January 28, 2016 Articles

Q&A with ABA President Paulette Brown

Our leader talks about her historic presidency and the benefits of diversity in the legal profession.

By Robert K. Dixon and Ghenete Wright Muir

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown, now approaching the midpoint of her presidency, recently spoke with Ghenete Wright Muir, co-editor of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s newsletter, to discuss her presidency and the benefits of diversity in the legal profession.

Q: What has been the most memorable highlight of your administration as the ABA president?

A: I have several highlights. One of the highlights was the program “And Justice for All: An ABA Day of Service,” a day to showcase the work of pro bono lawyers across the country. Another highlight of my administration is the opportunity to travel throughout the country and to visit Boys & Girls Clubs while traveling. Also, participating in the Senior Leadership Engagement Program where I spent a week with the military was a great highlight. And, I’m also very excited about the work that the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion is doing.

Q: What would you like to see the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion accomplish during your tenure?

A: The commission will have several accomplishments this year. One is that we will have the three training videos for the judges, prosecutors, public defenders and tool kits to accompany it. We are proposing a couple of resolutions and looking to have those passed. One resolution is for those states that already require mandatory CLE to include CLE requirements for diversity and inclusion. But I have to leave some surprises—there is more to come.

Q: What would you like to see the Commission accomplish after your tenure?

A: The Commission is only for a year. Some commissions last longer but this one is for one year. Significant work will be done during the year but then systems will be put in place so that the things we are seeking to do will be done. We are looking for sustainable growth within diversity and inclusion over the next 10 years. We are creating a 10-year plan that the Center for Racial & Ethnic Diversity and other entities will carry out much of the functions when the Commission is finished.

Q: One of the issues recently raised during oral argument before the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas—a case involving the school’s affirmative action admissions policy—was whether there are any practical or specific benefits to having diversity in the classroom. What are some of the practical or specific benefits of having diversity in the legal profession?

A: One of the big benefits is the diversity of opinion and thought. When you have a diverse group of people—especially when you have people of color, women, members of LGBT groups—they are able to resolve more complex issues in a way that a homogenous group is not able to do. When people know it is a diverse group of people they tend to be better prepared because they don’t know what to anticipate, so they try to think of different angles. And as a result of coming better prepared, then better solutions result.

Q: What is the next thing that needs to be done to create more diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?

A: People have to understand that good intentions are not enough. The only thing that should matter is the result, the outcome. And if you are really interested in diversity and inclusion it is something you have to fight for. It is something that doesn’t always come naturally—even though you are a nice person, you are well intended—it is something that you have to constantly work on. It has to be in the front of your mind, it has to be a conscious effort to say, “Am I doing all that is necessary all of the time?” And you also have to understand what unconscious or implicit biases you might have and question yourself all of the time and making sure those implicit biases are not affecting you in any negative way. All of us have biases we want to ensure that our decision-making is not based on upon any biases that we may have.

Q: How has the practice of law changed for women of color over the past several years?

A: I don't know that it has changed. Only about 2 percent rise to level of partnership. That is one of the things the Commission is looking at; especially in terms of how women and women of color are treated from an economic standpoint.

Q: What advice would you give to young lawyers, and especially attorneys of color?

A: Participate in as many things as you can; both within your particular affinity groups and also in mainstream organizations. I think it’s necessary to be at every table that you can possibly be at so that your voice can be heard. And also because when you’re at the table with different people they have to think about alternatives and other points of view. If you are not at the table then they can continue to do things as they have always done.

Q: What advice would you give to lawyers from diverse backgrounds who would like to become a leader in the American Bar Association?

A: My advice would be to get involved, don’t be afraid to raise your hand, and volunteer. Don’t let people discourage you by saying you’re too young, [or that] you don’t have enough experience. Put yourself out there and when you sign up for a committee and volunteer do as much work as can. Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do!

Q: Is there anything you would like to add before ending this interview?

A: Yes, I’m very excited about the Young Lawyer Tool Kit. The first phase will be launched at the Mid-Year Meeting in February 2016. That will be helpful to lawyers from year 0 to 3, and then by the Annual [Meeting], the tool kit for lawyers 3 to 6 years will be launched. Then in 2017, the ABA will launch the tool kit for years 6 to 9 and years 8 to 12. I’m very proud and excited.

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee would like to thank President Brown for all of her hard work and her willingness to share her time and thoughts with us.

Keywords: litigation, diversity, inclusion, Paulette Brown, Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, benefits of diversity, Young Lawyer Tool Kit

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