Chief Executive Optimist

Janice Brown took an uncommon approach to the law and built an uncommon firm  

Published in 2008 San Diego Super Lawyers — May 2008

Janice P. Brown never wandered very far from her Great Falls, Mont., home until college at the University of Montana, where she became involved with the United Service Organizations. Suddenly she was being whisked by helicopter from one exotic locale to another as she traveled to military bases in Korea, Guam, Okinawa and the Philippines as a singer with the USO. Her specialty was rhythm and blues, and the Emotions' "Best of My Love" and Dan Hartman's "Instant Replay" were her signature songs.

The daughter of an Air Force chief master sergeant, Brown was thrilled to help lift the morale of military personnel far from home. The travel gave her a new perspective on the world and the unique experience of performing a concert on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

But along with broadened horizons and sea legs, Brown came home with a crucial talent that has helped her excel as a trial lawyer and an entrepreneur: the ability to command a room—even if that room is a crowded, pitching flight deck.

After zipping through Gonzaga Law School in just two years, Brown took a  job with the Department of Justice Honors Program in tax law. For the girl from small-town Montana, the experience changed her life, she says. "I got to meet people from all over the country," Brown says. "We were all young; we were all idealistic."

At the Justice Department, she took cases to trial in the western tax division, including Iowa, Colorado, Texas, Nebraska and California. She enjoyed the experience, but it also included brushes with racism and sexism. Too often, people assumed she was the secretary or court reporter. Brown focused on her work and won the Justice Department's Trial Lawyer of the Year award after only three years in practice.

In 1988, Brown moved to San Diego and joined Seltzer Caplan Wilkins & McMahon, becoming partner in 1992. Three years later, the California Association of Black Lawyers honored her as its Lawyer of the Year.

While working at Seltzer, Brown met the woman who would serve as her mentor, the late Bonnie Reading. "Bonnie was an amazing role model," Brown says, "because Bonnie thought better about me than I thought about myself."

Reading's encouragement empowered Brown to think big, founding her own firm, Vantage Law Group, with partner Mike Riney in 1999. Vantage later became the Brown Law Group and, in its early days, the firm's four lawyers forged a philosophy on business and employment litigation, committing to avoid lawsuits whenever possible.

"One of the things that I wanted to do, which I thought was a good business model, was to develop long-term relationships with clients," Brown says. "And nothing makes people feel better about their lawyers than if the lawyer helps them resolve issues in an inexpensive way."

Nearly 10 years ago, Brown found herself on the cutting edge of preventive employment law in early action training. She noticed certain companies repeatedly making mistakes that led to costly litigation and she recognized an opportunity.

What makes BLG unique in preventive law, according to Brown, "is that we're also trial lawyers. So we're not teaching from a purely hypothetical or theoretical standpoint, but a practical one." She tells her clients, "Here's what you're doing that you can fix. You need to train your managers. You need to have these kinds of agreements." BLG trainings cover issues ranging from personnel policies to diversity to performance evaluation. The goal is to fix existing problems and prevent, or at least limit, them in the future.

Donna Rowley, vice president of human resources at the development firm Barratt American, says the company saw results after just the first seminar, when an employee reported a comment that could have been considered harassment. The company used the lessons learned in training to fix the issue before it could turn into a legal problem.

"Janice is so great with people and the staff is so accommodating," Rowley says. "I hate to say we look forward to sexual harassment training, but we absolutely do! The way Janice presents, everyone gets a lot out of it."

Brown is BLG's chief optimist and she cultivates that attitude in her firm by giving out bonuses, allowing flexible schedules and encouraging vacations. Above all, she tries to follow her own advice and set an example. "I have a good job, but it also means I have to go to the gym, I have to go to the doctor ... I have to take care of myself," Brown says. "I have to go home and get good sleep. I have to read books. I have to be positive to give of myself in a quality way."

The result? "I am growing amazing and happy lawyers, and I have a lot of business," she says.

Now Brown is cultivating happy lawyers outside of her firm. She describes her newest venture, Powerful Beyond Measure, as a "mini-MBA for lawyers," teaching management strategy as well as business and development plans. The name comes from a Marianne Williamson poem—Brown's favorite—which begins:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

 Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

The mission, she says, is to "teach lawyers how to network, how to have goals, how to be positive in the business, how to be successful, how to deal with power, how to deal with fear ... sort of like the Tony Robbins of law."

San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp has been watching Brown's work and says it inspires people. "She is a great leader because she truly cares and she is committed," Trapp says. "She is a great lawyer in her own right and she attracts exceptional lawyers to her firm."

That firm has expanded to cover areas ranging from employment law and general business to securities and real estate transactions, growing to eight attorneys—including its first male attorney. Responding to client requests, BLG recently opened an office in Los Angeles and is considering opening another in Orange County. Powerful Beyond Measure is up and running, and Brown, as always, is optimistic about the future.

"We are still challenged in our country," Brown says, "by our hue and our plumbing, but we are making advances in our world. I can tell you, being a black female at the head of my firm, I can feel the change in this country. There are still issues, clearly, I'm not foolish. But I feel the opportunity. There were times, being in this practice of law, when I wasn't so optimistic ... But I have never been more optimistic about the practice."

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