Hello and welcome to the Legal Executives Institute podcast. We’re continuing our series focusing on NAMWOLF, the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, a non-profit trade association that was founded in 2001.
Today we have Sharon Sayles Belton, who’s Thomson Reuter’s vice president of government affairs and community relations. Sharon will be interviewing Janice Brown of the Brown Law Group in San Diego. Janice is also vice chair of NAMWOLF. Sharon, take it away.
Sharon Sayles Belton: Hello Janice, how are you doing today?
Janice Brown: Very well, thank you.
Sharon Sayles Belton: To get us started why don’t you tell us a little bit about your practice and your areas of specialization?
Janice Brown: Gladly. My firm, I guess I say to people mostly, is that we help people avoid lawsuits initially. We do a lot of what’s called preventative law in the employment arena, which is to help companies small and large on ways to minimize risk when it comes with employees, by training, investigations, updating policies, keeping abreast of the law. That’s our first love.
Secondly, if indeed you get into problems with employment litigation, we act as employment counsel for you in a variety of cases, primarily throughout California, throughout the state, we do that kind of work. We also have an office in Los Angeles and a bulk of our work is in other places other than San Diego, but San Diego is our home.
Then finally we do other work, litigation matters primarily, that arise out of our relationship that we have in the employment context. Oftentimes clients will call us and say, “You handled this item well, can you do this?” Typically if it’s a business litigation matter that we know about we’ll do that as well.
Sharon Sayles Belton: I know you started in the Department of Justice, how did you move from the Department of Justice to this area of specialty and what was that task like?
Janice Brown: I began with the Department of Justice right out of law school. It was my very first job and that was in the tax division of the Department of Justice. It was crazy in part because I had taken one tax class at law school, but I had a fabulous professor named Gary Randall. Gary Randall was such a great professor because he didn’t just teach the tax law to us, he taught us the underpinnings, the policy behind it, and that’s always been interesting to me and always very… I was very dedicated to understanding why the government would give people deductions for some things and not others like why do homeowners get deductions and renters don’t? Why do married people get deductions? Why do children? I thought those were all very interesting concepts.
The tax division provided me with an opportunity to litigate cases on behalf of the government throughout the United States, primarily the western United States. And that’s a real honor to represent the United States of America. There’s a lot of lawyers that stay in the Department of Justice or become assistant U.S. attorneys, and they stay in those jobs for their life. Even though I didn’t I understand the sentiment, because there’s something very powerful and wonderful to say you represent the United States of America.
Then after that I went to private practice in San Diego because my last part of my job at Justice, San Diego was my docket and it didn’t take me long between traveling between San Diego and D.C. Despite the fact that I love D.C., I grew up in Montana, and when I came to San Diego I thought I had literally died and went to heaven because they don’t have snow except up in the mountains when you drive to it to ski on it. I thought, “This is a great place for me to develop my career.”
Then when I went to private practice before I started my own firm. I dabbled in some employment law and what I found is, because of my… I like people a lot, I like being around people, that employment was a natural fit for me because it involves dealing with people and dealing with understanding people’s emotions and motivations and beliefs, and I really like that kind of work.
Sharon Sayles Belton: That sounds fantastic. I can actually see and understand the trajectory between the Department of Justice work and your work around business law and preventative law, and then just your personal passion for individuals speaks volumes about why you and your firm have been so successful. Again, there’s so many accolades that I could extend to you but I also want to know and understand, in all of that success were there any obstacles that you experienced because you were a woman of color? Tell us a little bit about that, or has it really been a cakewalk?
Janice Brown: Of course, you know the answer, it’s not a cakewalk. I know you know. I don’t know why I know you know but I think because of the way you framed the question you do know. It has been… And this is one thing about the law that’s significant so not just because of me being a woman of color but also as a lawyer, lawyers have to have resiliency and have to have… There’s a lot of books out, Sheryl Sandberg has one called, Option B, which talks about how to overcome obstacles and grief with her husband dying, and there’s another book called Grit, and they talk about these concepts of overcoming obstacles as was is necessary for success.
