Making it Rain – Practical Tips from Those Who Do: Paula Boggs

Name: Paula Boggs (@plutorevenge)
Location: Seattle, WA
Interviewed by: Jordan A. Arnot

 

Paula led the global law department of Starbucks Coffee Company for 10 years, was on its executive team and was secretary of the Starbucks Foundation. Before Starbucks, Paula was an executive in the technology industry (Dell Corporation), a partner in private practice, and dedicated many years of her legal career to public service, including serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Washington (1988-1994) and in various capacities as a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Pentagon and White House Office of Legal Counsel.

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Paula is a true “renaissance woman.”  In addition to her successful legal career, Paula has served as a board member, executive, public speaker, and philanthropist.  Today, Paula’s focus is on her musical career leading the Paula Boggs Band, which is recording a studio album titled “Carnival of Miracles” expected to be released in early 2015.


  • You were born in the U.S., and grew up in Virginia before moving to Europe to spend your teenage years in Germany and Italy, then returned to the U.S. for college. How did that impact you personally and in your professional choices?

My childhood experiences largely shape who I am today.  Beyond the profound influence both parents had on me, being the child of a biology professor at a Historically Black College and attending a Roman Catholic elementary school as a Catholic in the segregated South framed my Virginia experience. Being part of the Virginia State College community meant gifted and achieving African-Americans surrounded me.   Attending St. Joseph’s, the only integrated school in Petersburg, VA at the time, and being a Southern Catholic, meant I was exposed to diversity unknown to most people, regardless of race, in my city.

Moving to Europe, where my mom was with the U.S. Department of Defense School System, certainly expanded my understanding of “diversity.” We were a female-led household where most Americans were there because of military fathers and husbands. We lived in Europe when Germans and Italians were ambivalent about U.S. troops.  I was exposed to cultures and culture – including music I discovered first in Europe.  And, in attending three schools in five years in two countries, I perfected how not to be the “new kid” – a skill that serves me well in law, business and life.

  • In your legal career, you traversed the country as well, going from DC to Seattle to Austin and back to Seattle – how did your mobility affect you and your career (both positively and negatively), and what do you see as the keys to adapting and succeeding in any atmosphere?

Mobility, in both geography and job, has served me well.  I am entrepreneurial about career – someone who needs constant learning, challenge and mission focus.  Perhaps because of how I grew up, including being an Army Airborne paratrooper, I’ve grown more comfortable with calculated risk.  Jumping from a well-functioning plane and landing safely became a metaphor for my career.  There has been no real downside, but “mobility” is in my blood and may not be right for someone else.  The most important thing is knowing and seeking, if you can, what you need in a job and life to be fulfilled.

  • With that experience, what advice would you give to someone transitioning from government work to private practice or from private practice to in-house?

In either case, you possess experiences and tools that will serve you well. You will also encounter new, and in some respects counterintuitive, norms.    For example, many private practice settings do not offer the sense of mission found in some government jobs – particularly if one was in the military or a federal prosecutor. It’s important to be a student and sponge, though that’s true even when moving from firm A to firm B.  What are the cultural norms?  What does it take to be successful in this environment?  One of the hardest transitions for a new in-house lawyer is understanding 80 percent of the answer may be all there’s time for and that’s okay – the cost of attempting 99 percent may be too high.

  • Did your perspective regarding women and the practice of law change as you moved to each of these various roles?

Yes. Of all my law jobs, in-house practice provided the most flexibility for others, both male and female. In both in-house jobs – Dell and Starbucks — I was largely my own boss and responsible for teams so could set a tone. I think men and women do their best work when they are in environments that allow them to be themselves.

  • Given where you are now and what you have learned, what would you have done differently early on?

I now have the benefit of a 30-year rearview mirror.  I have not always been successful; I have failed.  Each step forward and stumble brings me to where I am today.  I would not change a thing.

  • What would you recommend thinking about/doing to someone that wants to position herself for in-house employment?

I think it’s important to like being a part of a team and learning about a business, industry, sector or organization.  Having a mindset grounded in customer service, team and curiosity is key.

Women Rainmakers

  • What is something you know now that you would recommend to “women rainmakers” seeking to be more appealing to inside counsel?

In-house lawyers are client/customers.  They are also subject to the organizational and political dynamics that come with being a cost center in a private/public company setting. Any rainmaker, including women, will do best when they see clients as customers and partners, learn the business and demonstrate empathy for their in-house lawyer counterpart.

  • What do you think is the biggest challenge for women rainmakers to develop or establish relationships with in-house attorneys and what advice do you have for those seeking to develop or establish relationships with in-house counsel?

In my experience, many in-house/law firm relationships are inherited, often through “good ol’ boy” relationships.  This dynamic tends to disfavor those outside the good ol’ boy circle – excluding too many women and lawyers of color.  The good news is this:  the number of in-house women, lawyers of color and white males committed to diversity is growing and those in-house lawyers are expecting excellent talent that is also diverse.  The playing field is becoming more level day by day.

  • What did you look for in outside counsel?

In no particular order: subject matter expertise, customer focus, cultural fit, and reasonable rates.

  • What are fatal mistakes made by outside counsel?

Here are reasons I’ve fired or not hired outside counsel: (1) attempting to go around me and directly to the business client; (2) giving me what turned out to be a wrong/incorrect answer after I’d delivered that wrong answer to a client; (3) forgetting I was the boss; (4) not having a strong enough track record in the hiring/retention/promotion of women and/or lawyers of color.

  • You previously described the importance of role models, who have been the most influential people in your legal career?  Did you have any legal mentors?

I’ve had many legal mentors in my career. Retired Tyco general counsel Bill Lytton was my White House boss and I’ve sought his counsel throughout my career.  I’ve considered Washington lawyer Jamie Gorelick a mentor for 20 years. Former American Bar Association Presidents Dennis Archer, Robert Grey, Roberta Ramo, Martha Barnett and Laurel Bellows in particular have helped me greatly, along with ABA veteran and Seattle lawyer Llew Pritchard.

  • While at Starbucks, you enrolled in a songwriting class, which ultimately led to your current role leading the Paula Boggs Band.  How key to a successful legal career is maintaining and pursuing diverse interests outside of the practice?

Sometimes the term “work/life balance” is trivialized but I find it essential.  What that looks like will differ from person to person but it’s been critical to my success as a lawyer to seek and find it.

  • Did your creativity help you as a lawyer?  Were you able to express that while an attorney?

Creativity has played a central role in my career.  Whether navigating a four-year military commitment “my way,” figuring out a novel or unconventional trial strategy or using innovation to lead a global organization, I would not be where I am today without creativity.

  • Are there any parallels between your legal and music careers?

There are many.  Law and music require practice/dedication, versatility, dealing with ambiguity, performance, stamina and navigating diverse personalities and situations.  Both have secret codes, a special language and precedential norms you follow, reshape or break.  I’ve made more money in law, however.

  • Final thoughts? 

Until the final act (i.e. death), there’s opportunity to write a new chapter – no matter whether the triggering event is finishing school, starting a new job, moving to a new city, getting married, becoming a parent, retirement, winning the lottery, aging, illness, job loss, death of a loved one, divorce or something else.  I will keep “writing” and in so doing, I learn, grow, give, get and…live.