July 22, 2019 Spotlight on Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: An Interview with Paulette Brown, ABA President 2015–2016

eReport: Past President Brown, let me first begin by saying thank you for taking time for this interview. The upcoming July/August 2019 issue of GPSolo magazine is focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I wanted to talk with you about that topic. First, let’s talk about your background. Currently and for many years, you have been in a Big Law setting, but you have not always been in that setting. Could you share with our readers your experience in the solo/small firm setting?

Brown: Thank you for this opportunity. No, I have not always been in Big Law. I started my legal career in-house and remained there in various positions for eight years. I then had my own firm for 15 years. During that time, we had as many as 14 lawyers, and we were an MWOLF [Minority and Women-Owned Law Firm]. Owning my firm was an extremely rewarding experience.

eReport: In addition to making history as the first female African American president of ABA, your presidency advanced several diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Could you highlight some of those?

Brown: Actually, I was the first woman of color to be president of the ABA. For 137 years, the ABA did not have anyone who looked like me as its president. I feel a great sense of pride concerning what we were able to accomplish during my year as president. Through the Diversity & Inclusion 360 Commission, there were a number of policies adopted, including Resolution 113, which asked that organizations hiring legal entities to perform services for them to use more of their legal spend on those organizations that have diverse teams representing them. To date, more than 100 general counsels have signed on to Resolution 113. There is a Model Diversity Survey, which is an accountability tool for Resolution 113. I would direct you to the Executive Summary of the 360 Initiative for highlights of this Commission.

In addition, we had a very successful Pro Bono Day of Service, which not only captured the interest of all of the states within the United States, but also several other countries, including China, the United Kingdom, and others. I am proud to say, in addition to visiting more than 40 Boys & Girls Clubs of America, I visited all 50 states and some of the territories at least once during my term. No other president in the history of the ABA had ever done this, and thus far, no one since.

eReport: With respect to the ABA’s adoption in August 2016 of Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g), which seeks to eliminate bias, harassment, and discrimination in the legal profession: New Jersey adopted a similar rule in 1990, any thoughts as to why it took so long for the ABA to adopt such a rule?

Brown: With the ABA, before there are any changes or modifications to any Model Rule, there is a very serious vetting process. Because the Model Rules have the potential of having very far reaching affects, it is important to collaborate with various entities within the ABA and to hold public hearings to give as many people and entities as possible an opportunity to participate in the process. It is necessary to have all stakeholders participate in the process. I should add, while this Rule was adopted during my presidency, Myles Lynk [then the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility] deserves most, if not all of the credit for ensuring Model Rule 8.4(g)’s passage (he will also give credit to members of his committee, and rightfully so, as well as ABA staff).

eReport: To what extent do you think the growing (maybe nascent in 2016) #MeToo movement led to its adoption?

Brown: I don’t think it had any affect. The process of having this resolution adopted began long before 2016. It was a three-year process. Further, although adopted in August 2016, it was on the agenda for the ABA House of Delegates months before then.

eReport: Inevitably, any rule or law can have unintended consequences. Do you have any concerns about how this rule could be interpreted to prevent the creation of women-owned law firms (or LGBTQ-owned firms, etc.) that may cater to women or other particular groups to deliver targeted services?

Brown: Absolutely not. In fact, I have never heard this argument advanced. In fact, most of the voiced objections to the Rule has been quite the opposite. All of the diversity-related entities in the ABA were in full support of the Resolution, including but not limited to the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) and the Commission on Women in the Profession.

eReport: Unfortunately, there are states that have not adopted the Model Rule, nor their own rule. What advice would you give to our members to advocate for this rule adoption in their respective states?

Brown: Lawyers have a duty to the public and the clients they serve. Having a law license is more than just a piece of paper. We are held to a high standard. As such, in discharging our duties as attorneys, we must abide by the laws and not discriminate. While most lawyers do not discriminate, there is a necessity for the Rule because it is important for a civil society and the maintenance of the Rule of Law. Leaving to a footnote the message that a lawyer cannot discriminate devalues the importance of the law against discrimination and our duty to uphold the law. Judges are held to the same standard. Should it be something less for lawyers? The drafters of the Rule very carefully considered and importantly addressed the concerns of those with objections. There are some who incorrectly believe that Rule 8.4 (g) is an infringement on certain rights—freedom of speech and freedom of religion, for example. Some have misinterpreted to Rule and believe it states that they will be forced to represent individuals when it is against their religious beliefs, for example. The Rule states you cannot discriminate while engaged in the practice of law. Nowhere does it state that a lawyer must represent a particular individual. Not to be flippant, but no one should have any concerns about the Rule if she/he does not discriminate. Lawyers should not fear this Rule, but rather embrace it. If nothing more, it will enhance the public’s perception of lawyers. There are no unnecessary burdens placed on lawyers, and without naming the various other Rules that provide protections and safeguards against what is causing angst, there are several. There is absolutely no infringement of any right of any lawyer.

eReport: Finally, can you share with our readers your new role at your firm? What are you looking to achieve over the next 24 months?

Brown: I am a partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for my firm [Locke Lord LLP]. The position is new . . . and not. My firm has had several iterations. Thus, while it may appear that I have changed firms, it’s the name that has been changed over time. I became one of the very first Chief Diversity Officers in any law firm. I assumed this role in 2006. When my firm merged with Locke Lord, there was not such a position. The firm was keen to have such a position, and I was asked to assume the role of Senior Partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, which I readily accepted.

In this role, I have developed a Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion, which the firm has adopted. Stated in its simplest terms, I am here to leverage the power of diversity and inclusion in our workforce. That includes all of our team members, attorneys and non-attorneys alike. My work will be easier because I have the full support and commitment of my firm.

One of my responsibilities is to conduct educational programs on D&I [diversity and inclusion] and implicit bias. It is mandatory for every person in the firm, without regard to title or position. Firms should have a welcoming environment. That cannot occur if biases, which we all have, are unknown.

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