For lawyers, I think it’s equally important to have that ability to overcome obstacles because in the legal profession there’s a lot of them, and I faced many of them. There are the various -isms that still persist. Racism and sexism and all other kinds of -isms that are in our society as a whole, but also are in the legal community. So, there are those things.
It’s a tough job. It’s a hard job to be a lawyer and so there’s that in and of itself. Not only is it a challenging job but it also can be difficult, especially as a litigator because you’re dealing with someone else with a different point of view about facts, and so that also causes some challenges.
Then a lot of things that happen in the law are outside of your control. You do the best you can but the decision-makers often time are judges or juries, and you do your best to try to persuade them to take your side but at some point it’s out of your control because that’s the nature of the system. It takes a certain strength to be able to understand what is in your control and what isn’t in your control and to be effective about letting things go that aren’t in your control, and a lot of lawyers have challenges with that. I’ve really spent a lot of time on myself with personal development learning the difference between what I can control and what I can’t.
Then when it comes to being an African-American woman, I’m very, very proud of what I’ve accomplished as a black woman in the legal profession. Owning my own firm and being successful, that’s very important to me. In addition to that, I’m very proud of our firm because of the great work that we do and that I have a diverse firm, so it’s not just me at the top that’s diverse. My firm is diverse throughout and I really make an effort to encourage that kind of diversity in my professional career, my personal life, as well as with the friends and professional colleagues that I have. I believe diversity makes people smarter.
Sharon Sayles Belton: I like that message. Diversity makes people smarter. I do want to go back to this question about the -isms. -isms are out there and maybe they’ll be out there forever, maybe they won’t, what can we do? Is there anything we can do about those -isms that unfortunately are barriers to some people being able to achieve success?
Janice Brown: Yeah, I do believe that. I can tell you the way I’ve made the effort to overcome some of them. I can’t say I’ve overcome them all the time because sometimes something happens and it sparks something within me that causes me to be distracted with that -ism longer than I need to be, but Oprah Winfrey has this really quick five minute blurb when she was interviewed by Stanford Business School.
She was describing her search for the CEO of her network, OWN, and while she was looking for the person she had an interview question. Initially when I heard the interview question, as an employment lawyer I cringed, but then I realized Oprah is a billionaire several times over and she can ask the question that might cause some consternation, and handle it. The question was, “What is your spiritual practice?” When she said that one of the interviewees said, “I don’t have a religious practice.” She goes, “No, I don’t mean a religious practice. I mean, what do you do as a human being to create a sense of knowingness, authenticity, and understanding of your own power? What do you do to nourish your self?” That has been my key.
I heard that not that long ago but I’ve known that intuitively for some time, and I’m actually very, very dedicated to doing that work and that work is by yourself, it’s dealing with your own fears about your own challenges, it’s forgiving other people because forgiveness keeps you in the present and not stuck in the past, and doing personal work. I think that’s where the rubber hits the road. Sometimes you get negative feedback because you deserve it and sometimes you get negative feedback because you don’t, it’s just your turn, and sometimes you get it because it -isms. The challenge is learning when the difference happens and what do you do in response to it?
I tell people they need to build soul muscles. You need to build internal confidence muscles. I remember hearing this preacher, a woman preacher, I think her name was Terry Cole-Whittaker, and she had a book that was called, What you Think of Me is None of My Business. I try to remember that when I feel -isms come up, and they do. I’ve had judges who have done things that, I think they’re impacted by who I am as a person based upon superficial things, but I don’t want to agree with them is basically my point of view. You may have a perception of me that’s less than optimal but I don’t want to agree with that perception.
Sharon Sayles Belton: I was going to ask you to offer me two or three points of advice that I could share with other woman of color, other minority lawyers, and you just gave me four or five bullet points that I’ve actually written down while you were speaking, so, fantastic.
