Female Law Firm’s New Direction: Expand North and Hire Men

Janice P. Brown, owner and founder of the Brown Law Group in downtown San Diego, is always looking for that next rung. It’s just her nature.

"I think that I’m on top of the mountain, and I look up and see the whole mountain range ahead of me," she observed. "I am constantly seeking improvement."

Founded in 2003, Brown Law Group — specializing in employment and business matters — lists among its clients such heavy hitters as Sempra Energy, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., and home builder Barratt American Inc., as well as branches of Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Pfizer, Chubb Insurance, Lehman Bros., John Deere, and Wells Fargo Bank.

Brown previously had founded the Vantage Law Group, after having practiced at the San Diego law firm of Seltzer Caplan Wilkins & McMahon, making partner in 1992. Prior to that, she worked as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s tax division in Washington, D.C.

Brown has come a long way in a short time, said Frank Urtasun, director of local governmental affairs at Sempra Energy, and former chairman of the Port of San Diego board of commissioners. He first met Brown in the late ’90s when she was doing some legal work for the port. "She has done a phenomenal job, with the port and Sempra Energy," he said. "It’s no surprise to me to see her achieve this level of success within the time frame that she has had. She is incredibly disciplined and focused. She’s got all the energy in the world to keep up that pace. She likes to encircle herself around talented folks, and is not intimidated by being around smart people. She thrives on that and it motivates her. It’s part of her secret for success."

Now, Brown is gearing up for growth, with plans to branch out into Orange County and Los Angeles in the next month or two, and adding to her fleet of attorneys, which now number seven.

"We have so much client demand," she said. But Brown also is being careful to move ahead with care. "We have made a Kool-Aid with just the right amount of sugar, but this opportunity was too good to pass up," she said. Her new recipe will again involve finding the "right way and the right people." "People are the most expensive and important part of the business," she said. "I want to get the right people."

What qualities is she looking for? "Someone who is committed to growing, and who doesn’t say, ‘This is the way I am and you need to take it,’ but someone who is open to trying new things," said Brown. "Second, the need to be a team player. But, most lawyers are very competitive and that’s a good thing. But some don’t know how to be a partner with someone. It’s important to know how to turn off the competitiveness if it’s not consistent with the goals."
She also wants someone "who is not an angry or mean-spirited person. I’d rather have someone kind, a strong person, than someone who is extremely effective, but mean. Life is too short."

Up until now, all of Brown’s staff has been female, but that will be changing.

"It’s the first time, and I’m really excited about it," she said. "I don’t think there is a downside. I am a strong woman, and I attract strong women to work for me. But there are men who are comfortable with strong women. Most of my clients are men, and they are very comfortable with it."

In the meantime, Brown also has added to her staff the services of Karina Juarez, who specializes in business transactions, something that the firm previously referred out. "She is a great deal maker," said Brown.

Another major development at the Brown Law Group has been a strategic alliance recently formed with the San Diego office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, an international firm, whose clients include more than 100 of the Fortune 500.

Brown considers the alliance a good deal for both firms. "When we get the big cases, we can work with that firm without swallowing the resources of this firm," she said. And, Brown added, Pillsbury Winthrop will refer smaller cases over to her firm. "So, we get that business, too," she said. "It’s a win-win for us."

Douglas R. Tribble, partner in the San Diego office of Pillsbury Winthrop, considers Brown to be "a very impressive woman." "It’s one of the reasons that our firm was interested in joining with her," he said. "She seemed to be a perfect match. She has exceptional abilities as a trial lawyer."

Pillsbury Winthrop was looking for a highly qualified, small, minority-owned firm to help share the load, he said. "Together we could bring more worth to the client," said Tribble. "In trials, the diversity of a trial team is very important. But in our firm our size makes it impossible to have a diverse team at every trial. With a firm of Janice’s size, typically it can’t represent larger companies or major class actions, not because they’re not qualified, but due to size. It takes a lot of people."

With this alliance, he said, both firms jointly market to large companies that are faced with significant litigation. "We treat each other as partners in the same firm," said Tribble. "It is a true joint relationship."

It was the right move for Pillsbury Winthrop, known nationally for its history of promoting diversity in the workplace, said Tribble. "Around the country, at most, there is a handful doing something similar," he said. "It wouldn’t surprise me that, once we roll this out publicly, more firms would pick up on it." Tribble plans to expand these types of alliances to Pillsbury Winthrop’s other offices "where it makes sense." "They would be thrilled to have the same type of match that we have with Janice here," he said.

