Dispatches from the Y Chromosome - Dispatch #4: “I’m a Chameleon” - Interview with Paula Boggs

In a career that is remarkably short given what she’s actually done, Paula Boggs has been an army lawyer who both worked on the Iran Contra affair for the White House and visited South Africa during Apartheid, a federal prosecutor, a lead investigator in the Pentagon investigation of the Navy “Tailhook” scandal, a BigLaw partner, corporate counsel at a Fortune 500 Company, General Counsel of the iconic coffee company, Starbucks, and now leader of her own band, The Paula Boggs Band.

Paula and I met in downtown Seattle and had a wide-ranging and very fun discussion that touched on college radio, race, mentorship, the future of law, personality types, law school tuition and music.

Our interview was held on a day not long after Paula had attended a board meeting for the Seattle-based but world famous radio station, KEXP. Our conversation picks up there:

Dan Lear (DL): In law school I had a classmate who was well entrenched in college radio and he criticized KEXP calling it “corporate college radio.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Paula Boggs (PB): First, let me say I don’t think “corporate college radio” is necessarily a bad thing.  About traditional college radio, let me say two things: First, when I was in college at Johns Hopkins there was a college radio station WJHU. It was run on a shoestring, like 10 megahertz. Barebones. Second, my nephew was at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington 7-8 years ago and he was part of the radio station there. I can say that in 25-30 years, nothing had changed from WJHU to what I saw at Whitman.

KEXP is something very, very different. The chair of our board is Pete Nordstrom (of the Nordstrom family and company). Also, there are people like me (former GC of a Fortune 500 company) on the board. From that standpoint alone, KEXP is a different thing than WJHU. Absolutely.

DL: How do you think about KEXP’s future in the dramatically changing landscape for music?

PB: I will give you one example: What makes KEXP different from Spotify, or Pandora, or iTunes Radio is the ability to do things that simply aren’t possible with a Pandora. An example of that is not long ago I was in the KEXP studio and heard this amazing in-studio concert from Jake Bugg. He’s been touted as “the next fill-in-the-name of big-time-songwriter” but it was an amazing experience to be there, to hear him and witness that. First of all, KEXP takes that unique and valuable content and makes it available to its listeners online for free. Second, KEXP is in the process of moving to a new home. When it does that, instead of just three of us being able to watch that show live more of the public can have that experience. Those are things that Pandora or Spotify cannot or would not ever do.

DL: Well, I’d rather talk about music all day but I suppose I’d better ask you about your legal career.

PB: I’ll start with this. It’s really a personality descriptor. When I worked at Dell Computer Corporation 12 years ago, all of us in the law department were asked to take a personality profile. It was called HBDI Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument. One key aspect of the test is that it categorizes people into quadrants: A, B, C, and D. Those dominant in A’s are hyper-analytical. B dominants are hyper-organized. C’s are the feelers. The D’s are the dreamers.

At the time I was working in the legal department for Dell Computer Corporation. Most people at Dell thought I would skew AB. And, I sort of expected that too.

Instead, while I was evenly distributed across all four quadrants, I actually skewed C and D.

This was a “eureka moment” for me. We all assumed I’d skew AB because most people at Dell, a technology/hardware company, skewed AB. I learned two important things from this experience: First, I am a highly adaptive person. You put me in a given environment and I’m a chameleon. But, even I hadn’t realized how adaptive I truly was until that test. Beyond that I also realized that although being adaptive has been very successful for me in my career, because I did skew CD, the AB environment was probably not the right long term environment for me.

I needed to find a place where there are more CD people; my people. So I went to Starbucks. And the reason that I stayed at Starbucks twice as long as any other job in an almost 30 year career was because I was with my people. I was with people who were skewed CD. It’s a collection of very smart people who are feelers, emotional, caring and also dreamers. They think big. They are entrepreneurial. They ask: Why not?

DL: I understand. I had a very similar experience with another instrument called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I did a joint JD/MBA program. One of my business school professors, who didn’t know that my test had revealed that I was of a certain type nor that I had already completed a year of law school, told our class that someone with my type “shouldn’t go into very analytical professions such as accounting or law.” At first I totally rejected his assessment. But over time it’s been a real revelation to me.

It’s really important to know oneself. Another test is “What Color is Your Parachute.” I did a couple of those tests and “lawyer” never came up as a profession. It was CEO, archaeologist, college president. I think those were probably right. I’m a born leader. I know that about myself. The beauty of the law for me personally is I’ve been able to do what I like to do within this profession and the architect in me has created a career that is uniquely mine. Nobody else’s career path is like mine. It might make no sense for someone else but it makes perfect sense for me. But, it only happens because I know myself.

