Who better to describe the experience of Black trial lawyers in the last half century than Paulette Brown? She was educated in segregated schools as a child, matriculated at Howard University in the turbulent 1960s, and took the helm of the American Bar Association in 2015, after decades in private practice. She reflects on the influences and highlights of her storied career in an interview with Litigation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
JG: You grew up in Maryland, which most people do not appreciate is south of the Mason-Dixon Line. So tell me, if you would, what was it like growing up in segregation?
PB: It’s interesting. Both of my parents were born in Baltimore, and my paternal grandparents were from the eastern shore of Maryland, which was, as you probably know, a big slave port. As an aside, that is why it was 2016 when for the first time I went to Ocean City, Maryland. Before that, I wouldn’t go there because it was literally a place I was not allowed to go when I was growing up. Ultimately, it was undesirable to me.
I went to segregated schools through the ninth grade. Despite segregation, I do not believe that my learning or my education was hindered in any way, not from my perspective. I had extremely caring teachers who were very interested in educating me, using all available tools.
Also, my parents were instrumental in my education. Although there were certain things we couldn’t do and places we couldn’t go, we could still go to museums. So we spent a lot of time at them. Those trips to the museums with my mother broadened my understanding of things outside of Baltimore.
JG: Well, just a little bit of a follow-up. A good part of my upbringing was in New York. In grade school, I had many Black teachers. They were always pushing me along, pushing me along—reminding me that if I did more, I could be more, and so forth. In none of these instances did they say “you can’t.” It wasn’t until I experienced other teachers that I first heard “can’t.”
Tell me about your own experience. How did teachers help you formulate your dreams and ideas about what was possible and what was not?
PB: From kindergarten through the ninth grade, every single teacher I had was Black. Even when I went to junior high school, when starting at 7:30 every morning, we went from class to class, you did all sorts of subjects, and all of those teachers were still Black.
I was in a special experimental program in junior high school, the seventh grade. We were required to take a foreign language, which was unique in those days.
Our teachers were constantly pushing and constantly challenging us. They would, interestingly in junior high school, allow us to challenge them as well. Which I thought was pretty unique, especially for that time.
JG: That is unique. Tell me, how did all of those instances of people encouraging you help shape who you wanted to become? Did you think about medicine? Did you think about law? Did you think about business? Instead, was it just, “I’m going to get the best education I can”?
PB: Actually, I was going to get the best education that I could. I never thought about law school until I was in college. When I went to college, I thought about being a social worker because I wanted to save the world. That’s a true story.
After I got to college, I ended up taking some political science courses with my roommates that were taught by law professors from Howard Law School.
We got to know some of the real legal giants, and then I decided that the law would help me “save” even more people than a social work degree, and the rest is history.
JG: I have to ask you the obvious question: How did you not go to Howard Law School? You got Charles Hamilton, Thurgood Marshall, William Henry Hastie, and Spottswood Robinson. You’ve got all these giants of the profession that you’re learning from and hearing about.
PB: The simple answer is money. A Seton Hall scholarship. They gave me a full scholarship so I did not have to pay to go to law school. That made the decision easy because my parents let me know they had fulfilled their obligation. They had saved for all of us to go to college, but my siblings chose not to go. So all of the money was then for me. I was blessed to have a completely debt-free education.
JG: That’s a phenomenal story, but I want to harken back to one of those heroes at Howard. Was it at that time, learning about the men and women that I have alluded to, that you first wanted to become—as Charles Hamilton Houston would say—a social engineer?
PB: A law degree would allow me to save more people—to make things more just. Growing up in Baltimore in my neighborhood, I saw some horrific police brutality. In fact, I can still, as of this day, visualize a police officer beating a man with what we called back then a “billy stick.” I can still see the blood stain that never left the sidewalk.
You mentioned women a few moments ago. I think of Constance Baker Motley. I remember saying to myself at the time, “Why don’t I know more about her, and why are they only talking about the men?” For example, I learned about people like Annie Kennedy only after attending the National Bar Association meeting. She was the first Black person in the legislature in North Carolina. She is a Howard Law grad.
At that time, anyone who was anybody in the legal profession graduated from Howard Law School.
