Paulette Brown, a longtime advocate for diversity in the profession, is the uncontested nominee for American Bar Association president in 2015, which would make her the first minority woman to hold the post.

She would also be the first ABA president from New Jersey in more than 50 years.

Brown, 61, a labor and employment partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer in Madison and the firm’s chief diversity officer, was named Feb. 10 to a standing ovation before the Nominating Committee at the ABA’s midyear conference in Dallas.

Assuming Brown remains the lone nominee, she’ll be up for a committee vote at the next midyear conference, scheduled for February 2014.  She’ll need a simple majority — 34 of the 67 members’ votes — to be nominated officially as president-elect. 

The next step would be approval by the ABA House of Delegates at the annual meeting that August.  Her term would begin at the conclusion of the following year’s annual meeting.

“People view this as a very, very positive step,” Brown told the Law Journal last Monday.  “At the same time, they recognize that it’s not an end. … We have more work to do” in the diversity realm, she says. 

Wayne Positan, New Jersey’s representative in the ABA House of Delegates, who made the nomination, said he had discussed it with Brown as early as 2009. “It’s not because of her color — it’s because she’s qualified,” says Positan, a partner at Lum, Drasco & Positan in Roseland.

Brown has been active in the ABA since the start of her career, beginning with service as N.J. delegate to the Young Lawyers’ Division in 1976-78. She has been a member of the House of Delegates since 1995, sitting on various committees, and was on the Board of Governors in 2008-10, serving on the Executive Committee and chairing the Program Evaluation & Planning Committee.

Brown served on the Commission on Women in the Profession from 2004 to 2007, co-chaired the Committee on Women of Color and co-authored a report, “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms.”

She also was president of the National Bar Association, the principal nationwide African-American bar group, in 1993-94, and currently is second vice chairman of the N.J. State Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section.

She led a delegation to monitor the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. 

Brown, a graduate of Howard University in 1973 and Seton Hall University School of Law in 1976, was an in-house lawyer for National Steel Corp. from 1976 to 1978, for Prudential Ins. Co. from 1978 to 1980, and for Buck Consultants Inc. from 1980 to 1984.

In 1984, she founded Brown & Childress in East Orange, which in 1993 merged with another firm to become 13-lawyer Brown, Lofton, Childress & Wolfe — the state’s largest minority firm at the time. Brown was managing partner and remained there until 1999. 

Brown was with Duane Morris in Newark from 1999 until 2005, when she joined Edwards & Angell in Short Hills, which after a series of mergers became part of Chicago-based Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon in October 2011.

Brown is chief diversity officer for the firm, which has about 660 lawyers globally. Her practice focuses on employment litigation and defending employers in discrimination actions, including class actions. 

Alan Levin, chairman of Edwards Wildman, says the firm is “very excited to have one of our partners … nominated for this position.  We think it speaks highly of our firm’s commitment to the ABA.”

He says Brown has been “driving the firm forward in not just paying lip service to diversity” but in helping craft programs and educate administrators on race issues, a role that has required her to travel to each of more than a dozen offices.

Louis Childress Jr., with whom Brown founded Brown & Childress, says Brown was “really a key reason” for the firm’s growth.

“Where she is now is probably a logical progression in her legal career,” says Childress, who’s still with the East Orange firm, now Childress & Jackson.  “She always yearned and wanted just a little bit more.”

Karol Corbin Walker, a longtime friend and colleague of Brown who became the New Jersey State Bar Association’s first black president of either gender in 2003, calls Brown “immensely qualified.”

“She’s been with the big firms, she’s been with the small firms,” says Walker, a partner at LeClairRyan in Newark who  was in attendance at the Nominating Committee meeting in Dallas.

Brown fielded committee questions about what new initiatives she’d seek to launch and her methods for drawing young lawyers to join the association, among other subjects.  She now is “meeting with as many people as possible” for input, she says.

One issue of “ongoing importance and concern,” says Brown, is one that was discussed at length throughout the midyear meeting: the possible restructuring of law school programs to include less classroom time and more hands-on, practical work experience.

The ABA is holding public hearings. There is no concrete proposal on the table yet. “I don’t have a firm position because I’m still in the process of gathering information,” says Brown, a council member of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Once Brown assumes the presidency, she’ll suspend her practice, but will remain chief diversity officer and will play a marketing role for the firm, maintaining contact with key clients. She says the presidential role is “going to be quite time-consuming,” including extensive travel, speaking engagements and promotion of the association. 

Brown would be the ABA’s sixth woman president since its inception in 1878, and the third African-American.  The first was Dennis Archer of Michigan, in 2003-04, followed immediately by Robert Grey Jr. of Virginia in 2004-05.

She would be the fourth ABA president hailing from New Jersey.

The first was Newark attorney Cortlandt Parker, in 1883. Parker was Essex County’s prosecutor for a decade and practiced with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley and U.S. Sen. Frederick Frelinghuysen.

The second was Newark’s Sylvester Smith Jr. in 1962. Smith spearheaded a nationwide ABA initiative to better represent indigent defendants accused of crimes. At the time, two-thirds of the states had no organized public or private public defender programs.

New Jersey’s third ABA president was Arthur Vanderbilt, in 1937. At 49, he was the youngest lawyer ever elected. He became the first chief justice after the state’s adoption of its modern constitution in 1947.