Dyson’s GC on how to improve the legal profession

In Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood, one high school is both a haven and an incubator for the next generation of lawyers of color

To be a lawyer is a privilege. That’s how Jason Brown views his job. “This is a service profession,” Brown says. “Part of that service is to make our profession better than it was when we came into it.”

From the time he was a teenager, Brown knew he wanted to be a lawyer. Twenty-five years later, not only has he accomplished that goal—working as general counsel for the North American territory of Dyson—but he is also helping hundreds of teens in Chicago pursue the same dream. As a board member at Legal Prep Charter Academy (LPCA), Brown is making sure the first-of-its-kind legal education reaches students who need it.

Located in Chicago’s West Garfield Park, serving its residents and those of Chicago’s West Side, Austin, and North Lawndale neighborhoods, Legal Prep Charter Academy is Illinois’s only legal-focused high school. Until now, the area surrounding the academy has been known best for having the city’s worst violent crime rate. Nearly a quarter of the area’s adult residents (aged 25 and older) do not have high school diplomas. More than 95 percent of the academy’s students come from low-income households. And the majority of students are at least three grade levels behind academically when they enter the academy. With context like that, the future for a teenager can seem bleak. LPCA is aiming to change that.

“This is a service profession. Part of that service is to make our profession better than it was when we came into it.”

“In the western and southern parts of the city, kids are averaging 12.5-13 on the ACT,” says Paul Chadha, corporate counsel at Accenture, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University, and Brown’s fellow board member at the academy. “We put a high school in place, and in three and half years, our kids scored an average of 17-20. That’s enough to get you into some colleges. If you look at Whitney Young—” a Chicago magnet high school ranked fourth-best in the state—“they’re around 28. I think we can get in that space.”

Brown first heard about LPCA before the school even physically existed. He had been introduced to the school’s cofounders, Sam Finkelstein and Rather Stanton, through colleagues and instantly wanted to get involved. “They had an idea, a charter, and a dream,” says Brown, who leads development activities through the school’s Annual Barrister’s Ball, serves on committees, and recruits partners and volunteers.

The academy enrolled its first class in 2012. The first class of seniors at LPCA is set to graduate in 2016. All of the school’s 300 students are “diverse,” defined by the academy as nonwhite. The students at LPCA learn math and reading, but they also learn Latin, conflict resolution, and negotiations as part of their curriculum. Brown and the school’s leaders know that not every student will become a lawyer, but the lessons and support they receive will help them succeed no matter their career path. “Everyone there is trying to encourage students to get to that next level and everyone has that energy that is infectious to push you forward,” he says. “The opportunity these students have in this environment is precious, and it doesn’t come along often.”

“Education is the cornerstone, but it is also about opportunity and access.”

Although Brown’s professional aspirations were supported from a young age, he knows not all students will have a champion in their corner. He recalls a humbling experience from his days in private practice that reminds him of that fact. He and a colleague encountered a couple African American girls over their lunch break one sunny afternoon. The girls, no older than junior high age, were seeking directions. When they saw the two men dressed in suits, they asked Brown and his friend if they were coming from church. Brown explained that they were coming from work and pointed to the towering office building that housed the law offices of Winthrop & Weinstine. “They were stunned to see people who looked like them in suits on a weekday, but also to see us going to work in a building of that size,” says Brown. “You take that for granted when you’re in it—when you have a job and are working hard. What we do is a dream for some people.”

In the legal field, specifically, the stratification between the number of diverse attorneys and the constituents they represent is wide. According to the American Bar Association, there are about 1.3 million licensed attorneys in the United States. Nonwhite attorneys make up 12 percent of that total, African Americans a mere 5 percent. “Education is the cornerstone, but it is also about opportunity and access,” says Brown.