DL: So, walk me through steps of your career progression.

As I said, I went to Johns Hopkins for undergrad and then to Berkeley, or “Boalt” as it was known at the time, for law school.

The whole law school thing was a scam; I’ve said this publicly many times. I was an army ROTC cadet. I had a four-year commitment post undergrad hanging over my head. I was not ready to go active duty, so my senior year at Johns Hopkins I said: “I need a delay strategy.” So I took the LSAT. To be clear, I was prepared to take the GRE if the LSAT hadn’t panned out. But it did. That said, never in the three years of law school did I think that I was going to be a lawyer for a single day beyond my four year commitment. To be in this position thirty years later is very interesting to me. But, I digress.

I finished law school and went into the Army honors program in the Army General Counsel's office at the Pentagon.  Then, I went to work for an Army General Counsel office client who was responsible for most of the Army's treaty work. After that, for a very short period of time, I worked on African issues, which took me to Southern Africa for the only time of my life. It was an amazing experience that I won’t go into now except to say that I was a young officer, it was 1987, and Nelson Mandela was still in prison. It was surreal being in South Africa during apartheid as a young African American woman.

Within weeks of returning from Africa I got a call from someone I’d worked with at the Army General Counsel’s now working in the White House who said “Paula, while you were in Africa this whole Iran-Contra thing has blown up. They are creating an Iran-Contra legal task force here in the White House. I want to recommend you for it if you’re interested.” And I was like, “Heck yeah, I’m interested.” I interviewed, was selected for that and that was one of the most amazing experiences in my career. I worked in the White House, this was Reagan’s second term, 24/7 crisis mode.

Then my four-year commitment was up, I moved to Seattle and worked as an assistant US Attorney for 5 years.  Actually I went back to DC for a year after that to lead an investigation of the Pentagon after the “Tailhook Scandal” and did that for a year. Then, I returned to Seattle, joined the law firm Preston Gates and Ellis (ed. now K&L Gates) as a lateral partner and did that for two and a half years before leaving for Austin, Texas and Dell. I worked at Dell five years and came back to Seattle for Starbucks. I was Starbucks General Counsel for ten years and then left. In my first act of retirement I served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign and did that for 5 months. Since then I have been serving on a couple corporate boards, doing non-profit stuff like KEXP that inspires me, giving speeches from time to time, working on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, something President Obama appointed me to, and then working on my music and with my band.

DL: The story about how you ended up as a Seattleite is a good one. Can you share that?

At the end of my four years in Washington DC my boss at the White House sat me down and literally said, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I said: “I don’t know but I’m moving to Seattle.”

It was love at first sight for me with Seattle. I took a road trip up here with a law school friend. It was May, it was a sunny day, and Mount Rainier was out. Just as you enter the city on Interstate 5, you “crest.” You can see Puget Sound, downtown, Mount Rainier in the rearview mirror – everything. It looked, it still looks, like Oz. I hadn’t even actually set foot in Seattle but at that moment I knew that I was going to live here. That was 1984. I hadn’t even graduated from law school. I knew I had to go to Washington DC for four years after law school but I was resolute. I was focused that this was home.

So, I’m telling my boss in the White House 3000 miles away and he says: “I think you should be a federal prosecutor.” And I was like: “Why’s that?” He then made a methodical 90 minute case to me about why I should do this. It was a mentoring moment. And I said, “Bill, that’s all really interesting but I’m moving to Seattle.” And he said, “They have federal prosecutors in Seattle.” And with that, he picked up the phone and called his buddy Bob Westinghouse here in Seattle, an assistant US attorney, (Bob just retired a couple months ago) and they gave me a shot. They gave this kid lawyer who had never tried a case a shot. I was there five years. It was very rewarding.

DL: Would you recommend law school to a young woman, maybe someone like yourself or a young woman in general? Say a young woman came to you and said: “Hey I’m thinking about going to law school.” What would you say?

PB: It is a challenging question for me to answer. It really hinges on the individual. I was in an amazingly great situation back then because ROTC had paid for college so I had virtually no debt, just a little bit from housing and so forth. And, while Berkeley is a great school, I chose it against other great schools in part because of cost. I knew that I could, or I suspected strongly I could, pay out of state for year one and qualify for in-state California for years two and three. That made Berkeley less expensive than attending the University of Virginia as an in-state resident for three years. Berkeley’s tuition for those in state was $750 per semester. So, I paid $1500 a year for my second and third years of law school.

For most people it’s not just the cost of law school, it’s the cost of law school compounded by the cost of college because a lot of people are still under the yoke of their college debt when they’re applying to law school.

