Interview with Justice Yvette McGee Brown

"If you are going to be a woman who goes to the top, you have to be fearless."


Justice Yvette McGee Brown is the first African-American woman to serve as a justice of the highest court in the state of Ohio and is now Partner-in-Charge of Diversity, Inclusion & Advancement for the Jones Day Firm. In this key mission, she chairs the firmwide diversity committee and works with colleagues around the globe on diversity and retention efforts. McGee also advocates legal career opportunities for people of color and mentors women of color to make sure they climb. In our interview, she discloses the rewards of leaning in and being fearless!

Lean In Ohio: You are the first African-American woman to serve as a justice on the state of Ohio's highest court. How did it feel to reach such a landmark achievement?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: I still remember the day I was sworn in- it was one of the coldest days of January and actually the same day that Gabby Giffords was shot because a couple congress members literally ran out of my ceremony. However, witnessing the Martin Luther King Auditorium overflowing with people was humbling--Some had arrived from Cleveland, many had taken charter buses down.  

Growing up, I never imagined being on the Supreme Court or having such a great career but in that moment when I raised my hand, I could not help but think of my grandmother and those whose shoulders I stand on; their sacrifices allowed me to stand in that place. It's a shame that it took until 2011. When I was appointed to the court it had been 37 years since a person of color had been on the court. I find that objectionable  in a state that is as rich and diverse as Ohio. We should not have a supreme court that lacks any diversity. I hope that it does not take another 37 years before we have a person of color on the court again.

Lean In Ohio: LEAN IN states that the pathway to success is much more like climbing a jungle gym and less like climbing a ladder.

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: That's exactly right. Early on, I could not have imagined this career. You have to be open to opportunities and you have to look for inspiration in mentors, sometimes in non-traditional places. If you look at my career, I have done just about everything you could do with a law degree. I have always been willing to raise my hand for the extra work or for the difficult assignments. I think when you have confidence in your ability to move forward even when there are setbacks and disappointments, it allows you to be fearless. If you are going to be a woman who goes to the top, you have to be fearless.

Lean In Ohio: Additionally, you are no longer serving on Ohio’s  Supreme Court and joined the Columbus office of Jones Day as a partner practicing business and tort litigation. What led to the decision to make these particular career changes?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: What changed were the voters. Ohio elects Supreme Court justices. The year that I ran which was 2012, there were six of us on the ballot. Only two of us were highly recommended by the State Bar Association and every major newspaper in the state. We’re the two that lost.. I loved being on the court even though I was the only democrat. I had great relationships with my colleagues. I enjoyed being part of the third branch of government and debating the law, working through how the law should apply, it was a great experience. I will never forget it.
The day after the election, I remember looking at my husband and saying, "So, what's next?" I never doubted that I could pick myself up and move forward. Within a week, three law firms contacted me. A headhunter reached out to me for a position as a dean at a law school, another headhunter approached me for a position as CEO of  a nonprofit.

Lean In Ohio:  You also gained honorary doctorate degrees from Ohio Dominican University, Wilberforce University, Central State University and Urbana University and received multiple merits. What personal characteristic or trait do you feel has contributed to your tremendous success?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: I approached every job with integrity and wanting to make a difference. I always approached every role with the idea that, “I do not know how long I will be here but I have to work as hard as I know how to work and I have to leave something behind. I have to make a difference for the people coming behind me and for the people that I am serving. I have always felt it was necessary to go beyond the demands of the job.  

When I was judge, I volunteered quite a bit in the evenings for organizations, non-profits, giving speeches, attending banquets, speaking at schools, etc. Part of our responsibility as public servants is being visible so that kids grow up knowing that there is an opportunity for them too.