With all of this growth, Brown figures that her firm, which now brings in revenue of $3 million to $3.2 million a year, could be pulling in around $5 million by 2008.

Reaching Goals

Brown has racked up many honors in her career, including being named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1987, and Lawyer of the Year by the California Association of Black Lawyers in 1995. But, while she has been busy blazing trails, Brown also has been aware that even successful people need guidance once in awhile.

She has been consulting with Hawaii-based coach, Roger Lane, who was recommended to her by the Chairmen’s RoundTable, a San Diego-based group that provides advice and membership to local businesses.

What Lane does is to help people achieve their goals and recognize new skills, said Brown. Overall, he has helped her to "tune up the business to make it better." "He helps me to be a better time manager and prioritize what is important for me to do," said Brown. "He helps me become more effective."

Brown has learned how to delegate. Earlier this year she appointed Lann G. McIntyre as chief operating officer. McIntyre’s duties include everything from determining the appropriate amounts for retainers to the proper filing of legal documents. "I either had to split myself in half, or find someone else to do this," said Brown.

But, it’s not all about billable hours. Describing herself as "a pretty decent boss," Brown also believes in letting her staff pursue other interests outside the firm. For instance, litigator Laura Roppe spends some of her evenings singing with local rock band CoolBandLuke. "I knew I had to embrace it," said Brown. "She runs marathons, she’s a mom of two, she cooks. I can’t thwart or interfere with that drive to be unique. That’s why she sings at my firm’s parties."

Randa Trapp, a San Diego Superior Court judge who has known Brown for 20 years, has long appreciated Brown’s generous nature. "More of us need to find that balance," she said. "She has a passion for living and the law, and the two intersect in a marvelous way."

Looking back, Trapp recalled that, "When we were both lawyers at law firms, she was a soul mate. We would call each other up and commiserate. When you are a new lawyer, it is a strange new world out there. We were both African Americans and we share that cultural thing. It was helpful to have someone you can relate to, and get a reality check."

Brown continues to help others, she said. "She’s willing to share what she has learned," said Trapp. "She mentors a number of young lawyers, not only at the Brown Law Group, but others out in the legal community."

Multitasking

Brown also serves on the board of the Centre City Development Corp., which oversees development for the city in downtown San Diego. Currently on CCDC’s plate are the controversial redevelopment of the Navy Broadway Complex by the Manchester Financial Group, and the ongoing need in San Diego for affordable housing.

"I am proud of the way the CCDC staff and the Manchester Group work together," said Brown, referring to the often laborious review process for the design of the waterfront project. "The board is not bashful about sending things back. They are extremely deliberative."
As for affordable housing, Brown said that, "We will become more creative, and we will get smarter about how to do it."

Brown also is concerned about the look of San Diego.

"There is a strong push to make sure the quality of architecture in San Diego is of a high nature," said Brown. "That is fulfilling, because CCDC has brought in world-renowned architects who have been well-received."

Fred Maas, chairman of the CCDC board, considers Brown to be "a quick study, dedicated to downtown, and just a very bright light on the board." "She is willing to tackle issues that are new to her, and render considerable expertise on those matters," he said. "She has considerable legal talents, and we are lucky to have her."

Managing Conflicts

One of the hallmarks of Brown’s practice is trying to keep conflicts out of the courtroom — a trait that is admired by one of her clients, Mick Pattinson, president and chief executive officer of Barratt American, a San Diego-based home builder.

Describing himself as "somebody who has a particularly jaundiced view of lawyers," he added that, "Janice does not fit that mold. She is somebody who is very interested in protecting her clients and preventing litigation rather than profiting from litigation. She does a great job of showing us ways to do a good job and stay away from the clutches of the law."

Professionally, Trapp also gives Brown high marks. "She is a fabulously well-rounded lawyer who cares about the law, even after all these years," said Trapp. "She is someone who is not confrontational by nature, but an awesome trial lawyer. She is really good at what she does, and has a reputation for being thoroughly prepared. If you are prepared, the case is going to be resolved."

As for the often negative image of lawyers, said Trapp, that doesn’t apply to Brown. "You hear so much about dissatisfaction with attorneys, and it’s just the opposite with her," said Trapp. "If we had more Janice Browns out there, there wouldn’t be such dissatisfaction with the law."

As for Brown, her life and career continue to be an exciting journey. "I practice gratitude every day," she said. "It’s amazing."

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