Michael R. Schmidt
Paulette Brown, a partner at Locke, Lord’s Morristown, N.J., office, is the first woman of color to serve as president of the American Bar Association. Her one-year term began Tuesday as part of the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.
Paulette Brown, a partner at Locke, Lord’s Morristown, N.J., office, is the first woman of color to serve as president of the American Bar Association. Her one-year term began Tuesday as part of the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. — Michael R. Schmidt

Paulette Brown’s goal of meeting with bar groups in all 50 states has taken her to two states each month for most of this year.

But she’s not just meeting with lawyers.

The new American Bar Association president always tries to include one more stop with children at Boys & Girls Clubs.

“I want to be able to serve as a role model for young people, who come from a background similar to mine, that anything is possible,” she said.

Brown took office as the new head of the bar group at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago on Tuesday. In a profession that is 88 percent white, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Brown is the first woman of color and only third black attorney to serve in this role in the ABA’s 136-year history.

Promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is a personal passion for Brown, and one of her biggest initiatives as president is creating the new committee to address diversity in the ABA, law firms and law schools.

With equality and justice issues such as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and the law enforcement-related deaths of black men making headlines across the country, Brown said the voice of lawyers is critical at this point in history.

“I think the ABA will have a lot of opportunities to be heard,” she said.

No ‘girl’ jobs, no ‘boy’ jobs

The youngest of four children, Brown grew up in a close-knit family in Baltimore. Her parents gathered the family together at least five nights a week for sitdown dinners, and no one was exempt.

“My father always said there are no girl jobs and there are no boys jobs,” she said. “My mother always expected that we do well and there were no rewards for doing well.”

Although Brown attended segregated schools until the 10th grade, she believes she received a fine education because the teachers cared about her progress. The first and only person in her family to go to college, she attended Howard University with the goal of becoming a social worker.

Brown’s roommates wanted to be attorneys, and it was through them and another friend that she met law school professors and lawyers. She went on to attend Seton Hall University School of Law and graduated in 1976.

In the 1970s, many companies were looking for attorneys to help them implement the then-new Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Brown started her legal career working on ERISA issues as in-house counsel at a steel corporation and worked in-house for a few different Fortune 500 companies before opening her own law firm. She also served as a municipal court judge in Plainfield, N.J..

For the past 10 years, Brown has been a partner at Locke, Lord LLP in the labor and employment practice group, and she also handles commercial litigation. She is based in the firm’s Morristown, N.J., office and also co-chairs the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee.

Brown, 64, first got involved with the ABA as a law school student and since has served in many leadership roles such as with the ABA House of Delegates, Board of Governors and its executive committee, Commission on Women in the Profession, Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, Commission on Civic Education in Our Nation’s Schools and Section of Litigation.

She said she is humbled by the opportunity and historic significance that the role of ABA president represents.

“I think that anyone who is the first of anything has a unique responsibility. Because even though you’re the first, you don’t ever want to be the last,” she said. “I want to do the absolute best that I can do so that it will make it easier for other people like me to succeed.”

The ABA has several commissions devoted specifically to diversity and inclusion issues, such as the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), Commission on Disability Rights and Commission on Women in the Profession. The new Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360 aims to examine this issue from a variety of angles both within the ABA and the legal profession.

Greene & Letts co-managing partner Eileen M. Letts, who co-chairs the commission, said the group will look at internal ABA policies and all of its sections and committees, to improve diverse representation. The commission’s membership includes diversity advocates such as Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, and the group is collaborating with organizations such as the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.

“We’re not here to overstep the work of other organizations,” Letts said. “We want to collaborate with the numerous efforts that are already out there.”

The commission will also look at retainment and advancement among women and minority attorneys at law firms, who comprise a small percentage of equity partners. Fewer than 2 percent of equity partners are women of color, Brown said, which is a statistic that hasn’t changed in years.

The new ABA president wants recruiters to re-examine the factors involved in hiring, such as favoring graduates of elite law schools at large firms. Many general counsels at Fortune 500 companies did not graduate from those schools, she said, and are successful corporate managers for their organizations.

“We want to have a plan of action that will carry forth diversity and inclusion in an unprecedented kind of way so that you can have a sustainable plan for at least the next 10 years,” Brown said. “We’ve made progress in this area as a profession, but it’s been a little slow.”

Dennis W. Archer agreed. Archer served as the first black president of the ABA in the 2003-2004 term and is now an honorary co-chair on the commission.

