Leading the Next Generation of Lawyers

ABA President-elect Paulette Brown discusses racism in the legal profession and her plans after taking office

When Paulette Brown takes office in August as the first female African American president of the American Bar Association (ABA), she will be able to add this designation to an already long list of accomplishments and recognitions.

Brown began her law career in 1976 after graduating from Seton Hall University School of Law. What has followed is a long, successful career that has included serving as in-house counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies; as a municipal court judge; and, for the past 25 years, as a labor and employment law partner and chief diversity officer with the firm Locke Lord Edwards LLP in Morristown, N.J.

In addition to now being the president-elect of the ABA, Brown has been actively involved with the organization, in various roles, for years. She has been a member of the House of Delegates since 1997 and is a former member of the Board of Governors and its Executive Committee, as well as the Governance Commission. Brown has also served on the Commission on Women in the Profession, chaired the Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, and co-chaired the Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Brown with students from Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law at the school’s annual International Women’s Day celebration (Photo courtesy of Washington University School of Law)
Brown with students from Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law at the school’s annual International Women’s Day celebration (Photo courtesy of Washington University School of Law)

Brown has been recognized by the National Law Journal as one of “The 50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America” and by U.S. News and World Report as one of the “Best Lawyers in America” in the area of commercial litigation. She received DRI’s 2010 Sheryl J. Willert Pioneer Diversity Award, the New Jersey State Bar Association’s 2011 Excellence in Diversity Award, and the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. In 2014, Brown was recognized by the Rutgers-Camden Black Law Students Association for exemplifying values advocated by Martin Luther King Jr.

And that’s only scratching the surface.

Brown spoke with INSIGHT Into Diversity about the racism she still often faces in her work and her plans for her new role.

How have you dealt with subtle racism and micro-inequities throughout your career, and how has this affected your work as a litigator and how you approach cases?

A better question might be, “What do I do when it happens?” Sometimes things are very subtle — of course that’s what a micro-inequity is. Sometimes, dependent on the circumstance, I ignore it. If I think the person does not realize what they are doing, I will let them know. I don’t believe in calling people out in public if I can help it, but sometimes people don’t know what it is they’re doing, and so I will let them know. Sometimes racism [is not] so subtle.

For example, I was recently in a courtroom, and there were several of us there, and [as we were being introduced], the woman talking to the judge said, “We have these people here … including the president-elect of the American Bar Association,” and the judge starts looking all around the room when I’m right there in front of him. Finally I said to him, “She’s talking about me.” He was looking all over the room, and she had really kind of pointed to me. But I guess, in his mind, he couldn’t believe it, so he was literally looking around for the president-elect. I didn’t think I could avoid not saying anything to him.

There are constant things that happen, or assumptions or presumptions that are made. Some people actually have no idea what it is they’re doing, and when you tell them, they’re horrified and they’re receptive to correcting it, which is why I always recommend that people take the [implicit-association (IAT)] test, so they can understand what some of their unconscious biases are.

In other cases, if you’re in a court case and a judge is [showing clear bias], you have to be really careful with what you say so that it won’t adversely affect your case. I’ve handled it different ways depending on the particular circumstance. I had a case where there was very clear bias, and the judge was doing all sorts of things that were wrong. Even when I would say, “With all due respect,” he told me not to say it anymore because I had no respect. So in that case, it was so awful — the bias was so bad — that I had to settle, even though we had a very good case.

How will these experiences affect what you do as president of the ABA?

There are many things in my experiences, and in those of others, that inform some of what I’d like to do when I become president of the ABA. I don’t know if everybody has seen the report that was in The Washington Post [on May 27]. I have never seen anything that has lit up the airwaves and social media as much as that article [called “Law Is the Least Diverse Profession in the Nation”]. To me, what was important were the other reports that were referred to in the article.

I find it so interesting … because there was nothing new, to me, in that article. I think it has to be said from time to time because people apparently forget that is the case, [that law is not diverse], so I believe we really have to remind people in a way that sticks with them. … It’s not ingrained in people enough that this is the state of the legal profession in America. It’s unfortunate that we have to keep reminding people, but you have to because things haven’t changed very much.

Do you see your role as driving that message home?

I see that as part of my role, and obviously, I can’t do that all by myself, so I’m going to need some people to help me drive and frame that message about how important diversity and inclusion are — how they really have to permeate an organization and be part of the fabric of it — not something where, “Oh, diversity is over here and the rest of us are over here.”

What are you most looking forward to when you take office in August, and what plans or initiatives do you hope to propose as president? Are any specifically related to diversity?

I was thinking about the responsibility I have to set a good example, and how people will be looking to me [for that]. I was trying to figure out what I could do, and I thought that maybe I could visit Boys & Girls Clubs of America wherever I go. I tried one out, and it worked out so well that I decided not to wait until I’m president. I’ve been doing that pretty much everywhere I’ve gone, and I think I’ve been to eight so far.

I chose Boys & Girls Clubs because they are everywhere; no matter what state you go to, you can find a [club]. And I think it’s important for young people who don’t have the same advantages as others to understand what’s possible for them. I also think it’s never too early to start building the pipeline for future lawyers. That really came as an ancillary thought, but now it’s really an integral part of what I’m doing as I do other ABA things, which I’m calling Main Street ABA. I’m trying to visit at least two states every month to meet with lawyers, law students, and members of Boys & Girls Clubs.

The other thing is that I am asking the ABA Board of Governors for the authority to have a commission on diversity and inclusion. It will be called Diversity and Inclusion 360 and will look at a number of issues related to diversity and inclusion, including the economics of the profession and law school.

We’re also looking at some issues related to the criminal justice system pipeline and trying to come up with some workable recommendations that will change the legal profession and diversity and inclusion as we’ve previously known them. We want things to be institutionalized so that whoever comes later will have mechanisms in place to build upon diversity and inclusion so that it won’t be something that we just continue to talk about — it will be ingrained in what we do.

What effect do you think your being president of the ABA will have on influencing future minority lawyers and attracting them to the profession? 

I think it’s already had a positive effect. I know with the ABA, [many] people have said that they’re now going to join. So in that regard, it’s had a really positive effect. And also, going to the Boys & Girls Clubs and speaking to some of the high school [students] who said they had no interest in being a lawyer — they had no idea what a lawyer does. They thought every lawyer goes to court, and when they understood that there are many different things lawyers do, several of them said, “Well I’m going to reconsider [my] major in college and really think about going to law school.” And so that makes me happy.

Do you have any advice for law students, particularly minority students?

Law school is very different from [college]. It’s a different way of thinking. One of the objectives of law school, in addition to the research, is to have you think in a different kind of way. My advice is that you have to dig in from — actually before — day one because there’s no time to play catch-up in law school. Student membership in the ABA is free, and there are valuable resources, so utilize every resource that is available to you. Do not be shy, and do not be afraid to ask questions, because that’s the best way to learn.

Are you optimistic about the future of law and diversity?

I am cautiously optimistic.●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more with Paulette Brown, read our online exclusive.