Remembering Lila Roomberg
This photo shows Lila Roomberg at the 2017 dedication of the conference room Ballard Spahr named in her honor—the Roomberg Room—in the firm’s Philadelphia office.
Lila G. Simon Roomberg, a self-described “Jewish girl from Brooklyn” whose fiery determination and innate smarts enabled her to surmount a host of obstacles on her way to becoming a leading Public Finance lawyer, the first female partner at Ballard Spahr, and one of the first female partners at any Philadelphia law firm, died on March 17, 2021. She was 93.
Mrs. Roomberg retired from Ballard Spahr in 1990 following a 31-year career, during which she was involved in the financing of more than 75 health care facilities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and was recognized on many occasions for her legal excellence and her dedication to mentoring, promoting, and advancing the careers of women lawyers.
Mrs. Roomberg came to Ballard Spahr in 1959 following what she described as a fruitless, dispiriting, and humbling job search. Despite her degree from New York University School of Law and her experience in the legal department of Sylvania Electric, she had been turned down by firms large and small that simply refused to hire a female lawyer. The low point came when a New Jersey title company passed her over for a job that required no law school diploma.
At Ballard Spahr—which like many firms at the time was largely white, male, and Protestant—Mrs. Roomberg was hired to manage a huge trove of documents in an antitrust case in which the firm was involved. Impressed with her intelligence and competence, the firm’s antitrust lawyers began to feed her small research assignments unrelated to the case. Gradually, those assignments took up more of her time than her clerk/librarian responsibilities. She attributed the success that followed to hard work, timing, tenacity, intelligence, and pure luck. Those who knew Mrs. Roomberg would add one more to that list: fearlessness, as exemplified by the story she told of how she came to be a Public Finance lawyer.
One night as Mrs. Roomberg was leaving the office, Joseph Flanagan, a now-retired Public Finance Partner who went on to lead the department, asked what she was working on. Not much, she responded. He asked if she would like to close a school district bond issue in Kingston, Pennsylvania. She didn’t know where the town was and knew little, if anything, about municipal bonds. But she rightly saw this as an opportunity, and quickly said yes. She found Kingston and managed to close the bond issue. From then on, Mrs. Roomberg was part of a growing bond group and had enormous success in a career that spanned three decades.
She credited William Spofford, Ballard Spahr’s Managing Partner at the time, for his pivotal support of her career aspirations and her path to partnership, which was realized in 1971. The firm recognized that “changes were coming, and it would have to be more heterogeneous,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer for an article published the year she retired. Mrs. Roomberg also was the first Jewish partner at Ballard Spahr.
Mrs. Roomberg was the author of the book Turning Adversaries Into Allies in the Workplace, published in 1999. Firm Chair Mark Stewart quoted from that book in commenting on Mrs. Roomberg’s spirited confidence. “She wrote, ‘Risk is something we all must take if we are to succeed in an endeavor. To avoid ever making a mistake, one would have to work at the most menial job, never aspire to anything, live in a cocoon, have nothing to do with the opposite sex, certainly never marry or have children, or do anything fun, interesting, or potentially profitable,’” Mr. Stewart said. “Lila lived that philosophy and was unstoppable. Her fierce determination to succeed and her generosity to colleagues had a significant influence on the lawyers who came after her—women and men alike—and on the firm itself.”
Bonnie Brier, a former Ballard Spahr partner and longtime friend of Mrs. Roomberg’s, said she “was a mother and mentor” to both female and male associates, and that she took all the women under her wing. On Sundays, she would order Chinese food and gather young lawyers at her Center City home. Until just a few years ago, Mrs. Roomberg hosted networking lunches at which she brought together women from a variety of professions to get to know one another.
“What Lila accomplished as a Public Finance lawyer is certainly noteworthy, but it is only part of the story,” said Emilie Ninan, a Public Finance Partner and co-Chair of Ballard Spahr’s Finance Department. “Lila was extraordinarily kind and full of humor, and she was a woman of strength who did the hard work of rejecting the status quo. Women joined Ballard because of Lila, and as they found their voice in the firm, she was a steady source of sage advice and encouragement.”
In 2017, Ballard Spahr named a conference room in Mrs. Roomberg’s honor and hosted a dedication ceremony in celebration of her extraordinary achievements. The Roomberg Room is on the 48th floor of the firm’s Philadelphia office, overlooking the city where its honoree experienced both triumphs and slights—and once chased a mugger through the business district until he dropped her purse, and then continued her pursuit until he was apprehended.
Warm, witty, and elegantly dressed and coiffed, Mrs. Roomberg delighted in telling war stories from the early days of her career, when she was fighting to make her way in a male-dominated profession and, as a single parent, support her family (she was divorced and would later remarry). Private clubs in Philadelphia that welcomed lawyers would not have her as a member. She said she called the president of the Locust Club, since all young Jewish partners in Philadelphia were invited to become members there. He invited her for lunch—in the ladies’ dining room—and told her that membership would not be possible.
In New York, in one particularly galling episode, she was part of a group that had just closed a tax-exempt bond issue for the building of an elementary school and, as was the custom, was being taken out for a celebratory lunch by the underwriter. At the Lawyers' Club of New York, where the lunch was to be held, Mrs. Roomberg was stopped as she stepped off the elevator. Women were not permitted in the main dining room. After an awkward exchange, the party was shown to a table where Mrs. Roomberg couldn’t be seen by others dining at the club that day.
One of her favorite remembrances involved a partnership dinner at the Union League in Philadelphia. As she told it, the lawyers were leaving the club at the end of the evening when the doorman stopped Mrs. Roomberg at the main entrance and told her she would have to exit through the kitchen. Undeterred and urged on by her partners, she stood her ground in colorful fashion, threatening to strip off her clothes and go screaming onto Broad Street. She left by way of the front door.
“Lila understood that she had fought the big battles,” Ms. Brier said. “When we fought the small battles, she didn’t always agree that we should fight them, but she supported us.”
The Pennsylvania Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession bestowed two awards on Mrs. Roomberg: its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award (2010) for her dedication to advancing opportunities for women in the law, and the Anne X. Alpern Award (2002), which recognizes excellence in the profession and significant professional impact on women in the law. In 2000, the Philadelphia Bar Association presented her with its Sandra Day O’Connor Award, which is given annually to an outstanding female attorney who exemplifies the qualities of the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In her book, Mrs. Roomberg described the juggling act undertaken by women with ambition: “In my generation women who aspired to professional careers planned to alternate career with home responsibilities. The plan was to finish your education, marry, work for two years, have two children, stay home until the second child entered whatever institution that kept him or her for most of the day, and then return to your career exactly where you left off, or maybe, just a few months behind everyone else. I don't think that we ever considered colds, vacations, teacher's conferences, and certainly not out-of-town travel.”
Robert McQuiston, a retired partner and close friend of Mrs. Roomberg’s, said that she viewed herself as playing on a level playing field and did not seek special consideration because of her gender. “She was grinding out superb legal work, and that’s how she proved her value and her worth as a lawyer.”
Mrs. Roomberg is survived by her daughter, Virginia Simon, and son-in-law, Michael Feil; her grandchildren, Jessica and Timothy; and her stepchildren, Leon, Lisa, Rob, and Barry Roomberg.