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January 17, 2013 Articles

Lessons in Leadership from the Civil Rights Movement

Paulette Brown offers leadership lessons for young lawyers inspired by civil rights issues.

By Rachel J. DuFault

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, Paulette Brown interacted daily with civil rights issues as a young African American student attending and being bused to segregated schools. But as a young girl, she did not know life to be any different at that time. “It did not occur to me that something was wrong with attending segregated schools because the teachers were so dedicated,” she recalled. Yet, Brown, now a partner in the New Jersey office of the international law firm of Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP, was inspired by her parents and grandmother to participate in and become involved with civil rights issues.

In 1963, Brown attended the March on Washington with her mother and grandmother. “My grandmother was so excited and involved with it,” she said. “It was something that brought all of us together.” Since then, Brown has been involved in numerous civil rights activities, including recently moderating the ABA Section of Litigation’s civil rights panel at the Section’s Fall Leadership Meeting. “I was always raised upon the maxim that 'to whom much is given, much is expected',” she said. “I try not to take myself too seriously. Whenever I am selected to receive an award, I am inspired to do more . . . to earn the award.”

Young Lawyers and Civil Rights
Although Brown grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement, she noted that the movement is not yet over.

Some of same issues which inspired the enactment of the Voting Rights Act appear to be resurfacing. Some issues are arising today that we thought were gone. For example, there were a lot of attempts at voter suppression in th[e] [2012] election. The civil rights movement has not ended. No one, without regard to party affiliation, should be deterred from exercising their right to vote.

In the midst of today’s civil rights issues, she has observed young lawyers participating in the process. “Young lawyers understand what ‘liberty and justice for all’ means,” she stated. “I notice it in the manner in which they participate in the political process.” She pointed out that many young lawyers were involved in election protection for the 2012 election. “Young lawyers are in tune,” she noted. “So many young lawyers . . . caught voting irregularities.”

She also believes that more seasoned lawyers can sometimes learn from young lawyers’ involvement in civil rights issues as young lawyers are bold and assertive. “Younger lawyers are in a sense able to view issues with ‘fresh eyes,’” she remarked. “They have not been taught to think about various groups of people in ways that some of us more seasoned lawyers have.”

She explained that “[more seasoned] lawyers were sometimes exposed to people and issues of the day from a more negative perspective.” Regarding young lawyers today, “they are far more exposed,” she noted. “They see things from a different perspective and generally don’t have the same barriers to inclusion, thus making them receptive to active participation in civil rights issues.”

Reflecting on her involvement and young lawyers’ involvement with civil rights issues, she shared some specific leadership lessons for young lawyers.

The Importance of Becoming Involved 
One important lesson from the civil rights movement that Brown highlighted was the level of sacrifice of those who were involved to provide opportunities for all people. “You need to inject yourself in the process in order to effectuate any kind of change,” she said.

Along with the lesson of sacrifice, Brown emphasized that young lawyers should find ways to aid those in need. “No one can do anything on their own,” she said. “When you recognize that no one can be successful without help from someone else, then you have a better understanding of your obligation to help someone else.”

Brown noted that young lawyers have many opportunities to become involved with civil rights–oriented organizations, such as the Advancement Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Brennan Center for Justice, and many others. She explained that such organizations “are always looking for volunteers.”

She also stated that young lawyers can do “small things” to advance civil rights for others such as “working with bar associations and other groups to ensure equal treatment in courts and the justice system, volunteer[ing] with their local legal services, and providing pro bono services.” Alternatively, Brown mentioned that young lawyers can participate in advancing civil rights by simply teaching civic education programs in our nation’s schools.

Learning from Current Leaders
To learn more about leadership, Brown encouraged young lawyers to “find people currently in leadership and shadow them.” She recommended that young lawyers reach out to more seasoned lawyers and ask them to meet and share their ideas and thoughts. Brown meets quarterly with a group of young women lawyers of color to discuss issues relevant to them and to their careers and their responsibility to give back to their communities. In turn, Brown has learned lessons from them. “When we talk about lessons, it’s a two-way street,” she remarked. “I just sit back and let them go. I’m in the learning mode then.”

Learning in General
Beyond being involved and learning from current leaders, Brown stressed the importance for young lawyers to continue to learn in any situation. “Be intentional with your ears perched and eyes wide open as to what [you] can learn and lessons from any activity whether good or bad,” she said. “Never stop learning,” she added. “Always have a quest to continue to learn. There’s always a lesson to learn.”

Rachel J. DuFault is an attorney and works as a copy editor for the Human Resources Library at Bloomberg BNA. She currently serves as content manager for the Section of Litigation's Young Advocates Committee.