Where do you practice law and what is your practice area, specifically? 

I am partner and co-chair of the firm-wide diversity and inclusion committee at Locke Lord LLP in Morristown, New Jersey. I have held many positions throughout my career, including in-house counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies and municipal court judge. In private practice, I have focused on all facets of labor and employment and commercial litigation.

What brought you to the law and your practice area?

When I entered college, I wanted to be a social worker to help better people’s lives. But then my roommates and some professors at Howard University convinced me that there was a way to make a difference through the use of the law as a tool for social justice. That’s where I found my purpose and my passion. Social workers do great work, but I came to believe I could have a greater impact as a lawyer. The law has taught me to think analytically. I think it’s reasonable to say that I have been able to help more people over the span of my career than I probably would have been able to do as a social worker.

What has been your experience with mentorship in the legal field?

I have spent a significant portion of my career promoting full and equal participation in both the legal profession and justice system. For decades, as a corporate lawyer, as a partner in my law firm, and as a partner and chief diversity officer of Locke Lord, I have advocated for firms to hire, retain, and promote women and people of color.

Mentors are essential to our growth and development because, regardless of the profession we choose, there is one universal fact: Our professions are relationship driven. One of the accomplishments I am most proud of is my Women of Color Mentoring Group. It was designed to create a safe place for associates to discuss issues facing them in law firms. It helped me and, particularly, the young women of color (although no one was precluded from participating) in the group tackle problems, understand situations, and recognize that others had challenges similar to what we faced. It helped to remove the feelings of isolation and provided validation to a variety of perceptions. Almost a decade later, we are still going strong.

But my mentoring is not limited to women of color, nor is it “one size fits all.” There are many ways to mentor, including peer-to-peer mentoring and short-term mentoring.

As my mother taught me, “to whom much is given, of much is required” (Luke 12:48).

There is an inherent obligation of everyone to share knowledge with someone else. I share with people both my good and bad experiences so they can learn and grow from them. I believe mentoring is a lifelong commitment and that mentoring goes in both directions.

Young lawyers should set really high expectations and learn their craft. They should be their absolute best self, and always remember their community.

The ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive world will depend on their ability to network and develop contacts and relationships across organizations and professions. I would urge them not to be fearful of establishing relationships with a completely diverse group of individuals, including those who are not naturally within their comfort zone. That goes for students of different races, gender, sexual orientation, or those with various forms of ability. They will be amazed at how much they can learn from them all.

What has changed for women about entering law school and beginning a legal career?

First and foremost, practice areas have expanded, along with new opportunities. That said, and while there has been progress on many fronts for women lawyers over the past four decades, there still remains unequal treatment and subtle discrimination—including implicit bias. This is the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle prejudice outside of our conscious awareness that cause us to make judgments on others based on criteria that have nothing to do with their abilities. We all have implicit biases, including me.

There is still work to be done. Many female lawyers, and, in particular, women of color, experience difficulties in advancing their careers and in obtaining equal compensation. In the past two decades, men and women have entered the practice of law in roughly equal numbers. However, women equity partners at law firms are not much better off than they were in 2006. According to the latest study released by the National Association of Women Lawyers, women compose 21 percent of equity partners, up only 2 percent from the 2006 survey. This is not enough progress.

The ABA’s Commission on Women has been working to increase women’s participation and success in the legal profession. One of the commission’s recent endeavors is the Grit Project, which seeks to educate female lawyers, law students, and others about the science behind a grit and growth mindset and includes an online toolkit to help women lawyers understand its importance.

As a woman and a lawyer, I believe I have a role to play as a defender of women’s rights everywhere. I hope all women lawyers share this passion and work within their firms and organizations to advance this cause.

Have you have ever faced gender discrimination?

It’s still not that unusual for women and people of color to face biases and low expectations. When I was first starting out, you could count the number of lawyers like me who were in court on one hand. Often, I was asked if I was the court reporter—or even the defendant—everything except whether I was a lawyer.

I’ve discovered some power in being underestimated. In part because of that, I figured I would show them, and set out on a career that led to positions as in-house counsel for several Fortune 500 companies and as a partner in major law firms.

Now, as president of the American Bar Association, one of my initiatives is advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. The law is the least diverse of all comparable professions. A recent study revealed 88 percent of all lawyers in this country are white. By leveraging the power of the more than 400,000 ABA members to promote full and equal diversity, we can work toward ending bias in the legal profession and the justice system.

If you could do it all over again, what might you change?

I prefer to look to the future. Early in my career, I wish that I had focused more on the possibilities of the law for effectuating change. I wish I understood then that you have to be a participant to make it happen. But there’s no time like the present to get going. I have been privileged to add my voice and that of the organizations I have represented to a number of important social justice issues and hope to continue to do that moving forward. 

Paulette Brown is the first woman of color to serve as ABA President. During her 2015-2016 term, she has launched a number of key initiatives, including the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360, forming partnerships with the Department of Justice, National Center for State Courts and other key groups, and Main Street ABA, which has brought Brown to every state in the United States during the course of her presidency. Brown will be succeeded in August 2016 by Linda Klein, managing shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz’s Georgia offices. She has been listed in Best Lawyers for commercial litigation since the 19th edition.