The normal narrative always included Thurgood Marshall, but not so much about Charles Hamilton Houston, who trained him. Additionally, people thought that Charles Hamilton Houston was the dean of Howard Law School, but he never was. He chose to retain the title of associate dean, because if he took the title of dean, the law school would have had to pay him more money, which Houston determined Howard was unable to do. This is just one example of the kind of sacrifices made to create a smoother path for people coming afterwards.
JG: So you left Howard—yes, the cozy confines where you learned so much—and go to Seton Hall. Likely, it did not reflect the diversity that Howard did, particularly at that time. So tell me what that transition was like.
PB: Unfortunately, there was no expectation that Black law students would do well. And it had been so ingrained in so many people. There were a total of eight Black students in the day and night schools combined. I remember it was really sad because after my first year, some Black students actually came up to me and asked why I was not on academic probation.
JG: My goodness.
PB: Right, it was the expectation. It wasn’t that Black students weren’t smart, because they were. The concept of stereotype threat was very much in play. You tell somebody long enough that they can’t do well, they begin to believe it, and then don’t do well.
My mother taught me that you can do whatever it is that you want to do, and refused to subscribe to that notion. But there were still so many things that I didn’t know and so many things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
In my family, no one had gone to college, no one had ever gone to law school, for sure. So I didn’t know what the expectations were. What people were accustomed to or what I should be asking for. It was an entirely different experience.
JG: We’ve talked about teachers in high school and college. What role did law professors play in your development?
PB: There were very few law professors who I thought were helpful. Robert Diab was an exception. There were a few others who I thought were at least fair. But, generally speaking, you just went to class, you did the best that you could. The administration did nothing resembling career counseling. In fact, it was discouraging.
JG: When you say discouraging—that you could be a part of the profession and graduate law school, or discouraging that your future was foretold and failure looms?
PB: So discouraging in terms of where I should even apply. I should not apply for clerkships, and I should not apply to the prosecutor’s office. That the only places I should apply should be legal services or the public defender’s office.
JG: Well, it’s good that you didn’t listen to those voices.
PB: Correct. Although there are brilliant lawyers working for those organizations, I didn’t like them being presented as my only options.
JG: When I look at your career, it’s wonderful to see—there is only one trajectory and that is up. Tell us about your early career. What’s interesting from my perspective is you did some government work, private practice, and in-house work. I think at the time it was actually amazing for a person of color to even get an entrée into those environments, much less thrive.
PB: I wish I could say that I had this wonderful strategic plan, like the one that I advise young lawyers to prepare. That it must be written down for self-accountability. Fortunately, opportunities were made available to me, and I took advantage of those opportunities.
Through a friend, I had an opportunity to work in-house at National Steel, then the third-largest U.S. steel company. They were looking for an ERISA lawyer because the new law had just become effective. When asked, I immediately said I was interested. I became an ERISA expert. Interestingly, my challenges working in steel had nothing to with race. I think it’s because the steel industry was accustomed to African Americans in the workforce. The big deal was being a woman in that industry.
No one at the time was an ERISA expert, so it was really a good time to have that expertise. I was dissuaded from being involved in union negotiations, although benefits were governed by ERISA. Excuses all. Based on my gender. Ultimately, I did get some labor experience but not from the steel company.
JG: So from the steel company, where do you go and why?
PB: I went to Prudential because there was a need to have someone in its law department who understood not just ERISA but all of Prudential’s pension products. I therefore sat in the pension department rather than the law department. This experience proved to be enormously challenging. I sat side by side with people who started at Prudential directly from high school and vocally expressed a lack of understanding as to why they started at an entry-level position, and I did not. They could not comprehend and leaders did not explain my preexisting experience, education, and my temporary status of being physically located in the pension department.
JG: Your next move presented an interesting challenge.
PB: It did. I worked for an employee benefits consulting firm in the law department in New York. Initially, I believe I was hired because I’m an African American, and a former African American lawyer was suing them for discrimination. It was the thought that I could defuse that situation, but I chose not to become involved.
