By Paula Edgar • April 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
Rhonda Joy McLean is an inspiration. I first met Rhonda briefly when she was honored at the Association of Black Women Attorneys (ABWA)’s 30th Anniversary gala. One of my mentors took me to the event and told me that I had to meet her. Rhonda has the type of spirit that makes you want to hug her often and sit cross-legged in her living room listening to her tell stories. I was excited to learn more about her path as an attorney in New York City.
During our conversation, Rhonda spoke about many topics, including her experience integrating an all-white high school in North Carolina, her annual solo vacation, instrumental mentors and the new book she co-authored with Elaine Brown and Marsha Haygood, “The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women”. I hope that the words of wisdom she expressed during the interview will help you on your Esquisite Path.
Name: Rhonda Joy McLean
Employer/Title: Deputy General Counsel of Time, Incorporated
Practice Area: Advertising and Consumer protection/ Data Security and Privacy
Favorite NY Restaurant: Bobby Van’s Grill
Favorite NY Spa: The Red Door Spa (Manhattan) & Noelle Day Spa (Brooklyn)
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: Movie based on the book One L & John Grisham Movies
Paula Edgar: What made you decide to become an attorney?
Rhonda Joy McLean: One of my first mentors outside of my family, Barbara Kamara was running a leadership development program in Greensboro, N.C. Her job was to identify young folks that she felt would make a difference and bring them to work with her at what was called the LINC, Learning Institute of North Carolina, LDP. They received federal funds to train people to work with Head Start workers, most of whom were laypeople. Our job was to train them, to make sure that they complied with the state and local requirements for their health programs. They provided social services to the low-income families and curriculum. They were beginning to do what was called “multicultural curriculum development.” I was just blessed to have this wonderful, brilliant lady who had been in the Peace Corps.She had lived in Africa; she had such a broad worldview. She also was very politically involved, I began to work with her in the community registering people to vote, getting people to go to the polls, getting very active in the community, and as a layperson representing people on various boards like the Legal Aid Society Board of North Carolina. As I became more active, I realized that lawyers were everywhere. People were very intimidated by them. Most of them were white men. It was rare that they were black people. The black lawyers that did exist were Civil Rights lawyers who had their own solo practices. In the institutions that we were trying to change, the lawyers who advised them were almost always white men. They weren’t always against us. Sometimes they were with us, but they were almost always white men. As I worked more and more with them, they encouraged me to go to law school myself and eventually I did.
Paula: What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney?
Rhonda: I think certainly when I was with the Federal Trade Commission. We won several cases against fake product manufacturers. They had defrauded consumers out of millions of dollars. We were able to claw back some of that money and give it back. That really was a wonderful sense of pride and achievement.
One of the cases was the “Fat Magnet” case, which we brought in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. This was a case where there was a family business, a man, his brother and the brother’s son, basically earned over $20 million by advertising in papers on the East Coast. Their businesses were squeaky clean in Los Angeles, but on the East Coast, they were advertising the Fat Magnet (a product containing chromium).
Chromium actually can help you reduce fat, but back then, there was no American known substantiation for their claims that if you took these chromium capsules, the fat would attach to the chromium and then it would slide right out of your body with your waste product. It was $20 a bottle, so people were buying all this stuff and it didn’t work. They did not complain because they were embarrassed. They didn’t want anybody to know that they had been taken in by the ad, which is how these guys made all their money.
Finally, we got quite a few complaints through the Better Business Bureau and we were able to interview some people. Then I was able to go and get some scientists to evaluate the ingredients in the capsules. They really didn’t have enough chromium in them to have any sort of impact on the human body. So basically, it was just fake. They did nothing. They were charging people this money, and of course, not giving the money back when people complained. Frankly, around the time we would have began discovery, they settled. We were able to collect several million dollars and then give that money back to the customers.
Paula: What was your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it?
Rhonda: I would say my lowest point was when I first began practicing at a litigation boutique. I had a really fabulous clerkship experience, and then basically I was back at the bottom again as a lowly associate in a firm where, once again, I was the only black woman attorney they’d ever seen.
I think I sort of participated in my own misery in that I was afraid to ask questions because I felt like I already should know because I was older. Of course, that’s not true. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re new, you’re new and you should ask the question. So I think my pride and my insecurity contributed to my not having the most successful experience at the law firm. I’m still friends with many of those people but I really didn’t enjoy my work. So then I would say my confidence took a hit because I just didn’t feel that I was doing my best work.
Paula: How did you come out of that experience?
Rhonda: I came out of it by basically finding another job. I was encouraged by friends and classmates to go back to my law school. I learned that in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, it was new for law schools to provide career placement services for alums. They were just beginning to realize that they needed to share information about career paths, both traditional and non-traditional.
