Embracing Change

San Diego's Regina Petty has never been content with the status quo

Published in 2007 San Diego Super Lawyers — May 2007

Throughout her career, Regina Petty has learned to laugh some things off—even when they’re not the least bit funny. Take that unreal law firm interview during college, where the senior partner lauded her, as she remembers, “for being there, given that he knows how hard it is for ‘you people because your mother’s on welfare and your father’s not around.’

“My mother wasn’t on welfare. She was a single parent,” Petty says. She recalls asking a “profusely apologizing” younger associate at the firm the obvious: “Do you usually let him meet recruits? It’s probably not a good idea.”

“I’ve learned to have a really good sense of humor,” says Petty, a partner at Wilson Petty Kosmo & Turner in downtown San Diego. “The more you laugh, the more you can accomplish and you don’t get side-tracked. If I let all those little things that happened to me over the years upset me, it would have been such a colossal waste of time and energy that I might not have finished law school.”

Finish she did, and now her practice includes employment, products liability, business litigation and advice to public entities. She’s justifiably thrilled about the firm that she joined in 1992.

Hers is a minority- and women-owned group with two African-American women among its name partners. With 19 attorneys, it’s “very rare from a demographic standpoint,” she says. “Ours is everything and everybody.”

Petty is the only board member of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) in private practice. In 2005 she won the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) Diversity Award and the San Diego-Imperial Council of Girl Scouts Cool Woman Award. The former scout says, “I was really moved. My best friend in high school and I believed we might have been the oldest Girl Scouts in Los Angeles in 1974.”

Not Afraid to Be First

Petty was the SDCBA’s first black president, elected in 1995 at a time when the organization was transitioning from being “less volunteer-driven and more run by a professional staff.”

“Because I am female and African-American,” she says, “I perceive that I am less afraid of change than the average white male, for example. If I sat by and didn’t cause change to happen, and I was content with the status quo, what would our lives be like? Women and people of color can’t be content with the status quo; it’s not good enough yet.”

Her aptitude for leadership became evident at Stanford University, where she first obtained her bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1979, then her juris doctor in 1982. In law school, she was chairperson of the Judicial Council and co-chairperson of the Black American Law Students Association, and as an undergrad, she was elected one of four co-presidents of the student body.

Early on, Petty felt that university admissions “was taking the easy way out by focusing on African-American students from prep or suburban schools rather than the harder task of inner-city recruiting,” she says. Petty came from a public high school “of no particular academic standing,” as she says—Morningside in Inglewood, where she was valedictorian.

One of approximately 125 black students in her 1975 freshman class, Petty was selected for a student position on a campus-wide committee on undergraduate admissions and financial aid; she served for two years before making her successful co-presidential run.

“It was a wonderful intellectual, political and social period of development,” she says. “I didn’t go to college to reinvent myself, but I was reinvented by college.” The minority recruitment effort, she reports, is “still going strong and it’s very exciting to see that it still exists.”

Why Stanford? “I applied because our college counselor got tickets to the USC/Stanford football game,” she says. “A condition of us going was that we’d do a USC campus tour. I didn’t want to, but I did want to go to a college that had as much fun as the Stanford band had at that game.”

The Hardest Job

Petty’s been recognized for her work in Union Carbide’s breast implant case, among others. She had inventively explained Union Carbide’s involvement to Superior Court Judge Robert J. O’Neill at an initial hearing: “I said, ‘You know how adobe is made? Think of a breast implant as adobe, and the sand from which you make adobe—we’re the sand.’ After that I was known as the ‘sand lawyer,’” laughs Petty, who later defended Johnson & Johnson in latex glove litigation. Neither case went to trial, but between them they had solidly launched Petty’s career in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Regina’s very smart, dedicated and focused, with that wry sense of humor and sharp wit,” says Beatrice “Bea” Kemp, vice president and general counsel of Petty’s client, the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. “I use her as an outside counsel for my company, and would also trust her literally with my life in terms of competence and capability. Her integrity is the highest.”

Robert H. Gleason, chief financial officer and general counsel for Evans Hotels, is another client of Petty’s. “Her great asset is her ability to put herself in the shoes of the client and look at a situation or legal problem strategically and fundamentally from a business perspective. She’s become a very trusted adviser.”

Petty is equally devoted to her daughter Alicia, age 21, and her son Sterling, age 16, while “helping them get to where they need to be as young adults.” “Being a parent is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she says. Both her gifted young achievers have law on their minds, but Petty’s not taking bets. “I just hope they keep their minds open and allow themselves to experience those things that will draw upon all of their talents and interests before they commit to a career choice.”

Petty has also implemented programs for youth and children at her church, “not strictly about religious” subjects, but about pertinent issues like elections and voting rights, financial planning, retirement, insurance and avoidance of credit cards.

She’s spent most of her life having a five-year plan, and it worked pretty well. But, she says, “I don’t have one anymore. I’m okay with that and whatever opportunities come my way.”

Certainly, there’s another around the corner, and if it isn’t all sweetness and light, she’ll call upon her sense of humor as she did in 1981 when that law firm “dinosaur” said all the wrong things. “If you didn’t have a thick enough skin to get through stupid moments like that, you probably didn’t belong in this setting anyway,” Petty asserts. “Most of the ways in which we practice law aren’t easy. Clients don’t need thin-skinned, weak-kneed people. They need strong people, so if you’re that easily defeated and upset, you’re not in the right line of work.”

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