For the next few years, I enjoyed my experience. It was a pretty small law department. There were about eight lawyers and paralegals. We were a close-knit group. The consulting firm operated much like a law firm. Everything was great and I received rave reviews until I was in the window of becoming a director.
Then the nitpicking began. Simultaneously, I was receiving interest from several outside organizations. I was an anomaly of sorts, a “two-fer” with ERISA expertise. I chose not to go to another organization because I believed there would be no appreciable difference. I did leave the consulting firm.
When I announced my resignation, I was offered a severance package. I did not know to ask for a severance package. I just wanted to move on. Apparently, they recognized their culpability.
JG: You bring up a really interesting point, and that is the perceived advantage to some institutions to bring in diverse employees. Because it’s good for business or because the moral fiber of the institution requires it. Sometimes it’s because the judge is going to react positively.
How were the companies and different entities that you were working for thinking about it?
PB: With the steel company, I really and truthfully don’t think that they cared. The only concern was that I could perform at a high level. Prudential was more interested in who knew the subject matter, because it was so new.
I think that the consulting firm initially wanted to hire me because I was Black, and they were being sued by this Black guy. I think that was the initial and dominant motivation for them.
With each of them, diversity was only important so long as it was advantageous to them.
JG: One of the things I want to talk about is your trip to South Africa. You played what appears from the outside to be a critical role in sort of advising this nascent democracy. What did you learn about people? What did you learn about the law?
PB: That’s probably one of the major highlights of my career.Having the opportunity to lead a delegation as president of the National Bar Association, monitoring the first free and democratic elections in South Africa was phenomenal. We had extensive training at the University of Witwatersrand. During the training, I sat side by side with Judge Nathaniel Jones and Howard Law Dean Henry Ramsey, which was an additional learning opportunity.
JG: We’ve got to just take a second to appreciate Nathaniel Jones. Of course, he was on the Sixth Circuit and an unbelievable jurist, but really a man with a great heart. Obviously, you had a great time with him.
PB: And he headed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Just to be able to learn from Judge Jones, and ultimately becoming very close is stunning. I’m a little emotional here, but the experience was also about learning about the South Africa Constitution and dispelling some of the beliefs I had about South Africa.
JG: What year are we talking about—1994? So then Mandela is just out of jail, or it’s just before he’s out of jail?
PB: He’s out of jail in ’93 and runs for president in 1994. The main day of the election was on my birthday, April 28th.
JG: You’ll never forget.
PB: Never! Although he would never remember—after the election, when Mandela was declared the winner, he and I were both on the stage together doing the dance called the toyi toyi.
JG: Take us back to the excitement of that day and what you witnessed. Because you’re witnessing history in a way that most of us only can see on TV or videotape.
PB: The elections took place over three days, and the first day people in prisons and hospitals got to vote. So we are in the hospital and watching people wheeled in on gurneys to cast their vote. It was indescribable. I and my delegation were assigned to Transkei region, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. We stayed in the same hotel as Winnie Mandela, and I had an opportunity to meet her.
The next two days, we went from polling site to polling site to monitor the elections. There was one polling site where there were very few voters, while another site had run out of ballots. The line stretched around two blocks. I literally ran to the first polling site, got all of the ballots and ran back, gave them the ballots, and everyone was able to vote.
Beverly McQuery Smith, a delegate, said, “You know you’re going to be in history books, you saved the election.”
JG: Just before your sojourn to South Africa, you started a small firm with one other person, I believe, at this point. Tell me about the excitement and the fear of starting your firm. How do you go about it? Where do you draw from to look somebody in the eye and say, “I can represent you”?
PB: There was a big learning curve, because I really thought that I could establish a practice as an ERISA lawyer, write 401(k) plans, and so forth. I did do that to a certain extent, but it did not sustain me.
One of the things that was a great benefit to my practice was joining the National Bar Association. I went to my first meeting in 1980. I learned a great deal from other attendees who had small firms. I learned how to make my law practice a business. I learned quickly that you should always account for your hours, without regard to whether you’re working on a flat fee or hourly fee.