That helped me to reach out. It was actually through ABWA, the Association of Black Women Attorneys. I always give great credit to them for helping me find my job at the Federal Trade commission. I didn’t know about the FTC at all. I didn’t know they had regional offices in New York. I thought I was going to have to leave New York to get a different kind of a job.
I tried to get jobs in the non-profit sector, but because I had already made one career change, and because I had gone to Yale thought there was no way I would want to stay with a not-for-profit as a low-paid program review officer which is what I was interviewing for. Because I didn’t have enough experience. I could always get interviewed and I was always a finalist, but they would never give me the job. So it was very depressing.
I really am so grateful for all of that experience. It helped me learn more about myself . It helped me market myself in more than one field. It also helped me to value what I already knew so I wouldn’t keep separating what I had done before law school and then what I had done in and since law school. It really is all of you. You bring all of that to the table when you are applying for a job. I learned to value that.
Paula: What is it about practicing in New York that makes it unique?
Rhonda: There is a certain energy, and I would even add intensity, about the New York practice that is exciting, but can be very daunting, and at times overwhelming. I just don’t think there is another place like it really in the world. I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I’ve been to quite a few places and I have friends who practice in other countries. There is a different pace, it’s just done differently. There are certain courtesies that are always afforded that may or may not happen here.
Paula: What is your favorite place to visit in New York City?
Rhonda: I’m a big museum person, so two of my favorite places are the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Schaumberg Center for Research in Black Culture. There’s so much here to do. Theater, art, I love all those things. I don’t do as much of them as I might like, but I do go to museums whenever I can.
Paula: Who was your most instrumental mentor and why?
Rhonda: I’d have to say more than one. As I mentioned previously, Barbara Kamara is the person who was was most instrumental. We’re still friends after all this time. I also have an in-family mentor - my aunt, Dr. Marie Coles Baker who is my mom’s youngest sister. Aunt Marie received a Ph.D in Social Work from The University of Pittsburgh; she also has a degree in epidemiology. She got her Ph.D. after having been married 25 years and raising two kids. She’s pretty hot stuff.
When she went back to school, which meant a lot of major changes for her, she sold her house and did a lot of big things that were kind of unheard of in our family. She and I have been close, particularly since I was in high school. She, too, saw something in me. We would just talk about the possibilities and the opportunities that the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements had opened up for us and how we should take advantage of them and blaze new trails. She saw something in me and encouraged me to go back to school. I was a little hesitant about it, but I felt like I needed a change. I felt like I was capable of more. I wasn’t sure if law was the more, but I knew something. I quit my job and decided to go back to school.
I think we see ourselves as sisters in the struggle because we voluntarily did this to ourselves. So when things got hard, as they do in these school programs, we would call each other. Through all of it, we talked and visited back and forth. I’d have to say that she is, apart from my parents, my most influential family mentor, and still a good friend all these years later.
Paula: Why are women of color in the legal profession not advancing as much or as quickly as white women and white men in general? What your thoughts are about what things need to be done for them to advance?
Rhonda: That’s a great question. I think there’s more than one answer. I think the first is sort of what our expectations are. I know I certainly wasn’t sure what a lawyer did, other than what I had seen on TV, Perry Mason, civil rights attorneys, Justice Marshall and others, seeing them speak about Brown v. Board and other things that happened as I was growing up. I didn’t really have a good idea, nor do I think many of us who are first-generation attorneys, about what the day-to-day life of attorneys can be like.
I think that law school itself does not really prepare you for the practice of law. It’s nothing like the practice of law. I was stunned, and after the clerkship, very disappointed by the actual day-to-day grind. It just wasn’t interesting. It was boring. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I didn’t feel like there was anybody I could really talk to about it. My family was bragging on me being this big-time New York lawyer. I was like, “I don’t like this at all. There’s got to be something better than this.” Most of my friends were having the same experience. Many of them went on to become businesswomen or launch their own business. Some of them even changed their degrees. They went back to school and went into literature or something else. Many of us are leaving in droves because we’re just so unhappy, and I think so lonely. I didn’t realize that a lot of the law you do by yourself, depending on what and where you’re practicing. I spent many nights in the library by myself at the firm working on assignments. Nobody told me that’s what I was going to do. There’s nothing wrong with any of that as long as you know going in.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to hang in there, many of us have found our way to other things, academia, running not-for-profit foundations, opening our own businesses, working in congress, working in politics, becoming politicians, becoming judges. There’s this whole range of opportunities that, even when you’re in law school, I don’t think it’s clear all the things you can do with a law degree.
Absolutely, there’s room for so many more of us. We bring something very special to the table in terms of how we approach life, our resilience, our beauty, our loyalties, morals, fortitude, as well as just our advocacy. We will fight and we will fight for our people, and for anybody that we believe has been wronged. That’s a good thing.
