“A woman of color my age who’s still a litigator — I’m trying to think if I know another one in New Jersey. I can’t think of one.”
Before Paulette Brown became the first woman of color elected to lead the American Bar Association (ABA) — commencing in August 2015 — before she graduated from Howard University and attended Seton Hall University’s School of Law; before she even knew a lawyer, let alone became one, she was a teenager in the segregated Baltimore school system — a kid whose friends called her “Mom.”
“I was sort of like the mother hen,” she says. “I felt like I needed to take care of everybody.”
That nurturing instinct stuck with her, first as a would-be social-work student, now as an influential attorney who mentors the next generation of lawyers and as a leader who plans to make a major impact on the ABA when she moves from president-elect to president next August.
“I was fortunate to be in attendance when the House of Delegates carried the motion making Paulette the ABA president-elect, the first African-American woman to hold the position,” said Patrick E. Hobbs, dean of Seton Hall Law. “What an incredible moment for Paulette and for Seton Hall Law School. She brings wisdom, grace and dedication to this role and we are proud to call her one of our own.”
“She’s done what women of color could not do when she started law school,” says Erika D. Robinson, an associate at Gregory, Doyle, Calhoun & Rogers and one of many people Brown has helped along in their career. “I feel like I am witnessing history, and I get to benefit from her experiences.”
Though she enrolled at Howard University in the late 1960s with plans to pursue a social-work degree, Brown found herself drawn to law classes. She arrived at Seton Hall Law and “learned to think in a very different way,” she says.
She singles out Robert Diab, a Seton Hall professor for 43 years until his retirement in 2001, as “one of the best professors ever. If he could not make you understand the rule against perpetuity, no one could.”
Brown worked hard to establish herself in the legal world. Early on, others in a courtroom would ask if she was there as the defendant, or perhaps the court reporter. At times, those assumptions even reached the bench. “Judges now have training on biases and some things have improved,” she adds, “but back then, if there was [judicial] discretion, I never got it.”
Now a partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer, Brown has practiced labor and employment law, along with commercial litigation, for 25 years. U.S. News & World Report has named her one of the country’s top lawyers multiple times, and the National Law Journal included her among the 50 most influential minority lawyers in America. She was the first African American to win the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Young Lawyer of the Year Award; the first minority to receive the association’s Medal of Honor; and soon, the first woman of color to lead the 400,000-member ABA.
She sees the field slowly becoming less homogeneous — a cause she champions as her firm’s chief diversity officer. “But there’s still a great deal of work that has to be done,” she adds, noting that women of color make up less than 2 percent of law firm partners.
“I still go into court on a Monday trial-call and it will be 99 percent white men [attorneys],” Brown says. “A woman of color my age who’s still a litigator — I’m trying to think if I know another one in New Jersey. I can’t think of one.”
As the ABA’s president, Brown plans to visit law schools, “Main Street” law firms and local Boys & Girls Clubs in two towns each month. “I know it’s ambitious,” she says, “but I think I can do it.”
Those who know her agree: they consider Brown one of the hardest workers around — someone whose emails start at 5 a.m. and keep coming past midnight. “To many people, she has already arrived,” Robinson says. “But she continues to push herself all the more. She still works just as hard.”
Packed as her schedule may be, friends say Brown always finds time for others. She’s completed five 60-mile walks to raise money through the Susan G. Komen organization. She drove six hours to attend a protégé’s wedding in Vermont. She’ll make time for a phone chat even as she’s about to get on a plane.
And that high-school nickname? It’s now in use by another generation of friends.
“She’s kind of like my ‘Legal Mom,’ so to speak,” Robinson says. “She really believes in supporting younger attorneys’ growth and development. She has been all that I could ask for in a mentor and much more.”
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.