Lean In Ohio:  In your bio, it states, that you are also” Partner-in-Charge of Diversity, Inclusion & Advancement for the Jones Day Firm. In this role, you chair the firmwide diversity committee and work with your colleagues around the globe on diversity and retention efforts.” Can you provide an example of how your firm is fulfilling a mission of diversity and retention?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: We focus on recruiting, inclusion, and retention. The   legal profession is the least diverse profession. We have not done a good job as a profession to broaden the tent.  If you look at where most black and brown children are in the urban core, most urban school districts are offering magnet programs for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Yet, we still need students who can read the classics, students to take philosophy, students who can write well and think well. With the focus going towards stem education, we are finding fewer diverse students choosing the legal field as a profession. We need to grow the pipeline and encourage black and brown children to consider a career in the law.  In our offices across the country (18), we have lawyers who work with students in public education, and students in college and law school to help them maximize their opportunities for a career in the legal field.,    We also work with  several pipeline organizations who have demonstrated success with students of color. A couple good examples are the Student Educational Opportunity (SEO) Organization and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity.  

Lean In Ohio:  A new initiative by the name of LEAN IN Women of Color plans to bridge the gap between LEAN IN resources and Women of Color. Additionally, it has a mission to aid companies with its retention of women of color. Given your experience in this area, what sort of advice would you lend to companies and leaders who state that they have a low percentage of women of color because they are unable to acquire and retain the talent?  

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: I can speak primarily from the legal field. When people who look like me go to law school, we are thinking about providing justice, we are thinking about being in the public arena at court and having that Law and Order moment. What we have to do for women of color is to show them the broad ways that they can have an impact because I believe that you have to have a seat at the table in order to make  change.

As a leadership team, we have to demonstrate change not just through our words and websites but through our actions that we are an open and inclusive environment. That means recruiting women of color, making sure they are connected with other people that look like them who are succeeding in the law firm and the company so they can see that success is possible for them and giving them opportunities to have professional connections with organizations outside of their companies. Most industries have a women of color organization that one can join. We must support and sponsor their involvement in that, give them a platform to lead in their communities and have the companies stand behind them, encouraging them to participate on boards or lead a community initiative. What the company or law firm gets in return is a more satisfied leader who has developed skills outside the company that ultimately benefit the company.

Aside from my profession, I have to feel that I am connected to my community and I am doing something that is purposeful beyond representing my clients. I think that's how we not only attract women but retain them. Women have to see it's possible. Visible examples throughout the leadership tier of any company are going to be encouraging to women of color as they start their climb.

Lean In Ohio: How do you feel your work has helped women?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: I'm always available as a sounding board. I think if you were to come to my community, you would find someone who would say that I was their mentor and you would think that it's not humanly possible to mentor all those people. However, I’m always available by email and I’m accessible by phone.  I spend time with women lawyers and other women professionals, helping them navigate what could sometimes be a tricky work environment. I lead by example and I will not ask anyone to do something I would not be willing to do. If you were to speak with young women in our firm, they would tell you that I will give tough love sometimes. Meaning, if you want to be successful in any work environment, you have to be all in.

Sometimes, I think my generation may have led people to believe that you can have it all. The reality is that you can have it all but you can't have it all at the same time. We have to be willing to give ourselves a break. We strive to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother and the perfect lawyer. You cannot be all those things perfectly at the same time. We have to focus on the task at hand.

There are times I fed my children fast food. There are many nights my husband put the kids to bed. Yet, there were nights I put them to bed too. There’s no such thing as being a superwoman. However, the most important thing we (women) have to understand is that if we want to aim for the c-suite, we will make some sacrifices. It doesn't mean that we aren’t good mothers; it doesn't mean we will not be there for our kids during the big and small moment. But it does mean that we probably will not be there for every moment. We have to be okay with that.

Lean In Ohio: Looking back, what advice would you lend to your younger self at the start of your legal career?

Justice Yvette McGee Brown: I would probably tell my younger self to enjoy the journey more. When I first started off as a young lawyer, I remember sitting in the attorney general’s office and I kept thinking, “How am I going to be successful? What am I going to be? What is it going to look like?" I was always pushing for that next promotion or that next thing. If I could have a conversation with my younger self, of course knowing how it’s going turn out right? I would say, “Relax a little. Enjoy where you are a little more. The future is going to take care of itself.”


Contributed by Lean In Ohio | Interviewed by Julene Allen
Julene Allen Julene Allen Author


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