February 15, 2017 Articles

Paulette Brown: The Engineer for Justice

The first African-American female president of the ABA on "the long arc of history."

By Andre' B. Caldwell

In appropriately fitting fashion, the second day of the Professional Success Summit, the Section of Litigation’s first-ever diversity-focused conference, started with opening remarks from Paulette Brown, the first African American female and immediate past president of the American Bar Association. After a warm introduction highlighting her many achievements, Ms. Brown approached the podium exuding that same confidence and focus she summoned to effect the many changes she achieved during her time as president. “You know when they list all of the things that you’ve achieved during your career, that’s just code for old, right?” said Ms. Brown. And just like that, the second day was off to an even better start than the first.

“When we first planned this conference, who knew we would be at this place at this time in our history?” Ms. Brown noted. This simple comment pointedly addressed the cloud that loomed in the minds of many of the conference attendees, let alone society’s. With the historic Presidential election having just concluded a week earlier, issues surrounding diversity, and the accompanying variety of attitudes towards divergent viewpoints, were omnipresent. By comparison, but likely in a completely different tenor, I assume many thought the same thing when Ms. Brown assumed the role as the first African American President of the ABA. Regardless of the circumstances, Ms. Brown emphasized that the key to success and effecting change is the development of a concrete, workable plan. But imagining, developing, or even firmly identifying that plan is simply not enough. She highlighted the need to put that plan down in writing because “if we don’t write it down, then we won’t do it.” Embodying her favorite historical figure, Charles Hamilton Houston, Ms. Brown challenged the attendees of the Summit to do more than make new professional contacts with which to fill their “rolodex.” She encouraged the exchange of ideas and the fulfillment of concrete plans so that together we could be engineers for justice. After all, we were attending a Professional Success Summit—the name speaks for itself.

With her self-professed yet unapologetically acceptable impatience, Ms. Brown made the most of her year as President to push as many diversity initiatives as possible. Demonstrating her message of putting plans in writing, Ms. Brown and the ABA Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission prepared videos on implicit bias for prosecutors, judges, and public defenders. When confronted with the common question of “Why?” these measures were necessary, the simple answer was that no one is exempt from implicit bias. “Until we see some systemic change in the way we see things, we won’t be able to change those things”, said Ms. Brown. Beyond her efforts to expose and right existing implicit biases, Ms. Brown worked diligently on ABA House Resolution 107, which encourages all state, territorial, and tribal courts, bar associations, and other licensing and regulatory authorities to include in their continuing legal education programs a separate credit program regarding diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Under Ms. Brown, the ABA demonstrated its commitment to lead the charge when the Board of Governors passed a new mandatory rule, set to take effect March 1, 2017, requiring all ABA sponsored CLE panels to include at least one diverse speaker or moderator. Further, Principle 6(C) of the ABA Principles for Juries and Jury Trials was amended to require Courts to instruct jurors on implicit bias and how it may affect their deliberations. And, Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 was amended to make it unethical to discriminate against someone based on race, sex, religion, etc. These, of course, are only a few items on a long list of the many programs implemented during Ms. Brown’s presidency, and as she bluntly, yet tastefully noted, she met no shortage of opposition.

Ms. Brown recalled being told by an unnamed person that they “had never seen so many diversity resolutions before the House.” With a charismatic smile that was accepting, yet rebuking, of the comment, Ms. Brown replied, “That’s a good thing, right?” Just as she declined to back down to the opposition posed to her initiatives, which was comprised of attempts to table certain resolutions until after her presidency and included comments suggesting that she was attempting to lower the quality of CLE by requiring the inclusion of diverse panelists, she encouraged the Summit’s attendees to acknowledge that the tasks ahead were not easy. “If you’re getting push back, you’re doing it right,” said Ms. Brown. Providing some insight into her determined mentality, Ms. Brown said, “You must flip challenging times into opportunities because only then can we become builders for eternity.”

Leaving the stage to an appropriate standing ovation, it was abundantly clear that Ms. Brown’s legacy is firmly solidified from her efforts to be a builder for eternity. Moreover, it certainly is not true that having a long list of accomplishments is code for old because there are many people who fail to establish the list of accomplishments (and lasting ones at that) which she has compiled in her lifetime. But, what is ever so apparent is that there is still much work to be done and a demand for those to push the initiatives to ensure its success. As Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan stated during his keynote address, “I believe that the arc of history is long and people bend it toward justice.” Ms. Brown, thank you for being one of those people!

Andre' B. Caldwell is a director at Crowe & Dunlevy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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Andre' B. Caldwell – February 15, 2017