As fate would have it, I met Bob Archie, Justice John Wallace, Jim Cole, and others at the National Bar Association who took a chance with me and introduced me to corporate clients. I didn’t have the traditional small-firm practice. I represented municipalities, the Attorney General’s Office, and a few corporations. As a result, I was able to hire more lawyers. At one time, we had 16 lawyers, which made us the largest minority-owned firm in New Jersey and one of the largest in the country. I didn’t think about the impact at the time.
JG: You seem to have a natural ability to think about connections, contacts, and networks. Is that the way you focused on the practice of law? Is that what made this enterprise successful?
PB: I wasn’t as strategic as I should have been or didn’t know how to be strategic. I think what helped was my father’s words—take people as they come to you. That is what I’ve always done. Somebody asked me once, “Do you talk to strangers?” I said, “All of the time.”
One of the benefits of my father’s advice is Brett Hart. I remember him as a young lawyer in the Litigation Section. When he became general counsel of United Airlines, Hart informed me that I had been kind to him years before, long before his first in-house counsel position. It explained why he trusted me to provide legal services in every in-house legal position he held, and he referred colleagues to me as well.
It’s a great life lesson that has served me well—no one is better, no one is less than. I think that lesson has been more beneficial than a strategic plan.
JG: Well, I think all of us are molded by our experiences, and most of our earlier experiences are influenced greatly by our parents.
I would love to just segue from the whole wrong turn, right turn. I’d like to ask about your challenges. You go into a small enterprise. You build that into something. You progress. There are ups and downs. Some are the ups and downs of every business. Some of it is the ups and downs of a business headed by a Black woman in America. It’s very difficult to know which of those applies. How do you navigate this balance?
PB: There are certain things that happen because of your race or because of your gender or a combination of both. That is a reality. You have to move beyond it. If you sit and stew, it’s impossible to progress, and it’s also impossible to help other people to navigate through it. There is an obligation to figure out how to work around and through barriers. In a client context, especially when you know you’ve been discriminated against, you still have to represent and protect your client. You must do the best for your client, and thus you learn to tolerate, not accept, certain behaviors. However, even in doing so, it is important not to compromise those beliefs that are fundamental to you.
JG: I want to segue to the NBA. The first time I met you was in 1995 as you were about to turn over the reins of the presidency of the NBA. We love to throw around this term societally—that a person is a natural born leader. In your case, there’s more than just a little bit of evidence that you are indeed a natural born leader. You’ve led three amazing organizations—the Association of Black Women Lawyers, the National Bar Association, and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the ABA.
What is it about your makeup and your background that lets you know you can lead?
PB: A person gave me a card that said you don’t wait for opportunities to come to you, you row out and get them. I have to tell you in all honesty that I’m not sure of how to answer. I know that you should not belong to organizations for the sake of just belonging to them. You have to contribute; otherwise, don’t bother. You have to build coalitions with other people. You can’t do any one thing by yourself. I think that I have been the kind of person that will listen to other people and consider their positions. I confess, after listening and considering various factors, I make a decision based on my best judgment.
JG: I want to talk about your path to the ABA presidency. I know that you can’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be president,” and run the next day for president. It’s a process. It is our most prestigious bar association with a storied history, not all of it good. Now that same association thrives and embraces diversity. How important was that change in your own desire to head up this historic organization?
PB: It was extremely important because I started with the ABA right out of law school. The ABA has evolved since I first joined in 1976. Even when I started becoming active in the National Bar Association, I maintained my membership in the ABA, and I would do small things. My involvement drastically changed when my presidential term with the NBA was over. More than 25 years ago, the Litigation Section invited me into leadership. Even though they invited me, they weren’t necessarily welcoming. The Litigation Section was, at that time, quite elitist. I was not deterred and met a lot of encouraging people along the way.
JG: How did that change over time?
PB: Years before other ABA sections discussed diversity and put into action diversity plans, the Litigation Section was in the forefront of ensuring diversity on its panels, establishing the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program and the Diversity Fellowship Program. The answer is, yes, it has changed over time, a lot. The evolution over time has been extremely positive.
JG: And you were part of it.
PB: I didn’t have as much influence as some others, but I did lend my voice.
JG: As you think about leadership, is leadership speaking up and acting by example? Is leadership sacrifice? What’s your own view on what leadership is?