It boils down, Dan, to the value proposition. I was financially free to do whatever job within the law, or outside it, I wanted to do. If I had wanted to be a career prosecutor, there was no financial prohibition. If I wanted to be career Army, there was no financial prohibition for me. Except for the independently wealthy, very few people today have that freedom. For most people there’s a different calculus. If someone were speaking to me today about going to law school and they’re asking genuinely and not facetiously I would ask why: “Of all the information available to you, what is it about this step that speaks to you?” And then I would listen. Because, based on the information they subsequently shared, I would ask follow-up questions and we’d get to a place where I could say honestly: “Law school is a great next step for you. Or, not.”

I can say the profession needs gifted and talented people – a stream of gifted and talented people – but law school isn’t for everybody. It isn’t for everybody smart enough to get in. It just isn’t.

DL: Tell me about the band.

PB: I love my band. Music has been central to me for much of my life. I began writing music at age 10. Started playing guitar around age 10. Through high school and college and law school – through my 20s – less and less year-over-year I was still playing and writing and showing up at coffee houses and playing. By the time I got to my early 30s I was climbing the career ladder and that had largely stopped. I would facetiously say: “I have to be depressed to write, and I’m happy” and that sort of thing. My then partner, now spouse, every couple years, would say to me: “Why don’t you write music anymore? Why don’t you ever sing, write?” And I’d say, “That was then, this is now.” But she kept on it.

I entered my 40s and still hadn’t returned to music. Then, almost 9 years ago, my sister-in-law (my youngest brother’s wife) died tragically in an automobile accident. It was the most amazingly sad thing. As a way to grieve I picked up my guitar. One thing led to another and Randee my partner got me some guitar lessons and I learned about this one year songwriting program offered by the University of Washington. By this time I’m General Counsel at Starbucks and I initially said “I don’t have time for that.” But Randee said, “Make time for it. You can do it. It’s once a week, in the evenings. You can do this.” So, I auditioned (you had to audition for the program) and I got accepted. For the first time in my life I joined a community of songwriters. It was a most transformative thing for me. It was really, really hard.

Here I am. I’m general counsel of this iconic Fortune 500 Company but, in the setting of this course I was just another songwriter. It’s a very vulnerable place to write and perform authentically, particularly because peer criticism was a part of the process. But, it made me a better general counsel. The songwriting process made it easier to empathize and be vulnerable. And, in turn, the people who worked for me were more confident in my leadership.

At the end of that I had another mentoring moment.  Mentors are very important in life. They’re important in any success we enjoy in the legal profession or in life.

One of my songwriting teachers said, “Paula, I think you really have something here. What a shame it would be if you don’t keep going. That was 2006. At the beginning of 2007 I made a New Year’s Resolution to do one “open mic” night per month. “Open mic” nights are an incredibly vulnerable format because there’s no safety net. There’s no stage and lights and ability to pretend people aren’t out there. They’re there. And it’s just you. Marginal amplification. No effects. It’s just you. And so I did that once per month and along the way, I started acquiring these really cool musicians. I’m really proud to say that four of the six of us have been playing together since 2007. The other two are more recent additions but it’s really cool and we’re diverse. I’m the only woman in the band. Musically, our genres cover a broad range. It really comes together in interesting and cool ways: jazz, world music, rock, folk, blues. All of that is mixed into our sound. Generationally we have a good mix. Four of us are boomers. One guy is in his 30s and one is 21. Racially, ethnically, we look like the United Nations, so that’s pretty cool too.

DL: You are singing?

PB: Yes. I write most of our music, I’m the lead singer, and I play rhythm guitar.

DL: And what is the genre?

PB: Well, if you go to our website, which is www.paulaboggsband.net you will hear it. You can see videos and hear it all.

Parting thoughts.

PB: Let me start by saying that I’m really impressed with Ms. JD. I read a little bit about its creation online and how these law students from places like Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard all came together for the purpose of fellowship, peer career development, and a vehicle for community between law students and practitioners. That is all really cool and its national footprint is impressive to me.

For those who are right for law and law is right for them, despite the financial challenges of beginning the practice of law, I think this profession is incredibly worthy. I’m excited by the energy and reforms your generation, Dan, brings to our profession. And specifically, one of the things that gets me jazzed about it is that I’m part of a generation that went through the whole transition of law from being, primarily, a profession to law being primarily a business. I think there is an appetite within the next generation for law to be a business but also for it to be more than a business. I’m very excited about that. I don’t know what that results in and I don’t know what law looks like in 25 years but I’m hopeful this new generation of lawyers will bring us back so that, at the end of the day, there is more balance in business and profession than we’ve seen in my generation.

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