A talented litigator who blazed a trail as Ohio's first African American woman Supreme Court Justice, McGee Brown has dealt with her fair share of uncharitable assumptions, rude comments and worse. Here's how she stayed cool.
In legal and political professions throughout her career, Yvette McGee Brown is first whip-smart in her field. Second, she has often been the minority, being both a woman and a person of color. Her work history shines a spotlight on her competency. Early in her career, she became chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and later for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. Then she was elected a judge in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court when she was 32, becoming the first African American woman judge for the court. While there, she created the Family Drug Court and the SMART Program, a truancy intervention program. She looks back and says she realizes how young that is, though it didn’t feel that way to her at the time. While she was overseeing the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, former Gov. Ted Strickland called out of the blue and asked Brown to be his running mate for his second term (he lost to John Kasich). After that, she went on to serve as a justice for the Ohio Supreme Court for two years, becoming the first person of color to serve on the court in 37 years. She’s now a partner at law firm Jones Day.
Brown says she assumed she’d be a trial lawyer for her whole career. The unfolding opportunities that came along throughout became realities because she was open to them.
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Brown’s election to Franklin County Commons Pleas Juvenile Court happened after she beat an incumbent, which she says many didn’t expect.
“Initially, I think it was more my youth that caught people a little off guard, like who is this kid coming in? I actually had one of the judge’s secretaries tell me that she had children older than I was in a really derisive [way].
“What I said to my team was, ‘We’ve got to make sure that we work harder than anybody else, we’re not going to be taken out over foolishness.’ ” And that’s been her philosophy throughout her career.
As Brown presided over cases in court, she says defense lawyers would take a look at her and try to appeal to her or get a rise out of her based on the fact that she is African American. “As a judge, people would make assumptions. Sometimes lawyers would think, ‘She’s going to always give custody to the mom, or she’s going to lean over backwards for the mom,’ where they would not make those same assessments about a male judge.” So Brown communicated clearly her desire to hear the facts and be objective in her judgment. “It was the same thing in dealing with race. From the very beginning, I get these lawyers who would say, ‘Well, you know, my client grew up without a father. He was poor. He didn’t have good role models.’ And that would just infuriate me because I would say, ‘You know, being poor or not having a father is not an excuse for criminality. Do not come in here with that kind of excuses.’ ”
Once, she oversaw a custody case where the father wanted sole custody because the mother was seeing an African American man.
“He didn’t think that black people were moral, and he didn’t want his children being raised by a black man,” Brown remembers. “I could have reacted very aggressively or negatively to that, but what I chose to do was to focus on what my job as the judge was, because had I reacted in the way I think his client wanted, they would have had a basis for having me removed from the case.”
The piece of advice she gives to young lawyers is to never take the bait.
“When a lawyer or litigant would make a comment about my race or my gender, I wouldn’t rise to the bait. I would just try to keep focused on what the facts were.” She also operates under the belief that being underestimated is good. “People don’t take you seriously, [so] they never see you coming.”
Early in Brown’s career, she worked for a man that made her feel uneasy when he made comments about her clothing and looks. So she left. “I’ve always lived my life where I think you vote with your feet,” she says. “And I was not going to change him, so I just chose to look for another opportunity where I could move on.” If possible, Brown says that’s the best way to avoid people who cannot be changed.
Overall, Brown says these situations haven’t really rocked her because she chooses “not to dwell on other people’s issues.” The confidence she has in her ability to do a good job or find another opportunity has always propelled her through the mire of racism or sexism.
“It’s important for young women to know that in any equation, the only person we can control is ourselves,” she says. “We can’t control how other people behave or perceive us. What we can control is what we do in response. Focus on the work, be the best at what you do, maintain your integrity, find an organization that supports and values your contribution. At the end of the day, you have options. No job or position is worth your self-esteem.”
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