the progress made by women since the beginning of her career. All of the five high-ranking officials attending the event were women, including the Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Attorney General of Nevada.
Still, the American Bar Association reports that women comprise only 31 percent of the lawyers in the legal profession and less than 20 percent of partners at private law firms. On average, female lawyers make almost 20 percent less than men. Some have argued that such gaps are the result of different choices that women make to balance careers and family. That hasn’t been a concern for Schiffer, who is unmarried and doesn’t have children.
David Uhlmann, who worked for Schiffer at Justice and is now Director of the Environmental Policy and Law Program at the University of Michigan., cites her intelligence, commitment, and knowledge as reasons for her success. “Substantively, she’s as good as it gets,” says Uhlmann. But she can be rough on those who haven’t done their homework or otherwise don’t pass muster; a style that has turned some people off over the years. Uhlmann wonders whether this has prevented her from reaching even higher levels in government. Regardless, Schiffer’s advice to young women today is to find something they really want to do and be persistent despite inevitable frustrations.
Persistence clearly has paid off for her. “Here they are,” she says triumphantly, holding up a pair of intact pink eyeglasses after rummaging through her shoulder bag.
Not quite effortless, but definitely successful.