PB: It’s all of that. Leadership is standing up for what you believe in. What you believe to be just and right. It also means that you have the capacity to stand down and be open to ideas that may differ from your own.
Listening to others is required because in order to be an effective leader, you must know their needs and what resonates with those you are seeking to lead. Ultimately, the decision made is your own.
JG: Now, you were president for a one-year term, but it’s really three years of critical involvement. Lots of travel. Tell me about some of the challenges that you faced. Also, were any unique to you as the first Black woman or woman of color becoming president of the ABA?
PB: I wanted to make diversity and inclusion one of the hallmarks of my presidency. People told me that just because you’re the first woman of color to lead the ABA, you should not make diversity your main focus, and my position was, if I don’t do it, who will?
The Diversity & Inclusion 360 Commission was intended to create sustainable change within and outside of the ABA. The work of the commission resulted in the adoption of at least seven policy changes impacting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and the ABA.
There were people who openly told me they had low expectations of me but said it believing they were complimenting me. There were some who openly informed me of their strategies to defeat some of my initiatives. A few people informed me that they really didn’t want to vote for me. None of the naysayers deterred me. It made me more determined.
In the end, a lot more resolutions were passed than had ever been in previous years. That is not to say that there weren’t excellent leaders before me. But I decided I’m going for the gusto. As a woman of color, I didn’t have a choice. I knew I had to build coalitions, and I also knew that I had to meet people where they were. So I visited every single state in the United States and a few territories. No one has been to all 50 states during their term as president before or since. I had the opportunity to know our members on a very personal level. Thus, when proposed resolutions came to the House of Delegates, they had no trouble voting in favor because people knew me as a person, not as this diversity maven.
Visiting all the states was wonderful. I participated in giving 50-year bar pins to lawyers in Montana and Connecticut. Having those gentlemen hug me without thinking about it was powerful. When I went to South Dakota, the chief judge made all of his judges come in and listen to my talk on diversity and inclusion.
It was likewise wonderful to visit more than 40 Boys & Girls Clubs and numerous law schools. It was a great learning experience for me.
With the many great experiences, there were other challenges. For example, when I went to an immigration court and was introduced by immigration lawyers as the ABA president to the judge. The judge started looking everywhere. He was looking all over the court for the ABA president. I finally said: “That would be me.”
One thing I learned through my travels is that there were common goals and ideals among everyone, from Alaska to Florida to Maine to California and everywhere in between.
What I always tell people is inclusion means exactly that; it does not mean exclusion. It means to make room for people who have traditionally been left out. We’re not kicking you out. The tent is large enough to hold all of us.
JG: I think that what you’ve just described is what leadership is—putting yourself out there and being the face of an organization and letting people know that the face of the organization can look different, right?
I know that when we talked about really formulating your ideas about your career, one of the things you talked about was helping people. How have you gone about achieving your goal of helping others?
PB: In 2006, I coauthored a report, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms. While on the speaking circuit discussing the report, I realized that in the entire state of New Jersey, there were only three women of color partners at majority law firms. So there were a great many young women of color who were being hired at law firms with no partners who looked like them. That’s when diversity was becoming what I would call “the flavor of month.” I said to myself, “Who do these women have to provide guidance to them?” That’s when I formed the Women of Color mentoring group. We have met four times a year since 2006.
So many opportunities have been provided to me, and I am therefore duty-bound to pay it forward. It’s my responsibility to share my experiences and a path forward to others. It’s also important to ensure that the younger lawyers don’t experience the same challenges.
JG: This might be a question that many would think would be the end of the conversation, and we’re not ending. What would you tell that young woman of color who is about to go into the profession? What do you wish maybe someone had told you?
PB: I would tell them to be strategic and have a plan. Have a personal development plan and a professional development plan. It’s never too early to think about your career trajectory. It may not be as comprehensive initially, but you need a road map. You need to set goals for yourself and identify those you need to help you to achieve those goals. Most important, you have to commit the plan to writing, whether it be your computer or a journal. You must be accountable. You’ve got to assign dates; otherwise, you won’t be accountable. It can’t just be in your head. And then, even better, have an accountability partner. I suggest partnering with someone else who has similar goals. If you do, you are more likely to achieve your own goals.