I worry that we focus so much on “We need more black partners.” I think that’s true. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have that, but I think we need to figure out what it is we want from the law. What is it that we want to accomplish? Is it that we want other people’s law firms for ourselves? Do we want more people to be doing what I’m doing? That’s fine with me. I certainly do my best to hire as diversely as I can, to bring more people into the department. I think that hopefully, down the road, it will become a larger question of bringing our presence to the very practice of law itself. I’m hoping that as more of us come into the profession, we can change the face of the profession itself. Even the jobs themselves, I believe, could change. Maybe I’m being idealistic.
When I looked at the path you had to take to become a partner, I was like, “I don’t really want to do that.” It is successful, and yes, you make a lot of money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have friends that have done that and you do, too, God bless them. Go right ahead. Maybe there’s something else that we can do, including having our own firm. There are increasingly sisters who are doing that, solo practitioners, but also banding together and forming legal practices. I like that. I think we should be moving on all paths. I don’t in any way want to denigrate the efforts to increase diversity in the traditional legal position. Absolutely, I agree that we should do that, for people who want to pursue those channels.
I think that as long as there are so few of us, the law firms will probably not work as hard as they should to welcome us with open arms and to include whatever is unique about us, see that as strengths they can add to their corporate quiver as opposed to, “She’s not like us. She must not be good, quality lawyer material,” which is how they often see us because they don’t understand us and don’t see us as bringing something to the table that could be useful.
At the same time we’re pursuing the legal channels where there are so few of us, I think, hopefully, as more of us come into the profession and hopefully change its face and broaden its scope, maybe we can have more progress generally in this profession and others like this. Banking is the same thing; Wall Street is the same thing. I don’t think I would change anything that I’ve done, even knowing now what I know. There’s nothing I would change.
Paula: Is balance something that you work on? If so, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life?
Rhonda: For me, that will be a lifelong striving. I’ve always been a pretty self-driven and self-directed person. I always have worked hard. I love to study. I love books. I love a life of learning. I also enjoy working quite a bit. My life partner would say a little too much. I actually have achieved heights I could not have anticipated when I began my career, nor would I have known anything about when I was growing up in my little town in North Carolina. I think I always thought I would work hard. I knew early on that I was bright, that if I worked hard, I could understand things and learn new things. I always enjoyed that.
I’m not sure there is such a thing as balance. I think each person has to choreograph their lives. You have to dance your own dance. If you don’t know yourself well and your mate well, or however you fill up your life with people, then it doesn’t go well. I’ve met people whose relationships have faltered, both under the pressure of law school or graduate school or medical school, whatever it is.
I would have to say, I’ve now been practicing 27 years this May, it’s still a challenge. I do love what I do and I can get caught up in it, but I do have times where I turn everything off, the Blackberry, the phone, everything goes off. On the weekends, I try very hard not to work. I work hard during the week, and sometimes I’ll work until midnight on a weeknight so I don’t have to do that on the weekend. I’m fortunate to have a job that gives me that kind of autonomy.
I hope that I will continue to observe the balance.I’m lucky enough to still have my parents. Bill has his mom. We have his children. We have a grandson. There’s a lot. I’m also very active in the not-for-profit world. I tutor and/or mentor a lot of students. All of that enriches my life, so I think I need all of it. I still spa. Every September, I go away by myself for a significant number of days to a new country. I’ve been doing that for 22 years.
Paula: By yourself?
Rhonda: Oh, yeah.
Paula: I love that. I love that! What else do you like to do in your down time?
Rhonda: I love music, all forms. I still sing; I still perform. I sang for my godson’s wedding down on the Eastern Shore in Maryland last summer. I sing with a chorale?? here. I love basically sacred, chorale music, church music. It’s what I grew up with. I do love to dance. I like everything. Here, just in my office, I think I have about 350 CDs. If I’m drafting a document or working on some sort of written work, I almost always am playing a CD while I’m doing that.
I love to read. I love murder mysteries. I particularly love British women writers, starting with Agatha Christie, who is one my favorites. I also like poetry. I like anyone from the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, folks like that. I love Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Nikki Giovanni. I’m a great “bookophile.” I spend a lot of money on books and music, in many different forms because we’re on the road a lot. Our parents don’t live here, and our son is in college upstate. We are driving almost every weekend.
Paula: Tell me about a defining, pivotal, personal moment for you and what came out of it. Rhonda: Certainly as a result of my integrating my high school when I was thirteen. There were just three of us out of 500 students that first year. Then gradually more black students came. My mother came as the first black teacher my sophomore year, and then remained for almost 20 more years after I left. That first year, you really had to learn to stand on your own in the face of just overt hostility and disbelief that you were capable of anything positive.