He noted that an ABA policy prohibited black lawyers from membership prior to 1943 and even rescinded the memberships of three black attorneys who joined before that rule change. The first black attorney wasn’t admitted until 1950.

Given this history, Archer said serious discussion about minorities in the legal profession didn’t happen until the late 1970s and early 1980s.

During his tenure as ABA president, the Commission on Women started a research project to survey retention and advancement issues for women of color. Archer said the ABA knew from other research that women of color were leaving their first legal jobs within 55 months of being hired.

Brown co-authored the subsequent report, “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms” and traveled around the country to speak with bar associations about the results. Archer said Brown is a great listener who gives people an opportunity to be heard.

“She is very well-prepared, talented and an outstanding leader who knows how to ask penetrating questions and cuts right to the chase,” he said. “She has a great sense of humor but she is very serious about being a lawyer.”

No shortage of plans

Implicit bias affects decision making and outcomes in the justice system, Brown said, so she plans to develop training videos and written materials to help judges, prosecutors and public defenders identify these biases. Unlike overt, conscious or intentional prejudice, implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect people’s actions and decisions.

“I think when people understand that you’re not trying to shame them, that you’re just trying to help them look at what outside influences could possibly be causing them to frame their decisions in a certain way, they would want to be aware of it so they can adjust if necessary,” she said.

Things don’t happen passively, she said, so in order to combat these biases people need to pause, think about whether a bias is influencing their thought process and be “intentional and deliberate” in their actions.

Brown said she also wants to continue the ABA’s work in addressing the high percentages of incarcerated minorities. When a criminal defendant agrees to a guilty plea and receives a prison sentence, many defendants don’t realize the long-term consequences that follow them after they’re released from prison.

“In some states that means that you will no longer have the right to vote,” she said. “It means you can’t get certain licenses; like you can’t get a license to be an electrician, you may not be able to get a license to be a plumber.”

Through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, the ABA has created a database that outlines these “collateral consequences” in each state so that defense attorneys will be more prepared to advise clients. Brown said that she has been talking to the DOJ about creating a similar resource for judges, so that they can explain the consequences of entering a guilty plea.

Reaching out

Prior to her formal installation, in her time as president-elect, Brown visited 28 states as part of her Main Street ABA initiative and plans to visit two states a month during her term. The trips are her way of making a personal connection with bar associations and law school students as well as meeting non-ABA members to encourage them to join.

“Someone from Alaska said ‘Are you willing to come to Alaska?’ I said, ‘If you invite me I will come,’” she said. “It’s interesting, it’s very nice when people know that you’re serious about visiting with them and giving them some attention.”

Letts said when Brown went to Mississippi, the bar group she saw was reportedly ecstatic because no ABA president or president-elect had visited them in at least 20 years.

“She has the ability to really communicate well with other people,” Letts said. “When people meet her and talk to her, they’re willing to express their opinions because they can tell she will take their opinions seriously.”

Brown plans to launch a national pro bono project called “And Justice for All: An ABA Day of Service,” which will be held on Oct. 30.

While there’s a heavy focus on the connection between college, law school and professional life, Brown wants to see more outreach efforts to younger students, which is one of the reasons she has committed herself to visiting Boys & Girls Clubs. Many low-income and minority students wind up in a “school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.

“It’s getting the kids into college in the first place,” she said. “You can’t wait to see who you’ve got graduating from law school, you’ve got to get them there first.”

Although previous ABA presidents have participated in youth events during their term, Letts said Brown’s visits to the Boys & Girls Clubs are unique. She cannot recall any previous presidents participating in focused efforts on this scale with one youth organization.

Brown said most of the children and teens she has met think that all lawyers go to court, but once she tells them about the non-litigation side of the profession, they start to view it differently and think of it as a possible career.

When she visits the clubs, Brown also brings law school students or young lawyers with her. A few bar associations and law firms have embraced this connection, she said, and have talked about setting up mentoring programs with the clubs.

Some students from a Houston-area Boys & Girls Club shadowed Brown at the ABA midyear meeting last year and one of the teens kept in touch with her by e-mail. The girl was Youth of the Year at her club, Brown said, and eventually went on to win the 2015 Texas Youth of the Year for the state’s Boys & Girls Clubs.

“She said that because of her experience attending the midyear meeting … meeting so many different people and being asked so many questions by them, that she felt so much better prepared to compete,” Brown said.

She said it’s one example of how each person can use his or her talents to help make a positive difference.

“I believe that every person has something to give,” she said. “You can be a part of an organization and give a great deal, but I think that each person as an individual has something to give and should give back.”