Paulette Brown acquired a reputation for being assertive before she was in her teens. Any time she perceived a situation as unfair– to herself, or others– she tended to say so, according to relatives. And she was very nearly always right.
After becoming a Girl Scout in her hometown of Baltimore, she told her mother the Scout leader showed favoritism to her own daughter. Paulette worried she’d never be chosen for anything important. “I said, ‘Did you ever think of telling her?’ ” Thelma Brown, her mother, recalled. “We didn’t discuss the matter again. But later the leader called me and said, ‘Paulette is something else again! Do you know, she opened my eyes to what I was doing?’ After that, Paulette became a leader in the group.”
Many other leadership positions followed, in school and during her career. Now Brown, 62, a labor and employment partner and chief diversity officer at Edwards Wildman Palmer in Madison, is the uncontested nominee for the presidency of the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2015. She will be the first minority woman to hold the title, and the first ABA president from New Jersey since the 1930s. Brown has been an active member of the New Jersey State Bar Association, including serving as the first vice chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section. She is also currently a trustee of the New Jersey State Bar Foundation.
The achievement surprises absolutely no one who knows her. Since graduating from Seton Hall University School of Law in 1976, she’s been active in professional associations and amassed a long list of awards and distinctions.
“Sometimes, I think my sister is running a race,” said older sister Carlita White. “She has so many things she wants to do and accomplish.”
“I’ve asked her, ‘How do you get 28 hours of a 24-hour period?’” said former New Jersey State Bar Association President Karol Corbin Walker, an old friend. Yet, “She is always a joy to be with, upbeat, insightful and fun.”
Brown attributes her accomplishments to her parents, who had high expectations for their four kids. Her father, a truck driver, “said there were no boy jobs and no girl jobs. My brother had to wash dishes and mop the floor like his sisters. My mother taught us not to back down. She said, just because someone says you can’t do something, you don’t have to go along with them.”
After attending Baltimore’s segregated public schools, Brown went off to Howard University, where she became a leader in student government and her sorority. “She had a strong commitment to fairness and justice, and you could expect her to have an opinion about many things,” said former freshman roommate Charlene Tusan. But Brown was also sensitive to others’ feelings, and quick to take people under her wing such as the time she invited Tusan and another roommate to Baltimore for Thanksgiving when she learned they couldn’t afford to go home to New Orleans, where they lived.
Brown attended Seton Hall Law on a full scholarship. She lived in East Orange, walking or biking to classes in Newark.
“Law school was an isolating experience,” Brown said. “People were not that accepting of African-American students. But I’m not that easily intimidated, I guess, and I made what turned out to be long-term friendships with lots of people.”
The school’s few black students received virtually no career counseling. According to Brown, “You had to find employment on your own.” Through a personal connection she landed a position at National Steel Corp., writing employee benefit plans. Two years later, she jumped to Prudential. But “It was one of the worst experiences I ever had,” she recalled. “Pretty much everyone in the pension department had worked there since high school. They treated me horribly because I was a manager. They couldn’t understand why I hadn’t started at the lowest level.”
Brown then went to work for an employee benefits consulting firm in New York. “As I approached the time when they would have to offer me a directorship — no person of color had ever made it that far — they started finding little issues with my work,” Brown said. She announced she was leaving. The firm panicked, fearing she would sue. “Back in those days, lawyers didn’t sue for discrimination. I just wanted to leave.” The firm gave her a severance package.
In 1984, she founded Brown & Childress in East Orange, and began doing defense work for the city. Three years later, she accepted a part-time job as municipal judge in Plainfield.
Around this time she began thinking about adopting a child. An acquaintance introduced her to an eight-year-old boy in foster care. The first time they met, “We had a really great time together. Later he said, ‘Please don’t ever get rid of the suit you wore that day,’” she said. Brown adopted him in 1992. Son Dijuan Brown, now 29, is a teacher in Plainfield.
In 1999, she joined Duane Morris in Newark. In 2005 she moved to Edwards & Angell in Short Hills, which became part of her current firm. Today, Brown specializes in employment litigation, defending employers in discrimination actions.
Her personal life, meanwhile, is stuffed full. Brown loves to cook and entertain. She started a book club, whose discussions have been known to last until 2 a.m. She’s a former president of the YWCA of Plainfield, and she completed a number of three-day, 60-mile walks to raise money for cancer. She was also part of the delegation to monitor the first free and democratic elections in South Africa.
Six years ago Brown, who never had a mentor herself, established a mentoring group for young women of color associates. “There were only about three African-American female partners in large firms in New Jersey. They had no mentors or role models, and needed a safe place to come to share their experiences,” she said. Two have since become partners.
Brown’s commitment to future generations of female lawyers is fierce. To help them advance, “We need an army of women and a few good men,” she said in 2011 when accepting the ABA’s Margaret Brent Award. “Having no fear, and standing up for what is right, is the only way we as women will survive, progress, and bulldoze through what has been — for some of us — concrete ceilings.”