GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005
Voices of Experience
William E. Brown
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, I earned my JD and Certification in Labor and Employment Law from St. Louis University School of Law. I received a BS degree from Vanderbilt University. I was inspired to become a lawyer because of the pivotal role that the law plays in every aspect of our lives and in the history of the country. Lawyers and judges have changed the course of American history for the better.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
The U.S. Army JAG Corps offered the opportunity to develop advocacy skills in a broad range of legal practice areas, including criminal law, administrative law, labor law, contract law, and international law. Currently I am serving as the Senior Defense Counsel for the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service Central Field Office in Iraq, which is responsible for providing defense services to more than 35,000 soldiers. I provide legal counsel to soldiers facing courts-martial charges, administrative separation proceedings, and criminal investigations. As part of my responsibilities, I also coordinate with military law enforcement authorities, including the Criminal Investigative Division, Military Police Department, and U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory. Previously, while serving in Oklahoma at the U.S. Army Field Artillery Center on Fort Sill, I prosecuted soldiers at courts-martial. I also served as a Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma and prosecuted military personnel and civilian offenders in U.S. Magistrate Court or U.S. District Court for offenses committed on federal property (i.e., military installations). While serving as a legal assistance attorney, I provided counsel and limited representation to soldiers, retirees, and their families in areas such as estate planning, family law, landlord-tenant law, federal and state tax matters, and consumer protection. As an International and Operational Law Attorney, I provided legal advice to military leaders in the international law arena, interpreting treaties (e.g., Hague Treaties), international conventions (e.g., Geneva Convention and Geneva Protocols), the law of war, and the rules of engagement.
What are the biggest changes in law practice you have observed through the years?
The use of technology in the courtroom is the biggest change in courtroom practice. Goodbye to cardboard displays and hello to PowerPoint presentations, evidence on CD-ROM or DVD, video crime-scene animation, etc. Be advised, however, that technology is a tool and not a replacement for great advocacy.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
Practicing with JAGs and Special Assistants to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma taught me the importance of preparation and passion in the practice of law. The performance of these lawyers in court taught me how to effectively articulate the law, expound upon the facts, and highlight the equities of a case in a manner that wins judgments and leaves no doubt about who, besides the judge, controls the courtroom.
Whom do you most admire?
I most admire my wife, Dr. Marilyn A. Brown, a pediatrician in Atlanta, Georgia. During my deployment in Iraq, she has done an extraordinary job managing the home front and providing me the support needed to accomplish my mission. In the legal profession, I have a number of role models whose approach to the practice I admire: the Honorable Thurgood Marshall, a grandson of a slave who rose to be the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court; the incomparable Willie Gary, a Florida lawyer who grew up in a poor migrant family and became one of the most successful trial lawyers in the nation; Gerry Spence, a Wyoming attorney who has spent years helping the poor, the injured, and the forgotten through his practice; and the Honorable Adolpho A. Birch, the first African American Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Following my graduation from Vanderbilt University, Justice Birch gave me the honor of serving as his assistant during his retention campaign. During those campaign stops across the state of Tennessee, I learned an incalculable amount about justice and freedom. I also had the great honor of meeting the great Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. on two occasions. During both meetings, Mr. Cochran provided expert advice and professional encouragement for my career. That an attorney of his stature took his personal time to give me advice and guidance made a lasting positive impression.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
First, keep a clean record. Second, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust, but verify.” Finally, “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
What was the worst professional advice you ever received?
Let your subordinate do all the work—then you take all the credit. This goes against every principle of leadership and accountability that I have learned to trust. Those whom I have the honor of supervising and leading have the assurance that I keep their best interests in mind and that any success we achieve will be celebrated as team success.
Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP|Solo Section involvement?
My personal charge to service initiated my involvement with the bar. I believe it is my duty to actively participate with legal professional associations that foster the principles of duty and service to the public, to improve the administration of justice, and to advance the science of law. The guidance of mentors then led me to broaden my participation with the bar. While serving as Chair of the Military Law Section of the National Bar Association, I had the great fortune of meeting Lieutenant Colonel James M. Durant III and Colonel Will A. Gunn, both of whom I regard as mentors, role models, and friends. Both gentlemen are members of the ABA, and I looked to their participation as additional personal motivation. The forethought of an ABA committee member, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Gregory M. Huckabee, my former supervisor at First U.S. Army, provided me with an application for a fellowship with the GP|Solo Section and encouraged me to apply.
What can the ABA and/or GP|Solo Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Challenge young lawyers to do more for the ABA and/or GP|Solo Section. These organizations offer tremendous resources to support young lawyers, who should reciprocate with their own active involvement and assistance. From a practical standpoint, young lawyers want guidance, support, and opportunity. The ABA and GP|Solo Section should assign professional mentors to individual or small groups of young lawyers. These mentors should go beyond the typical role of simply giving advice. There should be a mechanism for goal setting and a follow-up program to determine the effectiveness of the mentorship. The ABA and GP|Solo Section should also take a more proactive role in connecting young lawyers with the appropriate networks that will provide interviews and job opportunities, including transition support for young lawyers who are between jobs and are looking for assistance finding that next opportunity.
What personality trait has served you best through the years?
My sense of accountability has protected my best interest and those whom I serve. Passing the buck is just an excuse for not having the personal fortitude to overcome obstacles. Being accountable and taking full responsibility for my actions, as well as the actions of those who serve under my supervision, is a formula for achieving respect and overcoming great odds.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
Much of the public believes that the criminal justice system is not equal, and therefore not just. I believe lawyers should take a proactive role in educating the public regarding the aggravating factors, mitigation, and extenuation that judges take into account when imposing sentences in criminal cases. Such action will serve to increase public awareness and confidence in the procedural fairness of the judicial system.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
- Find mentors. You need wise counsel from those with experience.
- Burn the midnight oil. You just never know when you will come across the case law, regulation, or statute that may play a pivotal role in the success of your client’s case. In addition, during the quiet hours (when the phones are quiet, e-mails stop, and clients are gone) you can better concentrate on trial preparation—such as your opening statement, cross-examination, or closing arguments.
- Be creative. The practice of law is ever evolving. Look for creative ways to benefit your client.
- Every opponent is not always an uncompromising adversary. Tactfully build bridges, and your opponent may cross over to your position.
- Enjoy your work. Make your vocation a vacation. If you don’t have passion for the law and the positive impact it has on our society, it will show. Put your heart into our noble profession and you will be greatly rewarded for your efforts.