Draper Laboratory General Counsel Melinda Brown on the Importance of Building a Community Environment in the Corporate World
With over twenty-nine years of experience in the legal field, senior executive Melinda Brown has exuded her leadership at Draper Laboratory as the in-house General Counsel since 2009. Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit research and development company focused on the design, development, and deployment of advanced technological solutions for the nation’s most challenging and significant problems in security, space exploration, healthcare, and energy. Brown has transformed the legal department at Draper by bringing her years of managerial expertise in both public and private companies to create an innovative community work environment based on shared values and strategic methods to solve problems.
Lasting Impressions of An Inspirational Workplace
Brown’s legal journey is marked with a strong foundation grounded in innovation, both in technology and leadership, proving especially significant in her former position as General Counsel at Lotus/IBM.
She remembers with fondness her opportunities at Lotus during revolutionary booms in technology.
“Lotus was about the best you could have experienced I think to become a part of the technology world that we are now all in. Technology companies move very fast and you have to be nimble. You are asked to deal with sometimes-groundbreaking issues. You have to figure things out that nobody has figured out before.”
This thinking-on-your-toes mentality challenged Brown and the rest of her team at Lotus to really build the skills necessary to solve problems and work under pressure.
“You have to rely on your intelligence and analytical skills and you kind of have to place a bet that you are going in the right direction, which is hard to do, because lawyers like to be right—they like to go out there based on precedence, but if there is no precedence, you have to learn to get comfortable with that. You become an inventor of a sort, in a reasonable way. If you are in a supportive work culture, then you realize that taking risks is something not only expected, but it is the only way the company will advance.”
Brown emphasized the people at Lotus were creative, with a prominent entrepreneurial spirit that shined during a groundbreaking time for technology.
“I saw the mosaic browser when it was just being developed in the sort of pre-internet days. That left an impression on me. The people that were creating this were bright and really wonderful people. They could argue about points and technology in a very respectful way. These people were really smart, really capable. I was in awe of what they were able to achieve.”
While at Lotus, Brown learned managerial principles that ranged from addressing people in an open, honest, and direct way to creating customer service objectives to maintaining an environment of respect.
“There was a corporate ethos that really both respected the individual and creativity, expected people to be respectful to each other, and embraced diversity when that was unheard of in corporate culture.”
The culture at Lotus was extraordinarily positive for Brown—so much so that with these early learned work values, she was able to move forward in her career and bring these important operating principles to her leadership role in companies like Draper Laboratory.
Legal Perspectives: The Dynamics of Outside vs. In-House Counsels
With previous executive experience as both an associate at a big law firm and an in-house General Counsel for a company, Brown weighed in on differences within the two legal frameworks. She discussed some of the logistical disparities regarding access to the client and the work environment in general.
“At a law firm, you can shield yourself from the client—you don’t have to answer the phone, you can wait for the voicemail, wait for the e-mail—you are remote. The client does not have control or immediate access to you. They also expect you to be an expert. When they ask you something, they expect the response to be 100 percent correct.”
This contrasts with working in-house, where clients have direct access to the legal department and freedom to drop by. This impacts the team’s balance of workload and company priorities.
“One of the first things I learned at Lotus, in addition to being right there and accessible, was the ‘good enough rule’ – you need to be able to provide a response that gives the internal team what they need and it needs to be accurate, but you may not need to boil the ocean to give them a response. You need to learn to calibrate your time investment and the completeness of your research and review it against risk and the need.”
This ability to be adaptive and quick in the company work environment is key.
Brown also warns against verbose, superfluous explanations full of legal diction and instead encourages her in-house legal team to embrace clear, conducive responses for clients.
“Plain English becomes more important when you are in-house and you should strive to achieve understandable written and verbal communication so that your internal clients really know what you are expecting or advising.”
The sense of community and teamwork within the company environment suits Brown’s interests on a professional and personal level. In-house, she is able to build close relationships with her team, and she is also challenged to expand and conceptualize her legal know-how.
