October 31, 2013

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Paula Boggs

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University and before attending the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, Paula Boggs completed U.S. Army Infantry Airborne School. In her first job as a lawyer, she served as a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Pentagon and later worked as a staff attorney for the White House. From 1988 to 1994, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Washington and then entered private practice as a partner at Seattle’s Preston Gates & Ellis, specializing in corporate civil litigation. Eventually, Boggs moved in-house, serving first as vice president of legal at Dell Computer Corporation and then as executive vice president and general counsel at Starbucks Coffee Company. In addition, she’s volunteered for many legal and civil organizations, including the ABA’s House of Delegates, the American Red Cross, and Washington State’s Campaign for Equal Justice. In 2010, President Obama named Boggs to the White House Council for Community Solutions. She’s now retired from law practice and spends much of her time as a singer and songwriter with the Paula Boggs Band. 

You lived in Germany and Italy as a teen. How did that impact you?

I continue to be amazed by the number of ways living in Europe in my childhood has affected who I am. In 1972, when I was 13, my mother took herself and four children out of Virginia to Germany, where she became a school teacher and then an elementary school principal. We later moved to Italy. I had an opportunity to be in an environment where I was a minority as a U.S. citizen in a country that had ambivalence around the U.S. presence there. That taught me to view the U.S. more objectively than most Americans get the opportunity to – it also exposed me to the U.S. military for the first time. It also affected how I view terrorism. For most Americans, when they hear the word terrorism, they default to the Middle East. In contrast, because terrorism was taking place in Europe in the 1970s, that's my default. So I just have a different prism through which I view terrorism. Finally, the exposure I had to classical music and opera there has had a lifelong, wonderful effect on me. 

What inspired you to attend law school and practice law?

I have to be really honest: the path of law school was a choice of expedience for me. In the summer between my junior and senior years as an Army ROTC scholarship cadet at Johns Hopkins, I first went to Airborne School and then following that immediately, I went to advanced camp for ROTC cadets with six weeks of intensive military training. I recognized that I wasn't quite ready for active duty. I'm a very creative person and thought through ways to deal with my situation. What I came up with was educational delay. 

In terms of practicing law, my first four years were spent as a military officer in the Pentagon and the White House. At the White House, my boss sat me down and said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I said, "I don't know. But I know I want to move to Seattle.” I had fallen in love with the city while in law school after a road trip. In a brilliant piece of mentoring, he said, "Paula, you should be an assistant U.S. attorney.” He very methodically made his case, which was quite compelling. So it was because of him that I even imagined becoming a federal prosecutor after finishing my military commitment. Those decisions were the foundation for what is now almost a 30-year law career. 

What did you learn in the ROTC that you applied to your legal career?

The most important lesson was the whole experience of attending Airborne School between my junior and senior year. I'm afraid of heights. I was afraid of heights before I went to Airborne School and I'm afraid of heights today. What Airborne School taught me was how to manage fear. What I achieved at Airborne School has been a metaphor for my career. When things are hard, I can always come back to that airborne experience and say, "Are you crazy? You jumped out of planes. So you can do this." At many crossroads in my career, I have come back to that metaphor for strength and inspiration. 

What was the highlight of working as a federal prosecutor?

I'll have to be unabashedly corny and patriotic here. The best thing was every time I was able to stand up and say, "Paula Boggs, representing the United States." That was the high for me, every single time. It never got old. 

What was the highlight of working on the Iran-Contra legal task force in the Reagan White House?

It was the people. I had the privilege of working with some of the most incredible people. Even though I don't consider myself a Republican, I worked with some amazing Republicans during that time. Democrats and Republicans disagreed on many things during the Reagan era, but there were many things that brought them together. Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy worked together towards legislation that benefitted all of us. My hope is that some day Congress and our executive branch can return to that level of collaboration. 

What was it like to transition from government work to private practice?

It was very difficult for me. I have done best when I'm in an environment that prizes and rewards a sense of team and mission. Even though I was with an amazing law firm and I'm still in touch with many of the people who were my partners, I did not find the level of mission and sense of team I need to be most fulfilled. 

You've been described as fearless. Is that true? If so, why?

You know, it's not true. People sometimes conclude that, because I have mastered the ability to manage my fear effectively. I think that it's important for people to be fearful, for there to be a sense of fear, urgency, and uncertainty in life, not just in your job, but in life in general. That's what makes it interesting. 

How did you come to go in-house at Dell Computer?

It was extremely serendipitous. I was in the throes of what turned out to be my last trial in private practice. It was a slog-fest kind of trial. I saw an ad for the general counsel position for a university. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I applied for that job. The headhunter said they thought I was too young. The same headhunter three weeks later called me and said, "Paula, I just learned about this amazing job. I think you're perfectly suited for it." It was the Dell job. So that's how it happened. Within a couple of months of that conversation, I was moving from Seattle to Austin, Texas. 

What was the most rewarding part of being general counsel of Starbucks?

Honestly, the most rewarding thing about serving as general counsel at Starbucks was having someone I groomed for 10 years succeed me as general counsel. 

What was the biggest challenge of leading the Starbucks legal team given that it's such a high-profile company?

The hardest part was retention. It was very easy to recruit talent to Starbucks. It's an iconic brand, well-known, well-loved. So Starbucks never has a problem attracting talent. And its law department is filled with the best and brightest. But to keep that talent, you have to continually create a sense of community that people want to be part of, pay them fairly, get them the right exposures, put them in situations that may cause them to fail, but also know that it will cause them to grow. That takes a lot of work. That was the most challenging piece: keeping great people. 