That reality motivated Brown when he served as the executive director and general counsel of the National Association of Women- and Minority-Owned Law Firms and when he cofounded the Association of Corporate Counsel Chicago Chapter’s summer internship program for diverse law students. For the last 12 years, the program has helped place students in the legal departments of Chicago corporations, gaining them experience and exposure—two assets that are more valuable than ever. “For students who come up as the first in their family to go to college, access and connections are becoming much more of a socioeconomic issue,” says Brown. “Some will do okay, and some will have no shot. It’s not just about getting an A in tort. Good grades won’t ride you into a law firm. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”

While there have been strides made during his time in the industry, Brown says there is still a long way to go. “When we can stop saying ‘the first woman to do this’ or ‘the first Asian American to do that,’ I will feel even better about our progress on race,” he says. “In this day and age, to still be seeing so many ‘firsts’ in so many professional positions is somewhat embarrassing.” Without diversity, Brown says, any industry cannot expect to succeed. Now, more so than at any other time, he adds, we are globally connected. To have diverse perspective is critical to move business forward. To be successful, businesses need teams that are representative of the world in which they operate. Those without will fall behind. Brown admits that even the academy may not be enough to change the track, perhaps the problem must be tackled earlier than high school, but at least for 300 students on Chicago’s West Side, the future is looking brighter.

“Charles Hamilton Houston, a former dean at Howard University’s law school said, ‘A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society,’” Brown says. “Not everyone becomes a civil rights lawyer or argues Brown v. Board of Education, but all of us can have some impact. We all have a responsibility to make sure we aren’t just collecting a check. We have to bring up the next generation and make sure they have the same access and opportunities that we had, or better.”

In Conversation: Jason Brown & Paul Chadha

Jason Brown and Paul Chadha, both members of the board of LPCA and corporate counsel working in Chicago, sat down to discuss the diversity challenges facing the legal profession.

Paul Chadha: How is the legal field positively impacted by the contribution of diversity to its ranks?

Jason Brown: One of the intended consequences of diversity initiatives in the legal profession is to give individuals an opportunity in a profession they haven’t had before. An unintended but outstanding result of that work has been the increased access of legal services to a broader range of communities that never had it before. Because there are more people bringing their talents, education, skills, and services to a broader range of society, more communities that were historically underrepresented in the legal field have availed themselves of legal service and understanding.

PC: You’re exactly right. I think diversity has increased accessibility for those communities from which diverse attorneys are coming. Southeast Asian American attorneys are a concrete example of that. Twenty or thirty years ago, you didn’t see many of them practicing at big law firms or corporations. Now this growing body of younger, diverse attorneys has turned around and opened a pro bono legal clinic on Devon Street (a Southeast Asian community in Chicago). They’re helping out with immigration, landlord-tenant, social security, and disability law—legal services that segment of society has traditionally gone without.

JB: There have always been diverse-owned small businesses—whether a corner store or what have you—in immigrant communities, but one of the things missing from those communities has been a strong understanding, familiarity, and access to legal services. There’s a greater sophistication and ability to grow for minority-owned businesses just by having folks within their community to represent their interests.

PC: Understanding benefits like increased accessibility, why has it been so difficult to achieve diversity in certain areas of the law, specifically at large law firms?

JB: It goes back to defining the goal of increasing diversity. In the beginning, law firms decided they wanted to have a diverse workforce, so the answer was recruiting. They specifically sought diverse talent and interviewed at diverse law schools. They went for diversity in terms of numbers. What they failed to do was work on retention and develop that talent, so it could be successful in those firms. When you have like-minded people with similar backgrounds, retention is fairly easy because you have a familiar and easy-to-understand formula that works, and everyone subscribes to it. When you add diversity to that mix and shake that up a bit, you find you can’t put a round peg in a square hole and expect it to fit. Law firms can recruit people, they just haven’t figured out how to get them to stay.

