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Paulette Brown
Paulette Brown

Q&A: Past ABA President Paulette Brown

Paulette Brown, American Bar Association past president and senior partner and chief diversity & inclusion officer in the New York office of Locke Lord, recalls her son once teasing her about her extensive mentoring.

“He said, ‘You have 267 children,’” Brown said with a laugh.

While he made up that number, her son’s sentiment reflects Brown’s longtime dedication to advising young attorneys and law students, especially people of color.

As the first woman of color to serve as American Bar Association (ABA) president, in 2015-2016, Brown created a Diversity & Inclusion 360 Commission to assess diversity in the profession, the judicial system and the ABA. She had served, in 1993-94, as president of the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest national network of predominantly African American attorneys and judges.

A graduate of Howard University and Seton Hall Law School, Brown said she learned about navigating the legal profession and life in general from mentors including a woman she met while checking into the hotel for her first National Bar Association convention in 1980.

“She has been like a big sister me since then, all the way down to including telling me that every woman should wear a strand of pearls. I didn’t have any and she gave me a strand of pearls,” Brown said.

Brown, who traveled to Minneapolis multiple times as ABA president, reflected on her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the profession and the value of mentoring as she prepared to return — virtually — as keynote speaker for the University of St. Thomas Law School of Law Mentor Appreciation Reception. The online event, recognizing more than 500 attorney mentors and judges, will take place on Wednesday.

Q: What is your role as Senior Partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Locke Lord?

A: To guide a strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, to develop policies and procedures to ensure the firm’s success in that regard.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: When I went to college, I went with the full intention of being a social worker because I thought that I could save the world. I had roommates who had come to college knowing that they wanted to be lawyers. I started taking political science courses, which were taught by some of the professors at Howard Law School. Howard Law School teaches you to be very service-oriented. And I’m like, I think I can “save more people” or “save the world” better if I’ve got a law degree, because it would expand the opportunities that I would have

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments as ABA president?

A: When I thought about the notion of being the first woman of color to be president of the ABA my first thought was that I can’t be a one and only, that there have to be people who come after me. And I thought about, sometimes you don’t know what you can be unless you can see what you can be so I made a commitment to visit as many Boys and Girls Clubs as I could. During my term, I visited more than 40 Boys and Girls Clubs. I went to all 50 states, at least once. I came to Minnesota, I think, three times. Internally within the ABA, I am especially proud of the work that my Diversity & Inclusion 360 Commission did. We got seven policy changes done in the ABA during my term. All of those are things that I think will have a long-term impact on diversity and inclusion in the profession.

Q: Where is the profession making progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?

A: Over the past year, I think because of the George Floyd incident, the pandemic and all of that the firms that are adding diversity directors, chief diversity officers has increased sixfold. People are coming to understand that, you get your best talent and you get your best results, when you are more inclusive. I have great hopes but for the past 20 years especially for women of color, the numbers have been abysmal especially as it relates to equity partners in law firms. Latinx women are like 0.85 percent of equity partners, Asian women are about point 1.8 percent, African American women, women of African descent they are 0.75 percent of equity partners.

Q: What role can mentoring play in increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?

A: There are so many people, especially people from underrepresented communities who have not had exposure (to mentors) and who don’t know what they don’t know. When you have a really good mentor or within an organization a really good sponsor, to help to guide a career and avoid the landmines or if somebody steps into a landmine, tell them how to get out and how not to make that mistake again, that will go a long way in giving them the confidence to understand what they are capable of and to show them what their potential is. A good mentor will continue to raise the bar for their mentee and create expectations of things that they’re able to achieve that they may not know that they’re able to achieve. When you have really great mentors, somebody who is invested in your success, you’re likely to stay where you are, because you believe that you will be afforded the same opportunities that everybody else is afforded.

Q: What do you get from mentoring?

A: I believe that it is very important to share knowledge. My mother always said, when you share knowledge, you lose nothing. Nothing is taken away from you, when you share the knowledge that you have. I’ve had a woman of color mentoring group since 2006. We meet on a quarterly basis, even on Zoom. Some of the people who started off with us in the beginning have moved on to really great things and I’ve seen them reach back to help other people do all sorts of wonderful things. That gives me such a great feeling of joy and satisfaction and it just warms my heart.

Q: What does addressing a Minneapolis audience mean to you after Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction in George Floyd’s killing and Daunte Wright’s death in a police shooting?

A: My heart is with everybody, in Minnesota and in Minneapolis. While in my opinion, the correct decision was rendered by the jury, the world won’t be watching so many of the other killings taking place around the country. What we can do to ensure that justice is administered in the right way and think of it not just that Daunte Wright was killed but why did they feel the need to stop him in the first place? The killing obviously was wrong but the first act that led up to it was wrong. How do we prevent that?

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