In a First, Woman of Color Takes Reins at ABA

Paulette Brown started as ABA President on Tuesday, the first woman of color to hold the position.

Last year, as president-elect, Brown said she traveled to 27 states and intends to continue her tour of the country, particularly to areas less-visited and populated with lawyers.

“One thing that I’ve been doing is visiting girls and boys clubs,” said Brown, a partner who practices employment law at Locke Lord. “I did not know a single lawyer growing up. That was in Baltimore … we’re going to let them see about the diversity of the legal profession.”

In an interview with Big Law Business, Brown listed some of her other priorities:

• Advocate on behalf of the indigent.

• During the national celebration of pro bono week from Oct. 25 – 31, “mobilize tens of thousands of lawyers to provide services.”

• Improve diversity within the ABA and profession.

• Spread the word that the ABA provides one benefit per day, such as a free webinar or podcast, without inundating members with email.

• “Look seriously at alternative ways to finance legal education.”

We asked her several questions about her priorities to find out what her experience as a lawyer has been like. Below is an edited transcript.

Big Law Business: You mentioned you grew up in Baltimore and didn’t know any lawyers. How did you decided on a career in law?

Brown: Growing up I had very strong family support all the time and it was always expected that you’d do well. I went to college not wanting to be a lawyer at all. I had the good fortune of having two roommates who came to college wanting to go to law school and we discussed it quite a bit and — I went to Howard University — … I came to understand that I would have a lot more leverage to help people as a lawyer than I would as social worker.

Big Law Business: Has it lived up to your expectations?

Brown: It has lived up to my expectations. I still very much enjoy being a lawyer and being in practice. I think many things have changed over time. I’ve been practicing almost 40 years. I’m not being a wise guy, it’s a really noble profession. I know it sounds corny but it’s how I feel.

Big Law Business: As the first woman of color as ABA President, do you feel a special responsibility?

Brown: Absolutely I feel a responsibility. I thought about one of the things I could do, and I thought if I visit Boys and Girls Clubs that would be something — because sometimes you can’t aspire to be something if you can’t see it.

Big Law Business: At law conferences, you hear a great deal about the high cost of legal education and questions about whether the law firm model is obsolete. How do you maintain optimism about the profession?

Brown: Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed and are being addressed. People are really looking seriously at alternative ways to finance legal education and to lessen the burden of legal education.

It is still a great profession. I think some retooling may be necessary. But once those things are done, I think people will understand it’s still a great profession. I don’t think there will ever be less of a need for lawyers.

Big Law Business: Can problems, like improving access to lawyers, be fixed in the next few years?

Brown: I think that we will make some headway. I don’t think we will close the gap. I think it would also help if there were appropriate funding of legal services. It is grossly inadequately funded.