I wanted to ask you a question about NAMWOLF. You’re the vice chair of the organization and NAMWOLF’s mission is to promote diversity in the legal profession by fostering successful relationships among its members, and the public and the private entities that they hope to serve. How would you describe NAMWOLF’s success looking back, and what kinds of things is NAMWOLF going to do looking forward? It’s a tough environment out there, very competitive. What’s in the cards for NAMWOLF?
Janice Brown: One thing is, NAMWOLF continues to grow considerably. There’s a lot of companies, both minority business enterprises and women business enterprises, who continue to want to be affiliated with NAMWOLF. There’s a lot of corporations as well that continue to come to NAMWOLF to look for talented counsel.
The thing I think about NAMWOLF that’s unique is that there’s a vetting process before you can get in. They make certain that you have a certain size, that you have a certain business acumen, and that also you have references from major corporations before you get in. And then there’s a background check, not extensively but somewhat, to make sure that you’re the type of firm that we want to have in the organization. So you really feel a comfort level coming to get firms from NAMWOLF because they’re certified and they’re very, very talented lawyers.
The other piece aside from the growth, NAMWOLF still has some growth to do too because when you put different people together, as I said earlier, you have different ideas about what success looks like. Trying to appease the different people who actually are oftentimes leaders in their community about what diversity means for them, you have a array of ideas and some challenges to deal with in different people’s perspectives. So NAMWOLF still has challenges to grow, to make certain that it incorporates more different types of diversity, that it also looks at the firms that we have aboard who are women business firms or minority business firms to see that they’re diverse within themselves.
Part of our goal is, when you sign up for a organization like NAMWOLF you’re making a commitment that diversity and inclusion are important components for you, so we still have to do more work there. We have to bring more corporations to NAMWOLF. Thankfully what I’ve found is, corporations who are dedicated to NAMWOLF by hiring firms that are headed up by diverse folks and women, they oftentimes are the companies that are most progressive in the diversity and inclusion space.
I think NAMWOLF has a ways to go, because we all do as a society, but I think NAMWOLF is an organization that is making a difference in providing opportunities to lawyers of color who happen to run their own firms.
Sharon Sayles Belton: Now I want to ask you one final question. Looking at the legal industry as a whole and acknowledging the fact that they’ve been grappling with issues of diversity and hiring and inclusion for such a long time, what more needs to be done? What can people in intuitions do to promote genuine change?
Janice Brown: I think the legal profession lags behind other businesses in understanding the significance and the benefits of diversity. I believe we do because we, as a profession, look backwards. We rely on precedence which is what came before. In addition, if you read… There’s so much information that justifies that not only do diverse boards produce higher economic results for a company, but just like music is another way to think and expand your IQ and just like learning another language is another way to expand your IQ, as I said, diversity makes you smarter. Diversity brings together more points that you might not have known had you just had the same people in the room.
The legal profession is still slow. Corporations are way ahead of the legal profession in understanding the benefits of that because corporations are closer to the customer-base. And the United States, despite the uproar that we’ve had recently, is an extremely diverse country. Even though there’s some people who still resist that reality, the reality is inevitable. Migration is real. People come some place where there’s opportunity and the United States is a place of opportunity still.
The legal profession will wake up and those of us who already are embracing diversity, we will be the leaders of that other group because I know that my brand, my company, my product is better because of the diversity that I have in my firm. So from a comparative basis, those firms that don’t understand the significance of it will lose out because the world is global. Yes, I agree it’s been slow. It’s way too slow for any of us who believe in diversity, but I believe it’s inevitable because of the nature of humans. Humanity will require it.
Sharon Sayles Belton: Janice, first let me say thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, but also thank you for the work that you’re doing to help advance the issues of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
Janice Brown: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity as well.
You’ve been listening to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. You can check out more podcasts on our website at the legalexecutiveinstitute.com.