The Crooked Path
Any journey contains sudden shifts, Brionna Denby knows
Published in 2022 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine on May 20, 2022
It wasn’t long after the death of Thurgood Marshall on Jan. 24, 1993 that a young Brionna Denby carted a VHS tape into her third-grade classroom, stood before her classmates, and presented a report on the life and legacy of the Supreme Court justice. She expounded on Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, and the man who would become the first Black justice on the highest court in the land.
Now a senior counsel at Wilmington’s Cohen Seglias office, Denby works in government law, regulatory affairs, white- collar defense, internal investigations, Title IX, student defense and scientific research misconduct.
But her path to the law wasn’t as straight as the above anecdote would indicate.
For three years, Denby was a high school special education teacher in Georgia, where, over time, she realized there was a better way she could serve. “There was a critical need for strong [legal-based] advocacy for the students,” she says, a realization that ultimately led her to Hofstra Law School. Internships in education law exposed her to everything from racial slurs scrawled on lockers to discrimination in university admission protocols.
Education law fascinated her, but the post-recession Delaware legal market of 2012 was limited. So she came home to Delaware to work for the New Castle County Law Department, primarily prosecuting property maintenance violations—everything from overgrown weeds to loud noise complaints to suspicious property gatherings.
“You can do the right thing,” she says of offering plea deals to those who had fallen on hard times or reducing inflated fines. “These were low-level charges, but you had the authority to serve justice in the right way.”
The work also illuminated the lack of diversity in the legal profession, specifically on the prosecutorial side, where studies show that 95 percent of the nation’s prosecutors are white. Denby has seen looks of shock after introducing herself as the prosecutor. She’s sat at counsel table and been asked when the prosecutor will be arriving. “I think it’s important to remember that people often don’t mean to be disrespectful,” she says. “They just haven’t seen it.”
After three years with the county, Denby’s interest in compliance roles led to the field of trust compliance, where she assessed risk to personal and corporate trust lines for WSFS. The work taught her much about the intersection of business and law, but Denby missed litigating and “the lawyering of it all,” and later joined the Delaware attorney general’s office, investigating and prosecuting “eye-opening, jaw-dropping” cases of government corruption.
There were state employees who misused state corporate credit cards for various personal transactions. But for Denby, “even a 25-cent [abuse] is enough to prosecute because it’s about principle. It’s deeply detrimental to the citizens and taxpayers of the state, and we need to send a message that we’re looking into these things.”
Denby particularly enjoys the investigative process, of which she does plenty at Cohen Seglias. “I was looking for a place where I could package all of my previous experience, and so the work I do now is a good logical step,” she says.
On any given day, Denby could be conducting internal investigations for a corporation; helping a student charged with an academic dishonesty violation; teaching a client how to understand and navigate a government investigation or assisting a scientist accused of falsifying their data.
And then last year her path veered in an unexpected way.
At 36, Denby was at a routine health checkup in January 2021 and feeling “absolutely fine” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My entire world shifted,” she says.
She spent much of the past year hunkered in her basement office or in chemotherapy, while continuing her legal work as well as her volunteer roles as a trustee for the Delaware Historical Society and president of the Delaware Barristers Association.
At the time, she kept her diagnosis concealed but is now beginning to talk about it. “It’s important to let people know that [cancer] can affect you at any age,” says Denby, now fully recovered. “And as important as your career is, you have to prioritize your health.”