Paula: What advice would you give someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or to be in the position that you’re in? I think this gets a little bit into some of the things you talk about in the book, which by the way I love.
Rhonda: I’m glad! I think the first thing that all of us would say, my co-authors and I, but that I would certainly underscore, is that you really must follow your passion. Try hard not to be swayed by people who say, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t be doing this or that.” There were so many people who were saying, “You really shouldn’t be studying both music and psychology” or “You shouldn’t like both criminology and whatever else it is.” After a while it’s like, “I do like both of those things and I’m good at both of those things and I want to study both of them at the same time.”
Increasingly, our world is so complex now that a lawyer can’t just be a lawyer anymore. A lawyer is a politician, a diplomat, a confidant, a spiritual advisor, a scribe, a business partner, a legal researcher, a writer, an advocate, a public speaker. You need all those tricks in your bag. In order to be the best lawyer you can be, you need to be the best whatever it is you are first. I think when you add the legal skills to your quiver, it only makes you stronger.
We’re not told that in law school. I think you get the impression that you have to sort of throw away what you knew before you came into law school and then learn whatever they teach you. It’s like you become an empty vessel. Nobody is an empty vessel going to law school, nobody. You know some things. You had to know something to get in.
It worries me that our young people feel that they have to somehow be disloyal to themselves or cut off half of themselves in order to become what they think is a success, which is why we work so hard to say in the book, there is a way to be true to yourself, be a person with moral integrity, and still be a strong advocate and a good person. You can even duke it out, but there’s a way that you can do that that works for you.
I guess I’m saying follow your passion. Try hard not to be dissuaded by the negativity of others. If you really feel strongly that you love something, love it and then the work will follow. You can add legal skills to other substantive passions. That was something that I didn’t get. I have friends who are scientists who’ve gone to law school, friends who are doctors who’ve gone to law school. People have studied languages and then they’ve been able to combine that and teach comparative law abroad and here. There is a way. There can be a way to combine what you love with perhaps your love for law or the study of law.
Paula: What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night?
Rhonda: If I feel that I have been able to clarify a cloudy situation for a client or bring some light into someone else’s life in some way, it could be personal, it could be professional, it could be a blend of both. I’ve been here ten years so I’m now friends with many of my colleagues as well as clients. I think that’s what does it for me.
I really go out of my way to try to help people understand that I do value what they are bringing, whether they’re working for me, with me, whether I’m working for them or with them, whether they’re a client, a colleague, an outside counsel, someone for whom I’m their client.
I think there’s a certain level of respect that needs to be brought to every situation, even if we are in New York where people holler and scream all the time. I don’t think you have to do that. I try to bring, I would say, a certain dignity, a certain humor, and hopefully a certain kind of spirituality to every interaction that I involve in. I hope that that makes people l feel not just helped by my legal advice, but perhaps being given a little light from our having worked together.
Paula: That’s great advice. I’m going to take it. You’re a co-author of the Little Black Book of Success (which is getting great buzz), My question for you is, what are your plans for the future? What’s next?
Rhonda: What a good question. I feel like we should give the Little Black Book of Success her own name. It feels like she has a personality now and she’s making friends everywhere and creating opportunities for us to be interviewed. We’re getting ready to go on a road trip soon. We’re very excited about that. I must say, I hope to be able to collaborate more with my co-authors. We’ve already talked about some other work we might be able to do together, including creating a leadership experience based on the principles in the book for boards of directors, also for young people. That’s one thing we’ve been asked to consider doing and we’re working on that now. There could even be sequels to the book.
We just don’t know, but we’re certainly brainstorming about that. On an individual level, I really enjoy my work here. I’d love to do that for another few years, I don’t know how long. At the same time, I absolutely love teaching. I taught administrative law at CUNY at night for four years about ten years ago. I’d love to teach again. I might be interested in being dean or associate dean of a law school. I was exploring that when this job came my way.
Then I also do career counseling. Right now I’m doing it informally as I have the time. I actually had a business in the late ‘80s counseling particularly women lawyers of color who were unhappy with their legal practice experience, as I had been. I enjoyed that. I might then resuscitate that as well. Those are the things I’m thinking about. I’d say talk to me in five years and we’ll see.
Paula’s Two Cents on constantly evolving.
Rhonda’s path from being a pioneer by integrating her high school to becoming a successful attorney and to her most recent role as published author show that in order to be successful you can’t be complacent. You have to have a hunger for learning and a desire to stay relevant in your profession.
My subject’s comments about being true to one’s self is key advice. My two cents: Your profession and your dreams don’t have to be separate. If you find something that you are passionate about, bring all of your talents to it in order to achieve your goals.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula.