Introducing CBA President Jessica Brown
Jessica Brown was always going to be a lawyer. Well, that or an actress. “I didn’t really know what lawyers did, but law was always in my top two. I dropped the actress idea somewhere along the way, but the lawyer concept stuck, and I went straight from college to law school,” says Brown, a partner at Gibson Dunn and the incoming president of the Colorado Bar Association.
Finding a Home in Employment Law
It’s been a perfect fit for Brown since the beginning. She joined Gibson Dunn in 1995 after clerking for Judge Jim R. Carrigan of the US District Court for the District of Colorado, where employment cases comprised about 40% of the federal court docket. “I got really comfortable with the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework and learned various avenues for prevailing on summary judgment in those cases. When I joined Gibson Dunn, I reached out to partners in other offices about their employment matters, and soon I was working with lawyers in most of our domestic offices, defending single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits under various state and federal laws.”
Gibson Dunn proved an ideal training ground. “I remember feeling like my skill set grew so much every year, which confirmed for me that I was on the right track.” She gives a lot of credit to her mentors within the firm. One senior lawyer in the Denver office talked her through deposing an expert and pushed her to create a litigation budget. Another senior employment-law partner in the Orange County office not only let Brown participate as he prepared company executives for their depositions, but also taught her the art of witness preparation. He then introduced her to his employment-law partners, and soon she was working for most of them. She assisted a partner in the D.C. office—a former Solicitor of Labor—with a US Supreme Court case regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Just before oral argument, he moved her admission into the US Supreme Court Bar, providing her a front-row seat. A senior partner in the Los Angeles office gave her equal billing on an in-depth paper they wrote on fee-shifting under the federal civil rights statutes, then let her co-present it with him at the prestigious American Employment Law Council conference. He also made a point of introducing her to the many in-house lawyers he knew there.
These were the senior lawyers who advocated for Brown when it was time for her to be considered for partnership, putting their own reputations on the line. “I will always be grateful to them for their mentorship and sponsorship. But I also recognized that these relationships are a two-way street. I worked hard to make my mentors and sponsors look good, to make their lives easier, to take ownership of their clients’ problems, to stay awake working or worrying so they could get a little more sleep. I tried to make them want to invest in me.” It’s the same attitude that has made Brown invest time in her own mentees. “I am so grateful for where I am and have been in my career, and providing mentorship is one way to pay it forward.”
Over the years, Brown’s practice has evolved with a focus on conducting or managing workplace and government investigations, something that allows her to indulge in a love for solving mysteries. “I like putting together all the different clues or pieces of the puzzle—everyone’s different stories and perspectives, key documents, and so on—and figuring out what fits and what doesn’t.” She’s got a record of successfully establishing rapport with witnesses to make them feel comfortable opening up to her, even in what is invariably an uncomfortable situation. “I love the human aspects of helping employers resolve whistleblower and other employee concerns.”
Brown’s passion for her practice and for mentoring younger lawyers was recognized nationally by the Ms. JD organization, which awarded her with its Sharing Her Passion award in 2017. Brown has a passion for giving back as well. She has been involved with many pro bono organizations, including Know Your IX, the National Association of Counsel for Children, the National Women’s Law Center, the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, and Denver’s Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives Program. She has also been active in several organizations for diversity and gender equity, including the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, and the CBA’s Committee for Balanced Legal Careers.
Looking over the progress she’s seen in the time she’s been involved in gender and diversity issues, Brown is optimistic, even as she admits there is a long way to go. “When I started in Big Law, only about 13% of equity partners were female. Now we’re up around 20%. That’s a result in part of a lot of people—men and women alike—caring about issues of diversity and inclusion. We need to do better with regard to minority women in particular, who I believe remain the most poorly represented group in Big Law partnerships. But if legal employers and institutions can continue to change to become even more hospitable to women and moms, we should be able to reach parity. After all, roughly 50% of law students and new associates are women and have been for a long time,” Brown says.
“I’m happy about the progress the CBA is making with regard to gender equity as well. Past President Patricia Jarzobski chairs a task force that is doing tremendous work to improve diversity and inclusion within the association. And right now, after 120+ years of almost all male presidents, for the first time in CBA history we are about to have a female past president, president, and president-elect—as well as a female executive director. To me, that’s exciting.”
The Year Ahead
Thinking to her own presidency, Brown acknowledges the strange times we find ourselves in. As of this writing, Denver will have been under quarantine for more than two months to help curb the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. Brown is hoping she can help CBA members navigate and respond to the pandemic while also not having her entire presidency and year defined by it.
“Long before COVID-19, I had thought to focus on a theme suggested by one of my mentors, Attorney General Phil Weiser: Lawyers as Leaders.” Reflecting, Brown thinks the theme still works. In fact, it may be even more relevant now. Brown looks to Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode’s book Lawyers as Leaders (which Brown discovered after adopting the “Lawyers as Leaders” theme). Rhode points out that, although attorneys sit at the helm of an array of businesses, law firms, and nonprofit and governmental organizations, the legal profession does little to prepare lawyers to lead. “The Bar is uniquely positioned to help in that regard. The CBA has a formal leadership training program—COBALT—and it’s fantastic. But COBALT classes are limited to 20 attorneys per year. I hope to facilitate a series of statewide programs and discussions to assist all lawyers who are interested to become leaders in the myriad ways they are needed, especially now.”
To Brown, the importance of good political leadership has never been more apparent. “Our communities would benefit from lawyers serving as leaders of local government. We also need lawyers leading the way with regard to diversity and inclusion, so we don’t undermine recent progress, which unfortunately occurred in the wake of the Great Recession and could occur again. There are so many ways in which lawyers can, and are needed to, lead.”
When asked about the impact of the pandemic in her own field of labor and employment law, Brown anticipates being pretty busy in the coming months. “Some of our statewide pro bono coordinators have suggested, given all the legal issues the pandemic has caused and will cause, lawyers may be the next ‘heroes’ on the front lines. Massive layoffs across all segments of the economy have left millions out of work. Federal and state governments have stepped in with numerous patchwork programs and laws to address the unemployment crisis. If what’s past is prologue, companies should expect that current and former employees will unleash an onslaught of allegations about company misconduct, both COVID-19-related and otherwise. Indeed, government regulators and the plaintiffs’ bar are already publicizing various reporting mechanisms for employees seeking to raise such claims. In this context, increased whistleblower complaints are inevitable.”
And yet Brown keeps a level head when considering the global economic turmoil and disruption caused by the pandemic. “There have been so many impacts from the pandemic that are not positive; indeed, it has been downright devastating for many. But there have been a few silver linings. One that I hope lasts beyond the pandemic is the ability for office workers, including lawyers and staff, to work more flexibly. Many office workers were never permitted to work from home, but perhaps they will be allowed to now, since we’ve seen how well it can work. And for working mothers, for example, that ability to work flexibly may allow them to continue long term with their employers and ultimately rise to leadership positions, such as partnership or management, within their organizations.”
Another silver lining Brown has recognized in quarantine is the strengthening of her bond with her husband Chris, whom she first met over 17 years ago. Brown, her husband, and their two daughters, Hadley, 13, and Tatum, 9, have adapted to quarantine by hosting virtual game nights. “We haven’t found a great poker app yet, but Euchre 3D and Trickster Pitch are really fun. We set up iPads on the table and FaceTime our friends, then play cards with the apps on each of our phones. It almost feels like our pre-pandemic game nights when we hosted them in person.” Brown and her husband also go for walks. “We haven’t been able to do much else this spring, but anything we do together is fun. I actually feel like we’ve grown even closer during quarantine, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible!”
Brown clearly has the vision to see through life’s dark clouds. She appears well poised to lead the CBA through these uncertain times.