“I like having a broad range of an area of law that I am able to identity and spot and help respond to: employee relations, real estate, company finance matters, commercial transactions, etc. You really get to cover the spectrum. You are not necessarily going to have expertise that goes very far—I like to think of it as going a mile wide and an inch deep rather than an inch wide and a mile deep. I go much broader. I kind of like being thrown in the deep end. It keeps you on your toes; it keeps your adrenaline going. You get new questions and new problems.”
When first entering her position at Draper, the company’s work and commercial sponsors were changing—there were new complexities associated with its governmental related work and intellectual property side. With a legal office not necessarily staffed to deal with the shifting business needs, Brown used her previous managerial experience and expertise to transform the department—an impressive feat that she took on in her first three years there.
She did skills assessments of various attributes of the staff in order to advance and support the company, utilizing an approach she had been building since her years at Lotus.
“It was hard to do, but I used the philosophy that was really instilled in me at Lotus. Hire people that are smarter than you are. Hire people that are really good people from a values perspective. Hire people that are a good fit for the organizations as far as interpersonal skills. Help them succeed. Don’t micromanage them. But give them the support and the backing they need.”
Leading a team of lawyers for a large company with a wide array of needs requires Brown to entrust her employees with the same autonomy, entrepreneurial spirit, and on-your-toes thinking that was expected of her in her earliest days at Lotus. Though she encourages independence in the workplace, she is always available for advice.
“People should be allowed autonomy, but they must also use their judgment. It is okay to share either a concern or a gap in your knowledge base. That does not display weakness in my mind. The idea is to get to the right result; it is collaborative work. I tell people I have their back. They have the luxury of making mistakes, because I do not know anyone that hasn’t. That’s the way I try to march forward with people.”
“A Word to the Wise: For Aspiring Female Leaders in the Legal Field”
As women continue to enter law schools in comparable numbers to their male counterparts, it is interesting that like many professions, there are not higher percentages of women represented in management or in partner positions at big law firms.
So how do women get there?
General Counsel Melinda Brown says, “It’s tough.” But as a senior executive who still spends most of her time in rooms where the majority are men, she has some insight for aspiring young women professionals in the legal field and corporate world in general.
Be competitive, be assertive. “Title IX and the advent of women sports made a huge difference for women. The generation that grew up with the ability to play team sports has more life experience that helps transition into the corporate world. It is important to learn how to be in a competitive environment where you learn how to speak up and how to assert yourself.”
The balance of communication. “Also understand that there is a fine line between women asserting themselves, in advising, and in particular, in saying no. When you have to go to someone to say either ‘you did something wrong’ or ‘you can’t do this,’ and when you are doing it as a woman to a man, I think there is a complex nuance and you have to be mindful of that. Be respectful: find a way to communicate that shows your respect so that you are not just autocratic or authoritarian in your tone—that will turn people off. You influence through relationships, not through your title, I find, and it’s more effective if you do that.”
Be confident in yourself and your abilities. “I certainly do think that there is some merit to women not feeling the confidence that they have the right to feel and then using that to further their careers in an appropriate way. The book The Confidence Code discusses the phenomenon of women not having the self-confidence that they should even though they are successful. They stand up on a podium and say, ‘Gee I am really lucky.’ I was like that. It has taken me a long time to realize I have certain attributes that make me well suited to the role I play. I think it is a real challenge and women have to understand that if they are given an opportunity, it is rarely about luck. It is occasionally about timing or opportunity, but if you have an opportunity to succeed or fail, and if you have done that, you have succeeded on your own. Women have to start being realistic and cognizant of their strengths.”
Give respect, expect respect back. “I think there’s a lot that women need to be considering as far as trying to affect the right tone and style. But if you make it about the work and show respect for people—but don’t allow people to disrespect you—that helps. I think overtime that is going to make a difference as generations move up and along.”
Give yourself credit where credit is due. “Do your work, get yourself prepared, but give yourself credit where credit is due. Don’t go over or under on that. If someone else wrongly takes the credit and you have the opportunity to say, ‘it was me’: do that. Self-promotion is an okay thing. Be your own marketer.”
Build relationships. Find good mentors, find people that you respect – people that have wisdom and experience and that will be honest with you. Keep your network warm.