JG: One of the challenges lawyers of all backgrounds have is establishing a relationship with someone they can call a mentor. There’s no one type of mentor, and one doesn’t have to have just one mentor. How do you think about mentorship both being the mentor and having been mentored by others?
PB: I think that mentorship is extremely important, and it doesn’t matter what stage you are in your career. Everyone can use a good mentor, and I think that multiple mentors are great. You have them for different reasons and stages in your career—within your organization and outside of your organization. You should have people who will provide guidance from a personal perspective. As a woman of color, there are certain things that can’t be shared with everyone because it may be misinterpreted. Therefore, someone is needed who shares your set of unique experiences.
JG: How do I go about the process of finding a mentor?
PB: What I suggest is simply start a conversation with someone with whom there is an appreciation for what he or she has been during the course of his or her career. Engage the person in conversation. Start asking questions. People like to talk about what they’ve done, their successes, and so forth. Thus, initiating a conversation can be easier than you think.
People send me “cold emails” all of the time. For example, do you know Paulette Brown? Can you connect me with her? Even if the person says no, you’re no worse off than you were before you asked. There’s only an upside.
JG: You have been described as a trailblazer in many facets of your career. Tell us about your work with major law firms in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space.
PB: There have been only two major firms that I have worked with over time. To be sure, there have been many name changes and iterations. And it’s been like 16 years or so at one firm. The first firm, Duane Morris, I joined as a result of being recruited by Nolan Atkinson and Robert Archie. They were both wonderful mentors to me. I joined the diversity committee, chaired by Nolan, and learned a lot.
But even before that, in 1986, the New Jersey Supreme Court formed the Task Force on Minority Concerns that was spearheaded and initially chaired by Justice James Coleman. Dr. Yolanda Marlow reminded everyone when she came to my swearing in as president of the ABA that I had been doing this work since 1986. I was also on the Third Circuit’s Task Force on Race and Gender Equality.
In the context of law firms, a lot of firms didn’t have diversity committees and certainly they did not have chief diversity officers. When I joined my current firm, then Edwards & Angell, it already had a diversity committee. One of the co-managing partners, Chip DeWitt, asked me to lead the firm’s diversity efforts after hearing me speak at a meeting about the Visible Invisibility report. I agreed, but not on a full-time basis. I had to still remain a partner, because I knew that if I continued generating revenue and contributing to the bottom line, people would be more inclined to listen and more likely to implement my suggestions.
We had a good, robust committee. I believe I was the first person to have the title of “chief” in a law firm. We had a retreat of the firm-wide committee, which included the managing partner, the COO, and other key leaders in the firm, where I conducted implicit bias training. Thereafter, the firm leaders agreed to implement mandatory diversity and inclusion training. The “catch” was I was tasked with conducting firm-wide training. We had mandatory training years before most firms implemented it.
JG: How do you keep the DEI initiative going in tough economic times?
PB: It has to be an articulated core value. For most firms in 2008–2009, it was not. Many firms believed diversity and inclusion were easily expendable. Many did not have an appreciation for the return on investment and that it is a process and not necessarily readily tangible. Thus, there were massive layoffs of people of color and in particular those of African descent at that time. There was an abandonment by some firms of any diversity efforts that were in place prior to the recession. Fortunately, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge was not one of them.
I had a hiatus in my role as chief diversity officer when I became president of the ABA. Upon my return, our firm had merged with Locke Lord, and the chief diversity officer position did not exist there. In March 2018, I was the recipient of an award from the Executive Women of New Jersey. By the organization’s tradition, my firm’s top executive was expected to make the award presentation. I reluctantly asked the newly elected chair of Locke Lord to present the award, and he graciously and enthusiastically accepted. When he came to New Jersey, he asked me to resume my role as chief diversity and inclusion officer on a full-time basis. DEI was made a priority.
This was the first time Locke Lord had ever had a CDIO and, thus, big news in Texas. It’s nice to have speakers, it’s nice to have programs, but that does not really advance the ball. Diversity, equity, and inclusion has to have new structures in place to dismantle exclusionary structures upon which the legal profession was built. A careful look back to see what it is that you’ve been doing is necessary to understand how to progress.
PB: The thing is you have to have everybody understand. Diversity and inclusion is not something that’s separate or off to the side. It’s something that must permeate throughout every aspect of the organization. Diversity and inclusion is one of the five core values of Locke Lord. Diversity and inclusion has its own strategic plan, which I wrote. Measurable goals and benchmarks are established consistent with that plan.
JG: So I want to just follow up, I know that in your different roles and different speaking engagements, you stress that it’s not about hiring someone diverse; it is about retention. As you work in this area, how do you keep organizations focused on this point?
PB: Some people are not always ready for real change, and it requires leadership from the top down and intentionality. It’s necessary to drill down on the DEI message and have a partner who is at the top of the organization who understands the critical importance of DEI to the success of the law firm or organization.
JG: I wonder if you could tell us about your path to Howard. Despite the greatness of the school, I know it wasn’t your first choice.
PB: No, it was not. My first choice was Brown University because two people I was very friendly with had applied and planned to attend. My guidance counselor, whose name I will never forget—Mr. Laughlin—told me he did not believe Brown was a good fit for me. He said I should not go to Brown. That was the one and only time I let somebody tell me what I couldn’t do. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it led me to apply to Howard.
JG: Tell us a little more detail, if you would, about what 1968 was like.
PB: 1968 was a time when people were protesting the Vietnam War. There were protests on almost every major college campus. People were taking over administration buildings. There was the rise of the Black Panther party. I saw that H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were at Howard. There were other very prominent individuals matriculating there as well.
My English teacher was mortified when she learned I was applying to Howard. She was so nervous and afraid for me. This time, I did not listen to the advice. Applying to and attending Howard is one of the best decisions I made.
It was a tumultuous time, but it was also a time where people felt that they could just be free in ways that they had not been free before, including expressing their beliefs and being proud to be Black.
JG: What was the educational environment?
PB: I did not initially have an appreciation for the high standards at Howard and the expectations it had for its students. When I turned in my first paper in English, it came back destroyed. My English professor said the writing was sophomoric. I became obsessed with writing. My son would later tell me I should have been an English teacher.
JG: I understand that the late Congressman Elijah Cummings was with you at Howard, and you actually had some interactions in student government with him.
PB: I was the president of my class. Elijah was the president of the entire student government of the whole university. We would bump heads. I was strong-willed. He was even more strong-willed and more politically savvy than me.
It’s so interesting after you graduate from college, you put those things aside. He and I became very friendly and very close. We were able to do some things together when I was president of the NBA and the ABA. I had an opportunity to make sure he received a well-deserved award from the ABA for the work that he was doing in Congress. He became one of my heroes.
JG: That’s a great story! One of the really interesting things about people like yourself is there’s usually some sort of balance between being enormously challenged professionally and having some semblance of a personal life. I know that you have a son, who aspired to be an actor at one time. Throughout your career, you’ve had a home life, and you’ve had home responsibilities. How have you created balance?
PB: Sometimes you second-guess yourself. Did I spend enough time with my son? Did I get all the tutors that I could have gotten for him?
Sometimes you just can’t help wondering. Because I was a single parent, I wondered whether I gave him everything that I could have. Those thoughts do not go away, but I always made sure that I went to all of his swim meets, track meets, plays, etc. I met with his teachers on a regular basis and ensured that he ate well.
Sometimes when I’m stressed, I like to cook. I also always make time to walk. Every single day, usually twice a day. I average about 20,000 steps a day. I don’t listen to music. I generally don’t walk with other people. That is my personal time.
Sometimes I pray during my walks. I was on a bar trip and a judge and I were speaking of our careers. I stopped for a moment, and I thought about the incredible experiences. I thought, “Grace brought me to this place.” There were so many events that could have taken me in a different direction, but Grace intervened.
JG: I just have to thank you on behalf of myself and my partner in crime Rachelle Navarro, and the entire Litigation editorial board. I told them what an interesting interview you’d be, and you’ve surpassed even my lofty expectations.
PB: Thank you for this really wonderful opportunity. I think that we all have an obligation to pay it forward.