When she entered the courtroom as a young attorney, Paulette Brown said, people often presumed she was the defendant, the court reporter, or even a juror. “I was anybody but the lawyer,” said Brown, now the president of the American Bar Association (ABA), in describing the obstacles she has faced practicing in the legal profession as an African-American woman.
Law Librarian of Congress Roberta I. Shaffer interviewed Brown about her illustrious career and the ABA’s 2016 Law Day theme, “Miranda: More than Words,” for a program that was held at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, April 27. The event commemorated both the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Supreme Court decision Miranda v. Arizona and Law Day, a national day that celebrates the rule of law and its contributions to the freedoms that Americans enjoy.
Brown called law “the least diverse profession of all comparable professions.” Still, she said, “I do not think I could have chosen a better profession. I still think it is the best.”
Brown, who attended segregated public schools in Baltimore until the 10th grade, originally wanted to become a social worker because her parents instilled in her a strong commitment to give back to the community. “I wanted to save the world, I still think I want to save the world,” Brown said. She decided to change her career path once she met her college roommates, who were pursuing law, and law librarian Judy Dimes at Howard University. Brown said she started to realize that she could save more people with a law degree. “I think a law license gives you the power to do really great things for society,” Brown noted.
Brown wasted no time using her law degree to do great things for society. She has served as corporate counsel to a number of large corporations, and has been a municipal court judge, president of the National Bar Association, and currently a partner in the law firm Locke Lord LLP.
When Shaffer asked Brown to explain why she selected the Law Day theme, “Miranda: More Than Words,” and how Miranda is being applied in our justice system today, Brown responded that she wanted to look at how Miranda has evolved over time. The Miranda warnings protect against self-incrimination and are an extension of the Sixth Amendment—right to counsel. However, Brown said, “More Than Words,” means “people truly understanding what their rights are, when the warnings are applied, and understanding that silence can be used against them.”
Brown said that about 66 percent of African-Americans think the justice system is unfair and more than half of young people view the justice system as unfair, thus she wanted people to reflect on the impact Miranda has on them. “People have to really believe they have a right to justice,” Brown said. When people confess to crimes that they did not commit even after being Mirandized, there are about 46,000 collateral consequences including losing the right to vote or being disbarred from obtaining many occupational licenses, Brown explained.
As the first African-American president of the ABA, Brown is also dedicated to diversifying the legal profession through what she described as a “multi-prong” approach; including establishing a working group focused on reducing the cost of legal education through loan forgiveness programs and examining how law school scholarships can be awarded for other criteria other than just grades.
She also explained how the ABA has a working group focused on how implicit bias affects decision making among judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. The organization currently offers training videos for judges about implicit bias through their website. “Our biases are triggered by stress and even the most well intentioned people can be adversely affected by implicit bias,” said Brown. Furthermore, under Brown’s helm, the ABA also has an economic case working group dedicated to creating more uniform guidelines for law firms and companies to use when making partner appointments. Brown shared that women make up less than 17 percent of partners in law firms and women of color make up less than 2 percent.
In conclusion, when Shaffer asked Brown about her ideas to improve the disparate impact that bail fines and fees are having on members of minority communities, Brown’s response was impactful—“we have to stop punishing people for being poor,” Brown said. “We must refrain from turning unpaid fines into criminal actions and become creative and innovative in our thinking and apply other alternatives to the imposition of fines such as community service to bridge the gap.”
Update: Event video added below.