PC: I think that is definitely true. I remember meeting with a large law firm when Accenture was working with its outside counsel on diversity and inclusion. We noted that the firm’s demography was consistently diverse, but significantly less so in the more senior ranks. It seemed that over time, those folks were gone. The managing partner expressed that the firm hired the top African American law students from the top law schools for the last 20 years. But that begs the question: where are those folks now? After 20 years there should be nearly 10 African American partners at just this firm alone, but they aren’t there; they’re gone. In 2014 there were a total of 2,037 equity partners working at the five biggest US law firms (by revenue). Only 27 of those people—about 1 percent—were African American. Corporations, can’t hire diverse attorneys unless law firms are hiring diverse talent. But before firms can get anybody, law schools have to be there. I don’t think Stanford graduated its first African American law student until 1968. So if you wanted to meet an African American Stanford lawyer with 48+ years of experience, you couldn’t. (You could hire Sallyanne Payton, the ’68 grad, who is now a law professor at Michigan). For a bit of perspective, more than 61,000 people graduated from law school in 1968. Do you think it’s the critical mass, or the lack thereof, that’s the problem?

JB: When you approach diversity by the numbers, there’s risk. When I say “by the numbers,” I mean you’re only looking to move percentages. Focusing strictly on numbers doesn’t allow you to understand the foundational change that needs to happen. It’s about more than admissions, hiring, and bar passage. It’s training, awareness, opportunity, growth, and development. The shift in how we do things now will make the long-lasting impact in how we increase diversity. Like the firm you referred to, many firms hire the top black students, but they haven’t changed anything fundamentally inside. Each top attorney came in, and each left. They stared a cycle that will continue until the firms change it. It won’t be solved by bringing more people in. It must be attacked differently.

PC: You helped establish the Association of Corporate Counsel Law Student Diversity Summer Internship Program—an extremely successful program for placing diverse law students in the legal departments of some of the biggest companies in Chicago. What is the biggest barrier for minority law students and attorneys looking to work for the large law firms or large corporations? Do you think there’s more we can be doing with firms and law schools to promote diversity?

JB: I think some schools ride on their reputation and think if you graduate from there and have decent grades, firms will clamber to hire you. But we’ve encountered diverse students who have done really well, and they don’t have their pick of 15 offers. They’re using connections or people they know to get in the door because these law firms are not just looking at four or five law schools, but 45 law schools potentially to recruit a much smaller class than before. There are fewer opportunities and law firms are much more selective than they were 20 years ago. I’ve never seen it this tough to get a job as long as I’ve been practicing. It’s always been important to know people, to be connected. It’s been helpful to use a personal or professional connection to get in front of the right people. It’s amazing how much I see that now as a necessity for students to get in the door and get hired. You probably see the same thing. Students you meet who are very bright and have great grades struggle. But a word from you can get them an interview with a firm that wouldn’t interview them on campus.

PC: That’s right. I remember Accenture’s first legal summer intern 10 years ago through the program. As I recall her grades were great, but she wasn’t at a “tier 1” school. Through that summer with us she was able to network and interview with a major law firm and get a 2L summer internship with that major law firm that ultimately led to a job as an associate—she’s still there. I see that year after year. At Accenture we partner with Kirkland & Ellis to mentor students from Legal Prep Charter Academy once a month, and more than anything, the value in that program is the exposure these kids are getting.

JB: I think the idea behind the mentorship program is genius. I think the school itself, its mission, and what it is achieving is phenomenal. There are a lot of charter schools doing great things, but I think the focus and how we do things at Legal Prep (including mentorship, the study of law and how it governs our society, negotiation skills, debate team, and dispute resolution skills) these are the types of things that will help these students or allow them to help someone else. Charter schools aren’t unique, but to have one that teaches that the law is the root of civilization is so important. It teaches them that they’ll be part of this society—a society that needs leaders, and they’ll be those leaders.

PC: What goals do you have for the school and its students, and how do you hope to help?

JB: The goal is to get every one of those students not just into a college but adequately prepared to be successful in college. As I’ve seen the struggles of students that come into Legal Prep as freshman and had conversations about where they are from a reading level perspective, I wonder if we’re being shortsighted by only focusing on high school and if we need to think about expanding and starting at the junior high level. I want to provide more fundamental training at that level.