What was your role with the White House Council for Community Solutions?

The White House Council for Community Solutions was created by the president by executive order at the end of 2010 with a 24-month mandate. The council completed its work in June 2012. The whole purpose of the council was to put a spotlight on the 6.7 million young Americans – or one in six between the ages of 16 and 24 – who are either not in school or not working. It was incredibly rewarding for me because one of the subsets of that population that is of acute interest to me are young veterans, who sign up and volunteer at age 17, 18, have done several tours of duty, and then by age 25, they can't find work. 

What do you perceive are the barriers today for a black woman achieving success in the legal profession? How were you able to overcome barriers that existed when you were in law school?

I cannot overemphasize the importance of mentoring in the success of anybody in the legal profession. Many studies show that many of us tend to be most comfortable mentoring people who remind us of ourselves. So in a profession where the number of black women is small, and the number of black women in positions of leadership even smaller, it really takes a village to ensure that black women entering the legal profession are getting their fair shake. I was very fortunate as a young lawyer in starting my career in the Pentagon and White House because there were people of all races and genders who took an interest in me and invested time. Candidly, I don't know if I would have gotten that level of support and mentoring had I started my career in private practice. By the time I got to private practice, I had had 10 years of intense mentoring, thanks to Uncle Sam. I feel quite fortunate. 

What have been the highlights of being part of the ABA Business Law Section?

The ABA Business Law Section is phenomenal on many levels. The materials produced out of the section are first rate, and I have often found myself relying on information I learn through business law publications to educate myself – keep current on issues. The Section’s CLE offerings are outstanding. The networking opportunities are also quite wonderful. 

What is a commonality among the most successful business lawyers that you know?

Being smart is a given. The most successful ones are laser-focused on their customer, the client. They really want to understand how that client as a business makes money. That can translate into huge financial success for business lawyers because clients want to be understood. 

I’ve heard you described as highly energetic. How do you maintain such a high level of energy in so many demanding and high-profile jobs?

Part of that is I've always been incredibly physically fit. I ran track and cross country in high school and college. I continue to run and cycle today. Certainly health and well-being are important ingredients to being energetic. I'm also fortunate to have an amazing spouse. There is a close tie between one's emotional well-being at home and your ability to be engaged and energetic at work. Finally, I’ve learned – and I certainly didn't know this in my 20s, it's been an acquired learning – not to sweat the small stuff. I learned over time how to tell the difference between the big stuff and the small stuff. 

Is it fair to say that you are retired from the legal profession?

When I take those personality tests or What Color is Your Parachute?, lawyer never comes up. I think stuff like CEO has come up. Even archeologist has come up. I have been very, very fortunate in my business and legal career to be at point in life where I could take the sort of metaphoric leap into the unknown and try to create something more entrepreneurial. 

The first thing that was hugely entrepreneurial for me was volunteering for the Obama campaign because I got to create a lot of what I did on behalf of the campaign. I serve on corporate boards. I do the nonprofit stuff I want to do. I give the speeches I want to write. I'm in the throes of creating a second album for the Paula Boggs Band. The freedom to do these things propelled my decision to leave a company I love to begin this new chapter. 

What did you like the most and least about practicing law?

I love developing people. I love problem solving. I love adding value to organizations and teams. What I like least about the practice of law is the profession has become less a profession and more of a business. 

You took a songwriting class in 2005. You have the Paula Boggs Band. Tell me about music in your life.

The songwriting class was offered through the University of Washington's extension program. It was a wonderful, serendipitous activity for me because it certainly was not on my radar. I saw an ad for the songwriting course. I was intrigued by it, but I quickly came to, "Oh, I don't have time for that." My spouse said, “You can make time.” I auditioned, was accepted, and was one of 15 people in a community of songwriting. 

At the end of that year, one of my teachers actually provided yet another mentoring moment when she said, "You know, Paula, you really have something here. What a shame it would be if you didn't keep going." And so, with that, I was inspired to make a New Year's resolution at the beginning of 2007 to do one open-mic a month, which I did. 

Along the way, I started collecting these wonderful musicians who wanted to play with me. They dug my music. By the beginning of '08, we were doing gigs. So the Paula Boggs Band began somewhat organically. We did our first record in 2010. Three years later, we're making another. My fellow band members are like family now. Most of us have been playing together for five or six years. It's been very special. 

What kind of music do you play?

We call it jazzy, bluesy, folk rock. When we release this new record, it will be all of that. 

Do you have a favorite band of your own?

I have many, many favorite bands, so it would be reckless of me to choose just one. 

Besides music, what are your main interests in life?

I'll start with family. I have been with the same person for almost 24 years. And thanks to the State of Washington, we were able to get married at the end of 2012. Shortly thereafter, we became the guardians of my youngest brother's 10-year-old daughter. So now not only are we newlyweds, but we are the parents of a 10-year-old girl. We've gone from zero to 60-miles-per-hour in parenting and once again, I have had to rely on others for mentoring. I continue to do athletic activity. This Sunday, for example, I'm doing a 42-mile bike ride in support of an organization focused on eliminating domestic violence. Friends are very important to me. The Pacific Northwest and Greater Seattle area are incredibly lush, green, and outdoorsy, so hiking and kayaking are things I enjoy.